The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany by Gwen Strauss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Reading the reviews of this book, it is being almost universally, and deservedly, applauded for telling another story – or another nine stories – of people who have survived one of the most wretched and dehumanising experiences known in recent human history – having been incarcerated by the Nazis during World War II due to their involvement in resistance efforts. But from my perspective, the power of the book rests more in the underlying narrative that explores the relationship between the women that binds them together. It is this bond of friendship and solidarity that kept these women alive – and hopeful – as they picked their way across a war-ravaged land and tried to find their way back to the lives and homes that they had been torn from. For this is, above all, a story that sings of the joy and strength that women can find from each other in the face of the most challenging, and life-threatening trials that they are forced to endure.
As you read the book, and each woman’s individual story is told, you are aware of what pain they have suffered, the torment and the torture that they have survived. But it is not, in any way, a misery memoir, or a glorification of suffering. Instead, it is the unifying bond of friendship that is the focus, if not the very heart, of this book. These women survived in part because they stood together, sharing their resources, their determination, their ideas, and above all, their will to live. ‘We are a group. We stay together,’ Lon informs a German who wants to see ‘the French woman’ alone in his room. This is the mantra that keeps them strong, keeps them together, and ultimately, keeps them alive.
One of the saddest aspects the book explores is how in the immediate aftermath of the war, the women, rather than being celebrated as freedom fighters who had escaped the Nazi prison camps, were often mistaken for prostitutes – women who had voluntarily gone to the camps to sell their bodies to the Nazis. No one wanted to accept that they had been imprisoned for their heroism in standing against the evil of the Nazis. Making it worse, the silencing of the women’s stories in these immediate years after the war – that what they had suffered had become unspeakable – is one of the saddest indictments of the post-war society. The author observes that it was because they were young pretty women in their twenties that they were not taken seriously when they tried to tell their stories.
She turns to Adrienne Rich: ‘Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collection of letters, what-ever is mis-named as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under inadequate or lying language – this will become not merely unspoken but unspeakable.’
This story is a testament not just to the stories of The Nine, but to the stories of women everywhere. Their voices matter. Their experiences are valuable. History – herstory – should reflect and celebrate the stories of women rather than marginalising and burying them in a male dominated discourse. Resilience, courage, determination, and a bond of female friendship so strong it could sustain them through every challenge they faced. What a triumph this book is.
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