Liever dier dan mens
Een onwaarschijnlijk overlevingsverhaal
A prize-winning exploration of nationalism and identity, transformation and survival
Polish Catholics believed she was one of them. A devoted Nazi family took her in as if she was their own daughter. She fell in love with a German engineer who built airplanes for the Luftwaffe. What nobody knew was that Mala Rivka Kizel had been born into a large Polish orthodox Jewish family in Warsaw in 1926. By using her charm, intelligence, blond hair and blue eyes to assume different identities, she was the only member of her family to survive the Second World War.
When Dutch journalist Pieter van Os stumbled upon Mala’s story in a Warsaw piano bar, he set out to revive the world through which she had made her way, from war-ravaged middle Europe to the nascent state of Israel before finally settling in the Netherlands, where she lives today. With her memoir and their interviews as guide, Van Os physically retraces Mala’s steps, stopping in at local archives and remote villages, searching for anyone who might have known or helped her seventy-five years before.
Wandering many a side trail, he recounts individual stories of horror and luck, and discovers that somewhere between memory and history, people can vanish without a trace. With a poetic eye for detail, Van Os weaves a harrowing tapestry of the persecution of Jewish people in Poland and Ukraine before, during and after the war. Through Mala’s story he explores the modern obsession with nation, race and identity, as well as the deepest abysses of human nature that lurk in their wake.
Various encounters along the way also allow Van Os to reflect more broadly on that which is passed on to each new generation. He critically addresses the uses and abuses of history, whenever the horrors of the past are doctored or omitted for the sake of an inspiring national narrative. How does telling the story of the past change what actually happened?
At times reading like an erudite detective story, reminiscent of essayistic historians such as Daniel Mendelssohn and Philippe Sands, this poignant, rich book is an engrossing meditation on what drives us to fear the ‘other’ and what in turn might allow us to feel compassion for them.