Three Sisters: A New Holocaust Novel
By Heather Morris (St. Martin’s Press)
There are clear similarities between Heather Morris’s newest novel, Three Sisters, and her two previous best sellers, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka’s Journey. They are all set, in large part, in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps and all are based on true stories.
All three also center on innocent young people caught in horrendous circumstances. In Three Sisters, the harrowing plight of the protagonists takes readers on an emotional roller coaster—despite what can best be described as the author’s pedestrian, workman-like prose.
It is 1929 Slovakia, and Menachem Meller is about to undergo what proves to be fatal surgery to remove a bullet lodged in his neck, a souvenir of his time as a soldier in World War I. He gathers his daughters—Cibi, then 7; Magda, 5; and Livi, 3—and presciently makes them promise they will always care for each other, “to stay together, no matter what.”
That promise unites the three as, 12 years later, Livi and Cibi are taken to Auschwitz by the invading Nazi forces. Magda, who had hidden in the forest, is later captured and transported to the camp, where she reunites with her sisters.
The three find Good Samaritans among the staff, kapos—fellow prisoners assigned by the SS to supervisory duties—and even German officers who take pity on them, providing food and easier work assignments. Later, on a forced death march from Auschwitz, they are saved by Russian soldiers led by a Jewish officer. Is all this possible? The book is based on real events and the experiences of actual survivors, but despite an author’s note at the end, it is difficult to say which of the incredible details actually happened and which are dramatic license.
Does it really matter? Probably not, because there is enough real pain here: the rancor from neighbors and former friends who hurl “rotten fruit and stale bread at their heads, yelling their joy” as the Jews are marched off to the camps; the disease (typhus is a repeat visitor) in the camps; the violence, the cold, the hunger. The uncertainty about what misstep will lead to the crematorium. The tension is palpable, so that even when things look up for the sisters, we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
As fascinating as the novel is, the story of how Morris came to discover the women whom she based her plot around is equally compelling. Real-life survivors Livi and Magda are sisters living in Israel. (Cibi, the oldest of the three, passed away in 2014.) Livi’s son brought her a copy of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and she immediately knew it was about Lale, the man who had tattooed her in the camp.
They contacted Morris, who had been on a book tour in South Africa. She took a detour to visit the sisters, discovering their story and, voila, another best seller.
Curt Schleier, a freelance writer, teaches business writing to corporate executives.