Eve Keller, a professor of English at Fordham University in New York, is an acquaintance of Millie Werber's son Martin, who suggested Keller interview his mother about her wartime experiences. Two Rings offers itself up as a love story but, despite an extraordinary tale of love beating at the book's core, the real story here is the Holocaust.
Werber was raised in Radom, Poland, a ghetto. Work at a nearby munitions factory, despite the slavery and constant danger of being shot, delivers salvation in the form of Heniek, a kindly Jewish police officer. They fall for each other and manage a discreet and rapid courtship, then marriage. When a scheming colleague wheedles his way into the camp with his family, an equal number of others must be removed to compensate and Heniek is seized in the compound and taken away to certain death.
All Werber has are the two gold rings they exchanged in a brief ceremony, and a photograph. She secretes these into a hidden pocket in her panties; they are later transferred to a special compartment in the sole of her Aunt Mima's shoe. At Auschwitz.
The munitions factory would break most slight 15-year-old girls. She says this of the end of her time there: "Those several weeks during the winter of 1943-1944 were, for me at least, an eruption of the worst humankind was capable of; they tore from me any sense I may have had that life was for living. It felt almost an affliction to live, an emptiness to be endured."
But it was nothing compared with what was to come. On a three-day march in the blinding heat, July, 1944, 100km from Radom to Auschwitz, Werber starts to witness the true, insane horror that the camp would unleash. A young boy stoops to drink at a puddle, he is shot in the back of the head. A man, exhausted from carrying his young
children, puts them on the wagon supplied by the Germans for anyone needing relief, supposedly. Werber does not see them again.
Then: Auschwitz. Werber says: "It looked like death there - skeletal bodies, sunken eyes, black smoke. And the stench, the stench of what was burning. Nothing grew at Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the end of the world, death's domain."
Aunt Mima protects her with a sense of self-sacrifice that beggars belief. Women were chosen for transport to work elsewhere - and anywhere was better than Auschwitz. Twice Mima was chosen, twice she slipped away and stayed behind when she realised her niece had not also been accepted. At one such roll call, with the air filled with acrid smoke, Werber is told the Germans are burning the bodies of the Jews and collecting the fat that drips from the flesh to make soap. She had been given soap at Auschwitz: "They had offered us a cleansing with the corpses of our fellow Jews."
How can you make sense of this? Werber says you can't. "Even cruelty, even when unjustified, it should still be possible to explain it according to some rationale ... but in Auschwitz, nothing made sense."
Finally, toward the end of 1944, she is sent to Lippstadt, Germany, to work at another munitions factory. Late in March 1945, on yet another march, she is liberated from her captors by American paratroopers.
"They [German guards] had been standing above us just moments before, their guns pointed at our backs, readying themselves to shoot. But then, instead of shooting, they ran. It was only a minute, a second, that separated my life from my death. The edge between life and death is so sharp, so arbitrary, so senseless."
Senseless. This book, by revealing what unfolded with humility and an utter lack of self-pity, is that much more affecting because of it.
What can we do at history's remove? Read this, and never forget.
Michael Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.