Lisa Birnie | In Mania’s Memory (Read Leaf)

It is only by understanding these horrors that the reader begins to understand Kroll and her view of a world that she nevertheless has grown to love.

“I’ll write the story not only for Mania, but also for Gelcia and all the other innocents who never had the chance to celebrate life. I know a million Holocaust stories have already been told, but each story has its own value. And maybe, just maybe, by doing so I can make my small amends to those who might still have had a life.”
These are the words of Lisa Birnie.   
A documentarian, when charged with the task of telling the story of another human being, is often also faced with the challenge of allowing that story to remain as uncolored by her own voice as possible and presenting it as purely as she can. With her three-fold story In Mania’s Memory, Birnie allays that challenge by including herself as one of the subjects of the book. It is a document of the stories of three women and the way their lives had been affected by loss during the Second World War. The author’s own experience of losing her brother to the war gives her a unique connection to the other two women, and she is careful to make clear throughout the book which views are her own and which belong to the others.
This is not simply the telling of three stories as separate personal histories, though. It is an account of Mania Kroll’s belief in the astounding coincidence that the German woman hired to clean her Toronto apartment in 1977 was the same beautiful blonde-haired SS guard who protected her with special treatment and food when Kroll was a young Jewish girl in the prison camp at Reichenbach some 34 years previous.
Kroll is introduced as a light-hearted old woman who is a little bit crazy but at the same time unabashedly levelheaded and kindhearted. This heart-wrenching account takes the reader from her affluent family life in Poland as a young girl through the family’s loss of her father on the battlefield and subsequent loss of their home after the German invasion. Her story winds on to Auschwitz, where she endured horrors that are only too well known to us through history books. Her mother was murdered and Kroll herself was an eyewitness to the burning alive of hundreds of people in an open trench, some of them mere children. It is only by understanding these horrors that the reader begins to understand Kroll and her view of a world that she nevertheless has grown to love, and she makes clear to Birnie that in spite of her happiness as an old woman, the trauma of her youth had left its mark indelibly. “If I were really normal I’d be crazy,” she says. “A normal mind with human feelings can’t deal with what went on in the death camps. In order to, you must have a sick mind.”  
After her mother’s murder, Kroll is moved to the work camp at Reichenbach where her unlikely savior—the guard wearing the grey uniform of the Schutzstaffel, or SS—tells her that she would like to adopt her when the war is over. Johanne Clausen Muller was her name, and she would figure prominently in Kroll’s memories from that point on.
The third story is that of Muller, who vehemently denies that she was the prison guard who protected Kroll. She offers her own account of the war years as a young woman raised in a typically German fashion: to respect authority, to value hard work and virtue, and to follow the rules. Hers is a story of how the German people were almost duped into believing in Hitler and the Nazi regime, how that regime ultimately victimized many of its own followers, and how the social dictates of the day ultimately lead to the loss of her first love and her own infant son.      
In the conclusion, Kroll and Muller finally meet at the ruins of Reichenbach in 2002 for a reunion and a possible resolution to the question that has tormented Kroll since they last faced each other in 1977: is the tall, still proud and strong woman who cleaned her apartment so many years ago indeed the same young Nazi who saved her?
To find closure for a life that has lead her in so many horrible and wonderful directions, Kroll merely wants to give thanks to her long-ago protector. “At times I felt I’d somehow die unforgiven if I didn’t see her and thank her. It’s not smart to be grateful these days,” she says, “but what do those smarties know? I’m a grateful person.” | Jason Neubauer

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