Bridge-building across human divides is a recurring theme in Halina Wagowska’s memoir, which she sees as a collection of stories. A cherished only child of loving and enlightened parents, she struggled to remain human while working in the death squad at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where her father was murdered. Halina and her mother were sent on to Stutthof where life was even more brutal, if that was possible. They befriended a gentle Hungarian professor, to whom the now camp-hardened teenager acted as bodyguard. ‘To reflect was to be off guard,’ she writes. Her mother worried at the damage done to young minds and wondered if her daughter would emerge sane – if she survived.
Typhus killed her mother in Stutthof but Halina returned to the world sane, compassionate and wise, sailing to Australia on the infamous Derna. Her account of working with charladies in Melbourne is pure comedy and she enjoyed a long career in the pathology lab at The Alfred Hospital. By her own account: ‘Beneath, in the subconscious, ghosts lurk. Now only occasionally do they float up in a nightmare. My conscious mind is well again.’ That is her triumph.