Review Blog

Aug 04 2014

Alexander Altmann A10567 by Suzy Zail

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Black Dog Books, 2014. ISBN 9781922179999.
In order to survive the barbaric cruelty and suffering of the Auschwitz - Birkenau combined labour and extermination camp, 14 year old Alexander deliberately avoids friendship and tries to suppress his emotional responses to the horrors surrounding him. Known only by his number, personal identity is erased and humanity almost destroyed in the unspeakable conditions which have seen his family torn apart and his sister executed.
When slave labourers are selected for specialised tasks, the odds of survival increase slightly yet Alex has no trade skills to offer until the call is made for stable hands to care for horses kept for the amusement of SS officers. Having grown up on a farm, Alex is familiar with equestrian care and training and counts himself lucky to be selected until he is ordered to tame a wild stallion newly acquired by the brutal camp commandant Rudolf Hoss. With prisoners being viciously beaten and murdered for trifling mistakes and misfortunes beyond their control, Alex is fully aware that his life hangs in the balance every second of the day and to fail in his task means certain death.
The unbearable suffering, fear and tension felt by the prisoners is narrated without restraint but is also cleverly presented symbolically in the behaviour of the terrified horse which has been torn away from familiar surrounds and hurled into a cruel and unfeeling environment. In a world of misery and pain, Alex refuses to contribute to suffering by 'breaking' the horse using domination and control. Instead he builds a gentle, protective relationship with the animal and comes to accept the kindness offered by fellow inmate Isidor whilst allowing mutual trust to develop. Simple acts of humanity performed at great risk by prisoners and from unexpected quarters are important features of this tale.
Suzy Zail's own father survived the camps but this book is based upon the personal experiences of Fred Steiner, a Holocaust museum guide who told her of his years caring for horses at Auschwitz. Readers will of course be confronted and moved by this novel which is largely faithful to history in its depiction of Commander Hoss and the terrible atrocities which occurred within the concentration camps.
Rob Welsh

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