This book which has been part of my summer reading is not a best-seller, nor a "classic", and it won't even be reviewed in the mainstream media. There were only 100 copies printed of this amateur publication about an ordinary woman with an extraordinary survival story, but it has special meaning for me because she is my friend. Häftling means "Prisoner" and the number 46996 was the number tattooed on Celia's arm - according to the Nazis, Jews did not deserve names but were identified by numbers.
But first a little about my own background. Although I am Indian by birth and a Catholic, I have always felt a strong affinity with the Jewish community. Perhaps it is happy childhood memories - at my convent school my best friend was Betty Silas, a Jewish-Anglo-Indian, who after India gained independence in 1947 left with her family to settle in the UK. At university in Bombay (Mumbai) my best friend was Noreen Abraham, one of five daughters of a Jewish businessman; most of our fellow students were Hindus or Muslims. In 1976 my late husband, Charles Francis, AM, QC, was elected Liberal MP for Caulfield, Victoria, a suburb which has the largest Jewish community in Australia. I felt very much at home with that constituency.
In 1988 one of my husband's former constituents, Mrs. Rena Roth, asked me to help her write the story of her three-year-old daughter, Gizela, who with other Jewish children was murdered by the Nazis in the Polish town of Kielce. These children, many just toddlers, were shot for no reason other than that they were Jewish. The story tells of Rena's subsequent transportation to Auschwitz; she survived but her husband was killed in Saksenhausen. At the urging of an aunt she came to live in Australia and married a widower who had two sons.
Endeavour Forum Inc., an NGO of which I am the National & Overseas Co-ordinator, edited and published "Gizela", and it was launched at one of our public meetings by a federal Member of Parliament, the Hon. Peter McGauran. Rena Roth died a few years later, but the book is in the Holocaust museum in Caulfield.
Ten years after the publication of "Gizela", I injured my shoulder and after surgery it was recommended I try hydrotherapy at my local swimming pool. There I made more Jewish friends, including some bridge players (bridge is my favourite hobby) and I also met Celia, the subject of the book I read this summer.
Celia was born in Warsaw and was named "Cipora", which in Hebrew means bird, but in Australia she has come to be known as "Celia". She has a warm, affectionate personality, and acts like a very unassuming, unofficial "hostess" of the hydrotherapy pool, greeting everyone and making friends with the most disgruntled swimmers. Many of those using the hydrotherapy pool have aches and pains and a great deal to be disgruntled about....... When I first tentatively put my toes in the water, Celia immediately smiled at me, introduced me to the other "regulars" and made me welcome.
One would never know from her cheerful personality that Celia is a Holocaust survivor - I only got to know her story bit by bit because she is not focused on herself but talks of her family and current affairs, particularly the political problems of Israel where her brother lives. She only found out through the Red Cross three years after she came to live in Australia that he was alive. He was the only other member of her family to survive - her grandmother, her parents, two sisters and her other brother were all murdered by the Nazis, plus her extended family: her father was one of six children as was her mother - all Celia's aunties and uncles and cousins perished in the Holocaust. Knowing about these murders I am infuriated when I read the benighted utterances of Holocaust deniers like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Celia's informal autobiography, "Becoming CELIA: The story of Häftling 46996" was edited by Lee Burgemeestre who writes in the blurb on the back cover:
"Glimpses of a warm and wonderful childhood, loving grandparents and her four siblings are all too brief in this harrowing story. Out of great love for her family and a desire for the truth, Celia has told of the full depths of human outrage that she experienced. Her account of a death march offers an enduring memorial for countless people whose bodies lined the roadsides. She will not let us forget. [Celia was aged between 12 and 16 during her incarceration in Auschwitz]
"Celia's early years in Australia held many hardship, despite her joy at being reunited with one brother who had survived. Celia married, had two daughters and worked tirelessly to build a life for her family in Melbourne. Her honesty, natural intelligence and exceptional energy led to her becoming the inspiring manager at a Montifiore Home kitchen with far reaching benefits for both patients and the organisation.
"The young girl who was Häftling 46996 has eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren and continues to serve her community with great warmth and humour".
What struck me in reading "Becoming CELIA" is that no ethnic group has a monopoly on virtue or vice. Celia refers to the latent anti-semitism in Poland prior to WW II, and we need to be grateful to Pope John Paul II and his Jewish boyhood friend, Jerzy Kluger, who died in Rome on December 31, 2011, aged 90, for their work in trying to eradicate that. Celia refers to the cruelty of the Kapo, the Jewish guards who collaborated with the Nazis, and also mentions the kind gesture of a Nazi guard who surreptitiously gave her some bread because she reminded him of his own daughter of the same age.