Ruta's Closet by Keith Morgan with Ruth Kron Sigal

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Ruta's Closet by Keith Morgan with Ruth Kron Sigal

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: This is certainly welcome in opening the Holocaust survivor story to a different corner of Europe, but its approach may be seen as too flawed for the book to be as popular as it might.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 333 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Unicorn Press
ISBN: 9781906509262

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A Holocaust memoir. There, I've said it, and in one fell swoop I've consigned this book to a niche market, and a small – and very much over-supplied – audience. Such books do find it difficult to get their heads above the parapet and the voice within heard, and it seems they have slowly filled in all the gaps in the available knowledge about the Holocaust. But that's the point that makes those words sound churlish – every life that survived that nightmare has to fill in a gap, and account for those who committed the crimes and those that helped out and rescued a survivor, and serve as monument to those six million gaps it created. Luckily, mostly on account of location, this book certainly does serve to fill in a wider gap in our perception of WWII than most.

We're in Lithuania. And while that might not seem to be such a frontline bloodland as other countries, several factors are worth remembering when getting the context of the lives herein. Lithuania was only an individual country for a few short years before the Soviets brought themselves to power, and from 1941 the country was very much between the devil and the deep red sea. And while none of the major death camps were local, you don't need to be an expert to know that some of the bloodiest events of the Holocaust happened here in the Baltic states – with SS death groups and many a local collaborator herding Jews and politically unwanted to the forests to be shot and dumped in mass graves.

Ruta's Closet concerns one young family in a small town in Lithuania. Ruta herself is only four when the land war hits, and shortly afterwards the Jewish community is herded into ghettos. Her father works in a key industry – leather, which of course was essential for kitting out soldiers – so gets to continue working in some fashion, but the comfort and ease and sun of pre-war life is soon diminished. As is the Jewish population, for several times the ghetto residents are culled, either locally or taken by train to Auschwitz. I won't go into more detail, except to say the ghetto existence is brought to harrowing life when the Jewish Council is forced to kowtow to Nazi wishes that no more babies be born in there; several other people in the community factor into stories of escape plans, surprising support groups and more; and one defining point of Ruta's life is incredibly compelling. Factor in later scenes about religious identity in all these problems and you have several major, enlightening, hard-to-forget events.

It's a strong narrative all told, but the narrative point of this book is its problem. It's been dressed as a novel, which is fine – the dialogue that there is does not seem out of place, the greater detail is given of survivors and so their thoughts and intentions and dramas can be ascertained without reading false. But it's just not that brilliant a novelisation. One loses track of the times we're told 'so and so would not realise just what a wise decision that would be', or 'whojammaflip did not know just how true those words would become'. Sometimes the balance in the drama does not seem quite correct, or the flow from one key scene to the next as reader-friendly as possible.

Also, given the novelised approach, it almost seems silly to have a bibliography and index – when of anything I would have liked a map or two, of Lithuania, and not the one we get of the ghetto. The proof-reading could have been better, too. All the same, this certainly still has some strong points, and inasmuch as it shines a light on one small, near-forgotten country's Holocaust, and shows just how important it is to remember those that did not obey the Nazis, and did not turn their backs on the Jewish plight at the time, it is a resounding success. Ruta – and her co-authorship credit as Ruth will suggest she moved to the west upon liberty – was served very well on the whole. It's a final shame then that this UK edition comes almost five years after her death.

But I must applaud the publishers for finally filling that gap, and thank them for my review copy.

Another young girl's-eye-view of the Holocaust can be had with the recent Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss.

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