Thursday, January 02, 2014

Unconquered: A Tale of a Girl’s Survival During the Holocaust Lucie Burian Liebman

Unconquered: A Tale of a Girl’s Survival During the Holocaust
Lucie Burian Liebman
(Merrimack Media)

Review by Alice Weiss

Sometimes the things that give us misery are also the very things that save us in the end. Nowhere is this more true than in Lucie Burian Liebman’s “Unconquered,” an account of a three year trek by the Burian family from Vienna through Prague to New York, 1938-1941. . Starting out in Vienna on the day of the Anschluss, the Lucie places herself as the ten year old daughter of a successful businessman who has been aware for some time of the Nazi’s intentions towards the Jews and who has provided money and a plan in the event. In spare and prose Liebman relates sometimes breathless accounts of fleeing Nazis, ducking them,and surviving but with a father and mother so cold and cruel they rival the Germans in their impact. 

Burian’s underlying theme is enunciated by reference to the William Ernest Henley poem, “Invictus.” No matter what horror or menace, or punishment, her is head is ‘bloody but unbowed.’ It was an early lesson, a demanding and dictatorial father and removed mother. Her brother, four years older but much less stubborn and independent was the person she protected and comforted. And there was a nanny who gave warmth and love. Strangely, a recipe for survival. 

That the family was never interned in a concentration camp or rounded up and shot is due at least in part to luck. For example a scene in Prague: Lilie is walking to the JCC where she goes daily once Jews are expelled from schools, for sports and other training. She sees the yard is crowded with people falling over. Nazi soldiers are shooting into the crowd. Two of her cousins are in the crowd, but bodies fall on them and they, as well as Lucie, survive. If she had been there earlier in the day. . . However the survival of the Burians is due to the persistence and intelligence and clear vision of her father, Theodore. 

Survival appears to have been his only goal. Thus the scene in the Spanish train car where two Nazi officers entered the Burians compartment and took turns raping Lucie while her parents literally looked the other way. Although she doesn’t say this one, wonders if the virginity of the thirteen year old girl was the price they paid for safety getting to Portugal. Speaking though, as the child she was Lucie complains that her parents failed to comfort her or indicate in any way that they were concerned about her welfare. Except of course that they made sure she obtained an abortion once they got to New York. That she says is the only intelligent thing her parents did. The interesting thing about the book is that you both agree with her, as parents, and don’t agree with her. Despite details that make you see them as the harshest and coldest of parents, you end up with a grudging respect for their perseverance and coolness in the face of frightful people and events.

It sound weird to say this but aside from its horrors this is an easy read. Ms. Burian is always careful that we see her adventurous spirit and the joie de vivre that keep her relatively intact throughout the journey. And she does give us ample evidence that the unpleasant, unloving father is the medium of both their survival and the sense that it was living with him as parent the first ten years that necessitated her developing the distancing skills that enabled her to survive intact.

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