Review of “Smoke Over Birkenau” by Liana Millu: Where is God When You Need Him/or Her?

Liana Millu was an Jewish Italian Partisan who was arrested in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 672 people in her transport, 57 lived to return home. Smoke Over Birkenau is one of the few testimonies to record the experience of women in the Nazi concentration camps. The six vignettes in this slim volume tell the stories of some of the women who were the most memorable to Liana. The continuation of quotidian “human” concerns in the midst of such inhumanity is awe-inspiring: birthdays, jealousy, generosity, greed, recipes, clothes, birth, and of course, death. The details of life in the women’s barracks are amazing, frightening, humbling, and engrossing.

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The inmates often struggled with the big question: where was God? At one point, Liana recalls herself asking:

“Whatever will become of me? I wondered, the mud splattering at my feet. Whatever will become of me? And of Lili, and all the rest? It wasn’t so much the fear of death that pained me, but rather the galling futility of this existence suspended between two voids. Here today, gone tomorrow. What could be the point of all this suffering, bounded by parentheses, in the midst of nothing? Was it possible some God was looking down on me from above? Why did he put me here in the first place if I was simply to suffer and vanish without a trace? Had he no mercy, this God?”

Lotti, another inmate who chose to become a member of the Auschwitz Puffkommando (brothel), was bemoaning the rejection by her sister and fellow-inmate Gustine over her choice:

“She was always dragging God’s name into it, Gustine was. It became an obsession with her. ‘God won’t forsake his creatures. God knows what he’s doing. God can’t allow injustice to triumph.’ And meanwhile the crematorium just keeps puffing away and ashes are dropping on my head.”

Most of the vignettes end with ashes. Yet Millu gives life again to the many women who joined the columns of smoke rising from the crematoria of Birkenau.

Published in English by Northwestern University Press, 1998

Note: Translation by Sharon Schwartz was the winner of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Aw

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About rhapsodyinbooks

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One Response to Review of “Smoke Over Birkenau” by Liana Millu: Where is God When You Need Him/or Her?

  1. Wow, this sounds powerful and heart-breaking. I’m adding it to my to-read list. I hope it’s okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

    –Anna

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