At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust
AT THE MERCY OF STRANGERS
Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust
For Jews trapped in Western Europe during World War II, survival depended largely on where they lived. Belgians, Danes, and Bulgarians did a lot to save their Jews. At the heart of At the Mercy of Strangers is the account of how Suzanne Bamberger, her mother, and her sister managed to be among those lucky enough to survive the long Nazi occupation of Brussels.
At the Mercy of Strangers has two voices. Both are Suzanne’s. We hear her as the harassed, frightened, gutsy, and bored adolescent whose diary was her only true confidant. And we hear her as the mature woman, recalling the war years from the safety of post-war America.
This coming-of-age book provides us with unusua1 glimpses of the cataclysm that engulfed Nazi-dominated Europe from 1939 to 1945. We watch the storm clouds gathering over Germany. We witness the invasion of Belgium, the futile attempt of a quarter of the population to escape the Germans, and the increasing stranglehold of the German occupation. We gasp at the pace at which incidents escalate from the merely insulting and hurtfu1 to the terrifying and incomprehensible.
We are relieved that the Bambergers opt to go into hiding rather than be “resettled” by the Germans. There is poignancy in the juxtaposition of the tedium and frustration of Suzanne’s daily life with the ever-present danger of discovery. There is the fear of being deported to an unknowable fate, and the grief for friends who have vanished.
Suzanne’s diary records her blossoming, secret love for Emile, a member of the Belgian Resistance, and of her constant need to be careful and “good.” We share her fantasies as she lies alone and hungry in an attic adjoining a storeroom for onions. We hope with her that she will be able to join the Resistance and work for justice alongside her beloved Emile.
Cataclysms like the Nazis’ war against the Jews, the African slave trade, or the slaughter of Native Americans by Europeans forever haunt our consciences. Our collective guilt subsides, however, before the realization that invariably a few “ordinary” people respond to such crises with courage, compassion, and disregard for their own safety .
At the Mercy of Strangers is uplifting, even though it never minimizes the horrors of the Holocaust, or of World War II. Suzanne’s mature self summarizes her feelings:
“I never regretted having grown up on the edge of the Holocaust. The experience not only left me as a stronger, more compassionate human being, but, strange as it may sound, it provided me with a deep faith in humanity. Though I have much evidence to the contrary, I believe that often, when you have your back against the wall, somebody out there comes to the rescue.”