My Friday Book: How a woman lives an entire life in fear of discovery: “My Name is not Miriam”

My name is not Miriam

My name is not Miriam

My book club, had this one in their magazine, soon after publication and at first, I was interested but not enough to go and borrow it at the library. Then two weeks ago, I had my nails fixed and the woman who does them said “You who read so much. I just had a book recommended to me called something like ‘my name is… I forgot the name!”. I told her “It is called My Name is Not Miriam”. I decided to go and put myself up in queue for it after all. It was a fairly quick read even though it covers over 400 pages. Was it good? Well, it depends. Would I recommend it to others? I don’t know. Depends if the person knows anything about the Holocaust or not really. It is good to a have a good dose of pre-knowledge. That said, the author has done a lot of research for her novel but as she leaves a lot out, you need to fill in the gaps yourself.

My first problem with the book is that it leaves a sour taste in your mouth, not because of the topic, but because of the point in time, that it is appearing. The Roma or Gypsy beggars are becoming an increasing problem in this country, people resenting them more and more as they flood over our borders. 3400 this year! But I really doubt the authorities really know how many are here. Since one fat Roma woman is driven out to our village every day, it means that there are more than they think. If you can start flooding villages, after already having flooded towns, then it is bad. And to write a novel like this one, to make us feel sorry for the Roma, is not entirely kosher in my book, as they say in the US. It is not going to create compassion or sympathy for the people of Romania, that has chosen to come here only to beg and pollute, doing nothing to contribute. Because there is a difference between them and the novel’s Miriam.

My second problem with the book, is the way it is written. Jumping back and forth in time, between 2013, 1948, 1944 and with glimpses of the time before that. One paragraph can be in one decade, another one, in another decade, and I really like order and also to know how old a person is at said times. I need a sense of time and I think this way of writing has become a cheap trick by authors, to make their books more interesting. But in my view it really does not make them more interesting. If the story can not be told in a more organized manner, then there is something missing.

My third problem is that I get bored with Miriam and her fear of being discovered. It gets to become like listening to a scratched record. And at the end of the book, I sat and felt like a question mark, since at that point, it felt like a pointless book! So when I rated it on Shelfari, I could not give it more than three stars. I am not going to say it is a bad book, but it is not great either.

While Majgull Axelsson’s books apparently have been translated in to several other languages, I haven’t got a clue if this one will be, so in case it doesn’t, here is the storyline (and to make it easier for the reader of this post I WILL TRY to write things chronologically, except for the beginning):

It is 2013 and Miriam is turning 85. Her husband has been dead for several years, probably over a decade. The beginning of the book is so confusing, with her doing and thinking insane things, so you sort of lose the time frame and forget to pay attention. But this day, Midsummer’s Eve, she is waiting for her family to celebrate her, some of them living in the same house as is tradition in the family. As usual, they treat her to breakfast in bed and a gift, which her stepson’s daughter Camilla has chosen. A Gypsy bracelet which brings back such strong memories to Miriam, that she  suddenly tells her family that her name is not Miriam. After taking a shower, she scolds herself, telling herself that she must never let the truth slip out again. That she must stop dwelling on the two years she spent in the orphanage and the two and a half years she spent in the concentration camps. That she must focus on the other 68 years when she has been happy. (But has she?) She must not even let people know that her birth date of 21 June 1928, is an invented one, that she has no idea when she was born. She must not let anyone find out that she pretended to be Jewish when she arrived to Sweden and that she had no idea what that faith involved, when she decided to “convert” to Protestantism, in order to be able to marry Olof in the church and not in a civil ceremony, and subsequently becoming an agnostic, like her husband and his parents before him. This is how things are thrown out all over the book. You look in to the truth, the past, the lies, and wait for the author to come back to the events in more detail. Sometimes she does, sometimes she does not.

Yesterday, there was a debate on TV, saying that a party leader had committed a great sin by calling the Roma people Gypsies, since a couple of years ago, it was determined that that name for them, is degrading. Honestly, I have no idea what all the fuss is about. So, the Gypsies want to be called Roma. I don’t want to be called a Mormon, but noone cares about what I want. And through this book, the author goes back and forth calling them Roma and Gypsies, so I might as well just call them Gypsies. The major part of the book is set before the decision on the name Roma, so…

Who are the major players then? Miriam Goldberg or Malika without a surname. Thomas her step-son. Camilla her step-granddaughter. Side characters in the home 2013, is Thomas’ wife Katarina who is neurotic. Afraid of everything. Her husband resents her. Early on in the book, you find out that the only time she is happy is when she is taking care of her grandchild Sixten. “Noone must know how angry she really is, how sick and tired she is of her husband, how tired she is of her daughter and how she hates her mother-in-law upstairs. Noone must find out how she really wishes for them to all disappear, the entire bunch. Because she has no options. She is her husband’s dentist nurse, she lives in his house, she has no relatives and no money of her own. In other words she is forced to wait on everyone in this house, till the day she dies…”. She enters the book in the beginning and at the end, as just a sad, sad character. And Sixten does not really appear much more. Only being two years old, shuffled between his two parents, who no longer are a couple. His mother Camilla is not that important for the story either, come to think of it. But at the same time, she has an important function to fill in the book, since Miriam has to tell part of her story to someone:

Camilla and Miriam have a very strange relationship. They don’t disclose anything to each other, really, always holding something back. On Miriam’s Birthday, Camilla asks Miriam to go for a walk in the park with her and the two set off. This is when the book really takes off. The first thing which happens as they get outside, is that Kaiser, the German shepherd belonging to her neighbour, starts barking as usual and Miriam gets so tense, that Camilla notices. She asks her so-called grandmother if she is afraid of dogs and Miriam answers, “no just of German Shepherds, since they were used in the camps”. Camilla decides to suddenly give a confidence and tells her that she has failed an exam and that she had a strange episode on the underground one day in Stockholm, where these football hooligans, who are of course losers, became very powerful as a group and they knew that and that the police were scared of them. Miriam told her that one should always stay away from young men in a group. Not anything that made sense to Camilla, at that point, nor myself.

Camilla then wants to know more about Miriam’s camp experience and Miriam says she doesn’t really want to talk about it, that she has been scared ever since the war, even though she has been physically safe. For some reason she tells Camilla that Nässjö used to have another refugee from the camps too, who one day came home to her, thinking she had seen SS men in a black car. The poor woman was mad and had been institutionalised after that. Camilla wants to know why that Krystyna went mad, and not Miriam. Miriam says she thinks that it might have been because of the experiments made on the Polish political prisoners. Them being cut in their legs and then injected with something in the cuts. Krystyna had gone through those experiments. Miriam also mentions how she met the candy doctor in Auschwitz, Dr. Mengele. Camilla wonders why she called him that and she tells her that he walked around and gave the Gypsy children candy, in the Gypsy camp, because he liked them. Now she really has opened a can of worms. How does Miriam know what went on in that camp, asks Camilla and Miriam answers that she was in that camp.

How could she be? Finally Miriam, in a bitter voice, tells Camilla that she is a Gypsy and that she had to pretend to be Jewish when she came to Sweden, since Gypsies were not allowed to enter Sweden until 1954. Camilla is shocked and even worse so when she hears the reason why Miriam took the Jewish girl Miriam Goldberg’s dress on the train from Auschwitz: Because she wanted to be a complete corpse. She had not wanted to throw herself on the electric fence in Auschwitz, since when they pulled you off from there, the fingers remained on the wire, all black. Likewise, she did not want to be beaten to death, since then her corpse would be broken… She really had not tried to survive, since she had lost her little brother Didi and her cousin Anuscha, the only family she had. She just had this idea of not wanting to be an incomplete corpse or an ugly one.

For hours, she and Camilla walk in the park, and what she actually discloses to Camilla is not clear, but she starts thinking about her family. How her grandfather never thought anything would happen to them because he had a permanent living, actually two houses, one kilometer outside the village, somewhere in Germany. So what if the courtyard was full of caravans belonging to visiting relatives, he had been a German soldier once, so surely they were all safe! They were till the day when Malika, as her Gypsy name was, her little brother Didi and her cousin Anuscha, were fetched by uniformed people. 14-22 gypsy kids were fetched from her grandfather’s place that day, all screaming, being dragged from their parents, to be raised by proper people.

At that point of time, Himmler was convinced that Gypsies were the original Aryans. And the nuns at the orphanage were considered better qualified for raising Gypsy children, than their parents. Malika was no ordinary Gypsy child though, but was called Mischlinge. Mixed breed, which is what they also called Jews with mixed parentage. Her dead mother was not a Gypsy in other words.  Malika did not really mind the orphanage, considering it way better than home, since she no longer was forced to do laundry, cook and boil coffee, all day long. Instead, she actually got to go to school and to learn how to read and write. Something which partly saved her life. There was also order around them, which she appreciated. But it did not last. One day, they were told that they were going to be sent away from the bombs, to another orphanage, which was safer. Himmler having changed his mind about Gypsies being Aryans. She, Didi and her cousin Anuscha climbed off the train in Auschwitz, all confused. Malika and Didi did as they were told, but Anuscha, who had been afraid from day one in the orphanage, suddenly refused to do as she was told, refused to get undressed in front of the SS-men and the naked gypsy boys. They all got showered, including Anuscha’s dead, but dressed body, on the floor. The SS had shot her for disobedience. What then met them, after the tattooing, was a world of horror. Two small children in the Gypsy camp, where all families stayed together, and noone took them in, since they were not family.

Dr. Mengele gave orders for her to be in the group digging ditches. Jews were marched by every day and never coming back, the Gypsy camp being right by the gas chambers, them taking everything in. Every day, Didi waited for her by the gate, getting thinner and thinner, then he got diarrhoea and he started to complain about a pain in the mouth. Soon he had a hole through his cheek which showed the teeth and gum through it. The disease being called Noma. That is when Mengele gave orders for the Noma children to receive milk for breakfast, margarine for the bread, fruit as a snack and three slices of ham per week. All the Noma children started to get well and got back the will to live. Then Mengele started phase three and all the extra food was withdrawn again, right when the sores and holes had almost healed. Within weeks Didi died, his entire face having been eaten up, by the mouth gangrene caused by starvation.

When Malika was loaded on to the train which would take the women to Ravensbrück in July 1944, her little brother Didi had been dead for six days. She had saved a piece of old bread for the journey , which she had no idea how long it would last. Standing on a ledger in the cattle car, she pinched off a piece of the bread in her pocket and put it in her mouth. A Czechoslovakian woman saw her chewing and started screaming that Malika had stolen the bread from her, being a Gypsy. Even though the woman stood many meters away from her, them standing packed like sardines so that no movement had been possible, all the women came to behave like animals, not thinking logically, pulling her down from the little ledger she was standing on, ripping her dress to pieces and beating her. When they arrived in Ravensbrück, she knew she would be punished for the ripped dress, so she stole a dress from one of the 13 dead women, on the floor. When she stepped out of the cattle car, she realized that the dress had a Jewish star on it. The dead woman’s number, 389, matched Malika’s middle numbers, on her arm. One young woman discovered that Malika was a Gypsy wearing her friend Miriam’s dress, but told Malika, “You are now Miriam Goldberg, and don’t think they will go easier on you because they hate us more than the Gypsies”.

By now, Ravensbrück was collapsing. The card file system did not work any longer, too many prisoners arrived every day and the SS did their best to get rid of them, by sending them to weapons and ammunition factories, as well as to often bombed building sites. Food had become really scarce of course, with too many prisoners, and more and more died of starvation and disease. But when Miriam stood waiting for lunch, for the first time after being quarantined, she was impressed, since they got a piece of sausage and a piece of bread, with no sawdust in it, some artificial marmalade and margarine, plus coffee made from beats. The woman dividing it between 16 people, introduced herself as Else Nielsen, political prisoner. Else asked her if she knew how to read and she said yes. Where did she learn that? In a convent. Else said that she was lying, because convents in Germany did not take in Jews, and she wanted to know the truth. She never did find out though.

Miriam had spent the days in quarantine scratching hard at her number, to get the Z away from before her number, in order to get exactly the same number as Miriam Goldberg. Nothing more indicating that she once was a Gypsy or Zigauner. Else decided to take her under her wings, even though Miriam didn’t reveal the truth. Else helped her to get a good bed and enough sleep, making sure that she cleaned herself in the morning, like a mother would, and finally she made Miriam stand in a safe spot during the morning roll call. Sadist Kapo Irma Lunz, who obviously had a screw loose, beat a young girl to death, because one girl was missing, during the first morning roll call, which showed Miriam exactly what a dangerous place this still was. The missing girl had been selected for war-factory work the previous day, which was why she was missing, but noone could tell the Kapo this without being beaten to death. Irma Lunz was an absurd character of her own, chubby, wearing lipstick, summer dresses instead of prison outfit, black socks and brown shoes which fit. She swore and behaved abominably, which shocked more than one woman in the camp.

Else also managed to get Miriam a job in the sewing factory, where they were safe from bombings, since it was situated inside the camp. Miriam learned quickly how to sew and did a good job, but Else could not do a thing right as far as sewing went, but since she spoke four languages, she got to stay and translate and carry out supplies to the sewing inmates. She spoke Norwegian, French, Russian and German. Miriam was happy with all of Else’s attention, till she received competition from Else’s friend Lykke, who arrived back from detention one evening together with another starved Norwegian, Marie. At the same time as they arrived, Else also broke Miriam’s heart, after a gypsy girl got attacked having stolen an onion and Else having snidely said “Well, everyone knows what Gypsies are like…”. Miriam realized at that point that she was truly alone. Not just because she had no family among the Gypsies anymore. Also because she was falsely pretending to be a Jew. She started getting really depressed because of what Else had said, but Lykke and Marie noticed her changed attitude towards Else, and told her that she must live and keep happy for Else’s sake. It turned out that Else had got stronger because of Miriam, having someone to look after, instead of her own daughter Åse, who was hidden somewhere in Norway. Her husband having been Jewish, he had been sent straight from Norway to Auschwitz, and Else feared he must be dead. Miriam realized after Lykke’s and Marie’s disclosures that she had to stop thinking about Malika, about being a Gypsy and just get on with being Jewish Miriam and act like Else’s daughter Åse. She never stopped thinking about it though! Never!

Disaster then struck when Norwegian Bente received a package from home. Her family had sent her a pretty apron and while seasoned Else told her not to wear it, since it would create envy in the sewing factory, Bente decided to wear it anyway. She left the factory that day, all beaten up and someone had ripped off the pocket, frills and ties on the apron. The camp was overfull and there were tons of new guards that day. Lykke and Miriam had to carry Bente back to their barracks between them, while Else walked in front, telling them where it was safe to walk. But they still got stopped, ordered to drop Bente, and the three had to go outside the camp, to help raise a tent, for the surplus prisoners. The hungry women out there failed, over and over again, to get the tent up and Else got beaten up for it. They got one hour of sleep that night and when they woke up, Bente was dead and Else’s spirit was all broken, as was her front tooth.

When Lykke and Miriam tried to keep an eye on the depressed Else in the factory, Lykke managed to sew things wrong and Miriam got so panicked when it was discovered, that she accidentally sewed herself in the finger. She got beaten up and put in the punishment block for sabotage on SS-uniforms. She got to share cell with ultra-thin Sylvianne from France, who had been in there for two weeks, let out for a couple of days, and now was back for no reason at all. During the first inspection, Binz, a terrible guard,  told Sylvianne that she didn’t have to be sent to Auschwitz for sonderbehandlung, that she had been chosen to get special treatment in Ravensbrück. Sylvianne didn’t want to be the first to be gassed in this camp, so she started starving herself, and there was nothing Miriam could do. After Miriam had received her 25 lashings, she got thrown out of the punishment block, in to a strangely darkened camp. The bombings had left the camp without electricity for days at a time, which meant rest for the increasingly sick population. When Miriam finally located the barrack in the dark, Else was one of the ones with fever. Then suddenly one day, Red Cross buses arrived with care packages for almost everyone. Miriam grabbed one for herself and one for Else, but Else had very few hours left to live. In the morning, after the treat of chocolate, fatty cheese, crackers etc. she died.

After that Miriam spent a while being unconscious till she was woken by Lykke one day, standing wearing a real coat, screaming to her that she must get up because it was their last chance of getting out of there. Marie showed up from nowhere and Lykke and she carried Miriam between them, clad in a nice coat as well. They told her that when they got to roll call, the Red Cross would be there and she must stand on her own and look healthy, even though she now had caught Else’s typhoid. Lykke and Marie somehow managed to get her on board the transport to Denmark and someone gave Lykke medicine to give Miriam. Miriam was brought to a Swedish hospital after that, till she was well again, and then she was sent on another train with Jewish women, who could not understand why she didn’t understand Yiddish. They were all on their way to the small town of Aneby. The arrival became traumatic for them since the entire community went out to see the refugees arriving, including the men in their brown uniforms, from Swedish Steelwool or SS. The women from Ravensbrück assumed they were to enter a new camp, seeing the uniforms with SS written on them.

They were all put in the concert house of Aneby. The Jewish women were having nightmares, they were bored, angry, behaved poorly but Miriam had a plan. She was not going to behave like them. Instead she set out to make a good impression on everyone, doing everything to melt in, learning Swedish, copying facial expressions from the Red Cross nurses and so forth. Noone must ever know she was living a lie and that she was a Gypsy. Concert pianist Jozefa talked to her one day and told her exactly what she felt about Gypsies, which made Miriam stay as far away from the other women as possible, who were all Polish Jews. She stayed with the Red Cross sisters in the kitchens instead, learning more Swedish, since contrary to the others, Sweden was were she wanted to stay. After the four weeks in quarantine, the refugees were finally allowed to move around more freely and Hanna Adolfsson from the Red Cross committee, showed up to make a registry. She was so impressed by Miriam, who was learning Swedish very quickly and who claimed that she had no relatives. Miriam had concocted up a nice story for herself, having been born in Berlin, grown up in München and whose family was taken to the Polish ghettos, while she went to Auswhitz and Ravensbrück, her father Josef dying in a transport. All of it except the camps being a big lie.

Hanna was a teacher of German and English, at a girls’ school in Jönköping and also worked for the Red Cross. The reason why Hanna took Miriam in, was that she thought that Miriam was a Jewish girl from a good family. To Miriam, Hanna, became everything. Hanna, unknowingly, became the model for everything not Gypsy. For one, she became Miriam’s style icon. When Miriam’s hair had finally grown out, she had shaped her bangs to a 6 with sugar, and Hanna told her how vulgar it looked, making her look like a Gypsy. Miriam never did that mistake again! Hanna was also the one who told her to always wear blue, because the blue colour is never wrong and stylish. But Hanna, was also her first employer, whose maid she became for two years. Like Hanna said, it was an opportunity for her to learn manners and etiquette, which should have been her mother’s job to teach her.

Miriam continued being petrified two years after arriving to Hanna’s. She studied as what was called a privatist, at Hanna’s school, to catch up on other peer’s education. (Only the rich getting to study, back in those days!) She tried to behave like the lady Hanna wanted her to be. But still she was scared of people finding out somehow, who she really was and sending her back to a destroyed Germany, to be hunted, hated and despised again. It didn’t help when Hanna went on vacation for a couple of days and Miriam experienced a traumatizing event, when she dutifully went out to buy milk for herself. A group of young men stopped her on the street, while trying to catch a “traveller” and the lady in the milk shop made fun of her German accent. She returned home and looked in Hanna’s encyclopedia under the letters T (Traveller), G (Gypsy) and J (Jew) and what she learned made her mad. The Gypsies were not allowed to enter Sweden, not even the ones who had escaped the gas chambers. A couple of days later, she heard of the uprising which had occurred in the town, and walked down to the area herself, to see if it was true. A team of vigilantes, were still going  after travellers and when they saw her dark skin and black hair, she got chased by them, she tripped on Hanna’s dog’s leash, and while laying down, five young men kicked her all over. She found out that day that Sweden and Småland was no paradise after all, that it was almost as bad as in Germany. She never told anyone what happened to her that day though. Just stored the experience, getting more convinced that she must continue lying.

At that time in 1948, she had also got better acquainted with Hanna’s brother Olof, 10 years younger than his sister. He was a dentist living far away from “dangerous” Jönköping, in little Nässjö. He never paid any attention to her really, but was told to keep an eye on her, when Hanna was on her vacation, which he gladly did, since he had his wife ill with toxemia, in the hospital anyway. It did not end well though, since his wife Marianne died after giving birth to Thomas, hers and Olof’s son. That death affected Miriam in a big way, since ten days later, Hanna and Miriam took the baby home to Hanna’s flat, because Olof would not have anything to do with him, deeply mourning the loss of his wife. Six weeks later, Hanna took Miriam and baby Thomas, to Nässjö, where Olof lived, for Miriam to be Olof’s house keeper and Thomas nanny. Olof did not want to think about the past and did not want to deal with his son. He tried to escape it all and expected that Miriam, who had been through so much, would not want to talk about her past either. So they stayed silent and went about their lives, till he four years later, saw her in a beautiful turquoise dress, made for her by a seamstress, for Olof’s new brother-in-law’s 60th Birthday do. He fell in love with her. But he still spent the rest of his life running away from himself by travelling further and further away on their vacations. Going to Italy, the Canary Islands and Mallorca in the 1950s and Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, India, Thailand and Mexico after that. He wanted to visit all countries except Poland and Germany, since he did not want Miriam to be reminded of her past. But that was not all. He would not let her have a child either, not wanting to lose her in child-birth as well, and she really did not mind, after not being able to save Didi. She became the doting mother of Thomas instead, spoiling him rotten. Nässjö became her little safe haven where she could hide with her enormous lie, but also hiding her personality, as well as all her desires and dreams, knowing that if Olof ever found out the truth, he would have her thrown out of the country. So silently, she waited on him hand and foot, just like Katarina. Did she love Olof? One never finds out.

How did it all end then? Olof never found out the truth, dying from Alzheimer’s. Thomas did not really find anything out either, at the end of the day. All he said when she got home from her’s and Camilla’s walk, was that he had known all his life that she was hiding something. That for years, he had looked in her things to find a clue as to what was going on, why her face was always full of fear and something else. And Miriam continued being scared of being found out but having accepted that she is both Malika and Miriam. The book really leaves you sort of empty. None of the characters are happy and are all living their own lies!

 

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