Life scribbled on a postcard

The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz is a full, frank, and sometimes painfully truthful testimony to suffering that no human being should be forced to endure.

 ILLUSTRATION FROM ‘The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz.’ (photo credit: HarperCollins)
ILLUSTRATION FROM ‘The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz.’
(photo credit: HarperCollins)

The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz is a truly exceptional testimony by someone who had to fight for existence in the extermination camp of Auschwitz, and then in the concentration camp of Buchenwald, during the Second World War. 

The book is unique for two reasons. First, the author was only 13 years old when he and his mother found themselves undergoing the notorious selection process just outside the gates of Auschwitz. Although both escaped an instant march to the gas chambers, Thomas Geve saw his mother only once more and very briefly. He never discovered how or when she died. So it was as a boy only just into his teens and without support of any kind, that he had to learn to survive in the harshest of circumstances.

Second, Geve was determined to preserve a record of what he was witnessing day by day. He began drawing his impressions of life in the camps, using the charcoal and the cement sacks that were at hand during his time bricklaying in Auschwitz. After the war, he redrew these sketches and added more of what he remembered. Thirty-two of these drawings, in full color, are bound into the book. They present a series of vivid scenes, perceived from the inside, of camp regime.

Telling the author's life through art and photographs

The volume is also illustrated throughout with black-and-white photographs which trace the author’s life from his birth in Stettin in 1929. His father was a doctor who lost his job after Hitler came to power in 1933. With Nazi antisemitic persecution on the increase, the family decided that Geve’s father would travel to England, and he and his mother would join him later. Meanwhile, they would live temporarily with grandparents in their Berlin apartment. Only they left it all too late. His father left for England in the summer of 1939, and when the war began in September Geve and his mother were stranded in Berlin. Early in 1942, the family actually received a letter from Geve’s father in London by way of the Red Cross. 

It is well documented that in Berlin, some Jews managed to lead a restricted sort of life right into the beginning of 1943. The total liquidation of Berlin’s remaining Jewish community began at the end of February 1943.

 Entrance gate at Auschwitz concentration camp (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Entrance gate at Auschwitz concentration camp (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Whether it was his youth or the fact that he was a Berliner, or later that he spoke colloquial German among his polyglot fellow prisoners, Geve often received help and even kindness from unexpected quarters. Those gestures, even in Auschwitz, saved his life more than once. It was just such a gesture by an acquaintance of his mother’s that enabled them to survive in Berlin until the very end.

At one point they were arrested, but instead of instant deportation to the east, Geve secured a job as a cemetery worker digging graves and burying the dead. “This brat will have plenty of work,” said one of the German officers who approved his application.

Meanwhile, he and his mother eked out an existence in an otherwise deserted apartment. But soon their situation became impossible, so they decided to hand themselves in to the authorities and make their way to the work they were told awaited them in the east. Geve paints a vivid picture of the packed cattle-truck journey to Auschwitz, with only a small grille to let in some air, and one lavatory bucket. 

Even so, he records that over the two-day journey their guards, who were far from the ruthless SS types they were about to meet, occasionally allowed them out in a lonely countryside spot to have a short stroll, find a pit latrine, empty the lavatory bucket, and fetch much-needed water. He also tells of the heated arguments among the detainees over who had to clean what.

“Courtesy and sympathy had been blotted out,” he writes, “heralding a ruthless struggle for survival.”

It is that 22-month struggle that Geve describes and illustrates in frank and brutal detail. We learn of the standard whipping punishment, with candidates strapped to a scaffold and beaten from 25 to 100 times. “Some,” writes Geve, “never returned.” 

He tells us about the camp brothel in Block 24, above the camp orchestra’s room. The two dozen women were drawn from all over the camp, some of them, Geve remarks, “having already practiced the oldest profession.” They catered to both prisoners and guards. German prisoners were entitled to visit them every fortnight. Other inmates, except Russians, Roma, and Jews, received entrance discs every few months. 

The women would sometimes drop a ration of bread from their window to a prisoner who looked particularly frail. 

“We could not help but respect them,” observes Geve.

As defeat began to stare the Nazi regime in the face, Auschwitz was evacuated and the prisoners were forced into a long march. Geve ended up in Buchenwald camp, where he spent the last months of the war and the first months of peace. With nowhere to go, and in any case too weak to walk far, he found a stash of postcards and colored pencils in the abandoned offices and drew some 80 pictures of his life in the camps.

Through Switzerland’s generosity, Geve was fostered by a Swiss family for six months to recuperate, and then flown to London to join his father.

How, after one failed attempt, he managed to get his story published in 1958, and then in a fuller version in 1987, he and his daughter Yifat recount in a video produced and released on YouTube by New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. 

In it, Charles Inglefield describes how he became intrigued by Geve’s story and got involved in editing and revising it to make The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz, a new account for a new generation of readers. In the video, Geve himself dedicates this volume to “the 40 prisoners who helped me to survive two years of concentration camp.” 

At the very start of the book, Geve lists the 18 prisoners whose names he remembers. The others have to remain anonymous.

The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz is a full, frank, and sometimes painfully truthful account of Geve’s experiences. It is his personal testimony to suffering that no human being should be forced to endure, let alone a youngster in his early teens – an account vividly illustrated by the drawings that accompany his story. 

This is a book that deserves to be read. ■

The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz  By Thomas GeveHarperCollins304 pages; $22.55