The survivor's tale

Sacred Games Gerald Jacobs Hamish Hamilton £16.99
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The Independent Culture
This is a record of hideous times, and of a mind that refused to succumb to them. Miklos Hammer, a Hungarian Jew, was deported to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau; his determination to beat his tormentors is a parable of uncorrupted men. Few survived the Nazi death-camps with their humanity intact; many prisoners became calloused, inured to feeling, or complicit in the degradation of others. Superbly told by Gerald Jacobs, Hammer's story is a triumph over tragedy in Hitler's war against the Jews.

Sacred Games begins in Budapest and ends, of all places, in Wimbledon. Born to a kosher home, his father a rabbi, Miklos Hammer was a medical student in October 1941 when he was press-ganged into a Hungarian Jewish labour battalion. Fortunate not to be sent to Stalingrad (from where no Jew returned alive), Miklos was posted to Transylvania. There, the prisoners were forced to dig a railway track while Miklos was made medical superintendent of a so-called hospital.

When the Germans invaded Budapest in March 1944, Miklos was destined for one direction only: "the East". To facilitate the extermination of Hungary's 800,000 Jews, a new branch line of the Auschwitz railway was built, bringing the cattle wagons to within a few yards of the gas chambers. Adolf Eichmann, the clerk in charge of these deportations, had "delineated and isolated the Jews of Budapest with the utmost efficiency". Lulled into a sense of false security, they were soon shunted to the killing centres of Poland.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, young Miklos comes within spitting distance of the notorious SS doctor Josef Mengele. (Using the pretext of medical treatment to kill Jewish prisoners, Mengele personally injected them with phenol, petrol, chloroform or air). Miklos was among thousands of prisoners marched out of Auschwitz before the Red Army arrived there on 27 January 1945. This foot march through sleet and ice sustained terrible losses; stragglers were shot on the spot, the sick were trampled underfoot.

On arrival at Buchenwald in Germany, Miklos is overjoyed to find his family doctor. But this man only responds with a sort of bestial insouciance and averts his gaze. The SS have turned him into a "monster". This is the most chilling episode in Secret Games. The Nazis were able to degrade their victims so entirely; during the Buchenwald transport, Miklos watches with horror as a starving prisoner slices off pieces of flesh from a dead man.

The story takes a bizarre twist when Miklos meets an English prisoner, one Peter Howard from Chelsea, who dies of hunger before reaching the final destination of Dachau. Crawling with lice, and delirious from typhus, Miklos assumes Peter Howard's identity and is eventually "repatriated" to Britain.

Weighing five stone, Miklos is soon exposed as a false British subject and interned at Beltane School in Wimbledon with numerous Nazi party members, including men of the SS and SA. Among them is Dr Otto Dietrich, Hitler's press chief. "If the British are the great champions of freedom and democracy, then tell me what you and I are doing, waking here together in captivity, you a Jew and I a Nazi?" After eight months as a prisoner in leafy Wimbledon, Miklos is eventually released through the intervention of Jewish MPs and allowed to stay in England.

Amid the abundant literature of atrocity which this century has produced, Sacred Games is exemplary. Miklos Hammer's tribulations are narrated without the prurient tenor of so much Holocaust writing (Jerzy Kozinski's The Painted Bird and Sophie's Choice by William Styron, for example, often verged on the sentimental, pornographic, or downright kitsch); Gerald Jacobs records the enormity of human loss with a detached calm and appropriate sympathy. The best surprise is that Miklos Hammer is still alive in London.