BOOK REVIEW / If this is a woman: memories of Birkenau: There is a place on Earth - Giuliana Tedeschi, Tr. Tim Parks: Lime Tree, pounds 9.99

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The Independent Online
IT IS a commonplace that war, plague, famine and other manifestations of hell on earth spawn art. You could argue that this is the only good thing that comes of them. But it has taken many years for the Holocaust to send forth its voices. Even Primo Levi's If This Is A Man, although written immediately after the war, was not granted a proper print run until Einaudi resurrected it in 1958. There Is A Place On Earth, Giuliana Tedeschi's account of her incarceration in Birkenau, appeared in Italian in 1988, more than 40 years after her ordeal.

It is difficult to be sure why so many books dealing wholly or in part with the Final Solution have surfaced in recent years. A brief, probably crude, history of Holocaust literature (as opposed to transcribed verbal testimony) might show that the story was first told directly, in narratives such as Primo Levi's, or in the diaries of Anne Frank. Later, autobiography began to filter into fiction, in the novels of Jiri Weil, Ivan Klima, Georgy Konrad, Louis Begley and many others. Finally, in the last couple of years, and not without exciting opprobrium and revulsion in some quarters, the subject has exercised gentile or non-European novelists born after the war, who have brought their imaginations to bear on things they never experienced.

There Is A Place On Earth could be seen as a kind of companion volume to If This Is A Man. Like Primo Levi, Giuliana Tedeschi uses the episodic narrative and unburdening style of her fellow torinese. But there are differences, only partly arising from the fact that as a woman she witnessed and underwent an array of demoralising experiences set aside by the Nazis for her sex. Levi was a chemist, a trade that helped him not only to survive Auschwitz but also to set down his story with meticulous dispassion, whereas Tedeschi was a classics teacher.

Her account, which tells the familiar story of appalling drudgery, incomprehensible barbarity and unquenchable human courage, rings with the babble of foreign languages - French, Greek, Spanish, Polish, German and even, in one of the book's many moments of piercing resonance, Latin. 'Everybody around fell silent. For a moment everything had vanished; there was only the heat of the fire slowly seeping into our clothes and the echo of the Latin poetry that had united three people of different nationalities and tongues inside the barbed-wire fence.'

Tedeschi writes like a true writer, with a sleight of hand and an eye for the expressive detail, as well as the insight into the human psyche that such unspeakable experiences afford. At one point, a fellow prisoner receives a smuggled letter and a food parcel from her husband. ' 'Great,' I said. 'She'd've been better off if she hadn't got either letter or parcel. Like when they put you in prison and then bring you your first parcel from home. You look at the chicken and you can't eat it because you think of who cooked it for you and wrapped it up and suffered as they prepared it . . . you don't eat anything and you feel your strength draining away from you.' '

A week later her friend goes into hospital: 'Every day she grew weaker, she wasted away, and the nostalgia, the yearning, the memories destroyed the last strength she had.' Of the book's hundred and one cruel moments, this is the cruellest.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the author goes unmentioned. To be a Jew called Tedeschi (the Italian for Germans) in Birkenau is a bit like being a Kurd called Saddam or a Bosnian Muslim called Karadzic, only worse. The closest parallel that comes to mind is with African slaves who took the surnames of their American masters, or were given crude nicknames. But Tedeschi's name was not that of any old master, but the title of the self-styled master race.

To those who would never dream of picking up a book like this, it is worth saying that some of the best Holocaust literature is about survival, about the triumph of release, about the miraculous disavowal of bitterness and anger, about the frontiers of human behaviour. Even good things come of the unmitigably bad, and this book is a very good thing.