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ASHES IN THE SNOW by Oriana Ramunno: Book Review

The horrors of the Holocaust and in particular the inhumane experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele make for difficult reading.  But the humanity of those caught in those situations can give us hope, as so eloquently expressed in the words of Anne Frank: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”

Hugo Fischer, a detective on the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, is sent to Auschwitz in 1943 to investigate the death of Sisimund Braun, a colleague of Dr. Mengele at the camp.  Tristan Voigt, a camp officer, explains that a prisoner has already been arrested for Braun’s murder, but rumors have started about the death and the possibility that the accused is not guilty.  Now the Kommandant wants Fischer to make certain that the man, a nurse working under Braun, confesses.

One of the young prisoners in the camp, Gioele Errera, is an adventurous child.  He and his brother Gabriele, along with other twins, were separated by Mengele when they arrived at Auschwitz and given preferential treatment; they didn’t know or understand the doctor’s plans that would end in the death of all the twins at the camp.  Gabriele has been transferred to the infirmary, the boys’ parents are in Birkenau, the section of Auschwitz with the gas chambers, and Gioele is alone.

Gioele, very talented artistically, was quietly wandering the halls of the medical building when he comes across the corpse of Dr. Braun.  He draws several pictures of the dead doctor and his office, and when he meets Fischer he offers him the pictures provided that the detective search Birkenau for his parents.

There are certainly a number of people with motives to kill Braun.  Among them are the women at the camp he raped, his wife, her lover, and several of his colleagues.  Although the unofficial cause of the doctor’s death is that he choked to death on an apple, Fischer isn’t convinced that that was truly the cause, and Braun’s wife doesn’t want an autopsy done.

Hugo has heard rumors about the camp, but the reality of it is beyond his worst imaginings.  Immediately upon his arrival he witnesses the casual shooting of a young mother and the stomping to death of her infant, while around him the Jews arriving in the trains are herded to the “showers.”  He is told by Obersturmführer Tristan Voigt that “Every now and then these accidents do happen,” and although Hugo witnessed thousands of Jews board trains, with yellow stars pinned to their clothing, he hadn’t seen where the trains stopped.  Until now.

In addition to the stress of the investigation, Fischer is also dealing with severe post-polio syndrome symptoms.  He has to pretend that his pain and his limp are caused by war injuries, because any kind of physical or mental illnesses is viewed as a burden on the state and often results in the sterilization or execution of the disabled person.  He is forced to take his medication in private, but his symptoms are getting worse.

Oriana Ramunno tells readers in the Author’s Note that her great-uncle had been in the Flossenbürg concentration camp and that it was hearing his story that compelled her to write Ashes in the Snow many years later.  Her articulate and beautifully expressive, novel, I am certain, would have made him proud.

You can read more about the author at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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