New in paperback

Memories of war-torn childhoods

By Nora Krug
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The basic story line of Thomas Buergenthal's World War II memoir A Lucky Child (Back Bay, $14.99) is, sadly, all too familiar: from an idyllic childhood into the maw of the SS to a hard-won freedom. Indeed, as Elie Wiesel points out in the foreword, "Sometimes we may even wonder whether it was the same German tormentor who abused, tortured, and killed the same Jew six million times." Buergenthal's memories are, of course, distinctly his own, and his plainspoken autobiography demonstrates that it is still possible for a Holocaust memoir to astonish. Before it found an American publisher in 2009, the book was a bestseller in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

Buergenthal's tale begins in Czechoslovakia, where his father owned a hotel. Before he was 5, he and his family were on the run; by age 8 he was at a Polish labor camp. Time in the Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camps followed. Though Buergenthal's ultimate fate is known from the start -- today he is a professor of law at George Washington University -- the book still manages to conjure up suspense as Buergenthal escapes one near-death moment after another. In one chilling scene, as other children are being taken from their parents and killed, he shouts, "Captain, I can work!" and is spared. By the end, the book's title seems perversely fitting.

Agathe von Trapp's World War II story is the stuff of legend -- or, as she would have it, myth. In her memoir, Memories Before and After the Sound of Music (Harper, $13.99), von Trapp, the eldest sister in the famed singing family, attempts to set the record straight. "When I saw the musical for the first time, I cried," she writes. "The play and later the movie, as beautiful as they were, misrepresented our life." That fabled moment when the family flees the Nazis by crossing the mountains to Switzerland? Not so: "We simply took the train to Italy." Nor were the children singing "Edelweiss" as they departed, a song, she reminds us, that is not Austria's national anthem but a Rodgers and Hammerstein creation.

Still, despite von Trapp's attempts to offer an alternative version of events, the picture she paints hews closely to the big-screen rendition. There's that grand house teeming with children who are overseen by strict governesses and nannies and a caring mother who dies of scarlet fever. And, yes, there's also a stepmother too wild for the convent who swoops in and changes their lives. Von Trapp, who is now 97 and a retired kindergarten teacher in Baltimore, has finally made peace with the film ("I have even learned to sing and play 'Edelweiss'!" she writes) and, ironically, her charming memoir is to be the basis of another film, this one made for the small screen.

From our previous reviews:

The Museum of Innocence (Vintage, $15.95) by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk is a "startling original," Marie Arana wrote. "Every turn in the story seems fresh, disquieting, utterly unexpected," and "along the way, we learn a great deal about Turkey."

Jess Walter's novel The Financial Lives of Poets (Harper, $14.99) follows the travails of a hapless former journalist and failed entrepreneur in a "deliciously antic tale of an American dream gone very sour," wrote Lisa Zeidner.

Constantine Pleshakov "writes history with a human face," Gerard DeGroot wrote of his "clear and beautifully lyrical" book There Is No Freedom Without Bread! (Picador, $18), an analysis of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Margaret Drabble, "a longtime jigsaw puzzler, comes clean about her own habit" in The Pattern in the Carpet (Mariner, $14.95), according to Sara Sklaroff. "Part history, part memoir," the book "offers readers the pleasing intimacy of following the meanderings of a gifted mind."

David Byrne, best known as the frontman for Talking Heads, is also an avid bicycling advocate. In his travelogue Bicycle Diaries (Penguin, $16), Byrne shares his observations about an array of cities he's seen on two wheels, as well as his "compelling" musings "on everything from urban planning to bike helmets to art criticism to Latin music," wrote Krista Walton.

In 2006, Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, was imprisoned in Iran, accused of trying to overthrow the government. In her memoir My Prison, My Home (Ecco, $13.99), Esfandiari "goes well beyond the headlines by deftly weaving personal narrative with a political history of modern Iran," according to Lisa Bonos.

Ben Yagoda traces the evolution of a genre in Memoir, a History (Riverhead, $16), along the way offering "a nimble and nuanced discussion of the nettlesome issue of truth and fiction," according to Jonathan Yardley.

Krug reviews paperbacks every month in The Post.

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