When the cattle car stops at Auschwitz, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski’s mother realises their best chance of survival is in Josef Mengele’s Zoo. As the other kids point out, to the twins shivering on their bunk that night alongside a girl on the brink of death, they get more food there (although “it’s not kosher and it eats your insides”) and keep their hair “until the lice come” and their clothes. Submitting their bodies to the doctor’s measurements and experiments, they hope the bond between them will save their humanity. But when, not long before the camp is liberated, Pearl disappears, Stasha embarks on a perilous journey through Poland’s devastation in search, not only of her sister, but of the man who has done them both such harm.
Although the author doesn’t flinch from the atrocities, the story is told with great compassion and, I think, an underlying belief in the survival of the human spirit. Narrating alternate chapters, the twins are quirky and engaging guides through this disturbing world. Initially I thought them quite young for twelve (although we can be forgiven at any age for hiding in the folds of a grown-up’s coat when there’s a fair chance you’re about to die), but they’ve aged a few decades before their next birthday comes around. It is to the author’s credit that their shifts from childishness to maturity and back again never seem contrived, not even when it requires moving from the here and now to a potentially wiser future, as when Stasha notices the kindly Dr Miri, forced to assist Mengele (p47):