Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Jewish Publication Society
Published:  2001
Language:  English
Pages:   204

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About the Book

The astonishing stories in Smoke Over Birkenau tell of the women who lived and suffered alongside Liana Millu during her months in the concentration camp. These are stories of violence and tragedy, but they are also stories of resistance, of dreaming in the middle of a nightmare, of the endurance of the human spirit. At 24 years old, Liana Millu, an Italian Jew, was arrested in Venice after an informer identified her as a member of a partisan group: at Birkenau, she became A-5384. On her return home, she wrote Smoke Over Birkenau as "an outlet and a liberation." When it was published in Italy in 1974 Primo Levi hailed it as "one of the most powerful European testimonies to come from the women's lager at Auschwitz-Birkenau." In later editions, Liana Milliu's book would come to be called the "feminine version" of Levi's work.

The novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Leaving Brooklyn, Disturbances in the Field) has superbly captured the strength and resonance of Liana Millu's narration. Her English rendering was honored by PEN, the prestigious international writer's organization, with the Renato Poggioli Award for Translation in 1991.

The women of Smoke Over Birkenau - Jewish, Gentile, Italian, Dutch, Polish, young, old - represent the 11 million who died in the camps: Lily, doomed by the attention of a handsome Kapo; Maria, struggling to hide her pregnancy; Bruna, risking all to give her son a birthday present; Lotti and Gustine - sisters - one in the infirmary, one in SS brothel; Zina, who takes a fatal beating to conceal a fellow prisoner's escape; Lise, who vacillates between starvation and adultery. Smoke Over Birkenau is a testament to the will to live and breathes new life into the heroic women whose souls were assaulted but not crushed by this experience.


Foreword by Primo Levi

Translator's Note

Lili Marlene

Under Cover of Darkness

High Tension

The Five-Ruble Bill

Scheiss Egal

Hard Labor

About the Author

An Excerpt from the Book

The day was over at last. We left our trams, retracing the path we had taken in the morning. Once again, music greeted us at the gate and the officers counted us, but this time the review by the "red bands" was less meticulous, for we had to hurry to the barracks and line up for the evening roll-call. The auxiliaries were already circulating; any minute, the whistles would blow and the martial Achtung of the first inspections would ring out.

Since our barrack was at the far end of the camp, right beside a crematorium, the auxilary always got to us last. The guards took advantage of the extra time to give out the bread while we waited, which had its good and bad points: good because we were spared waiting on another line after roll-call, and bad because it was torture to get through the hour of hours of inspection with my bread under my arm. Each evening became an endurance test as I wrestled with the most ferocious temptation. I would start out full of resolve, hiding the bread inside my dress for a quarter of an hour or so, then take it out to gaze lovingly and sniff with passion, until the struggle between desire and the wisdom of deferred gratification culminated in my ripping into the bread like a starving beast, destroying in no time what was the object of endless inner conflict.

That evening the struggle was compounded by our plan to visit Madame Louise. Time and again I sequestered the bread in the safe harbor of my dress, determined not to remove it until after roll-call. But as always, my efforts proved futile. I had planned to save enough to pay decently for the smallest possible fortune, but in the end, the paltry bit remaining seemed almost an insult to the fortune teller, and so with a desperate, bitter insouciance I sent it the way of the rest and watched my fortune vanish.

Roll-call that evening seemed endless anyway. The auxilary took forever to arrive, and it was nearly two hours before the whistle released us. The instant we broke ranks came the daily stampede to squeeze into the barrack. Hundreds of women thronged around the tiny door, pushing and mauling each other to get a few extra moments of rest. I stood aside as always, waiting patiently.

"I'll be in for you in little while," Lilly called. "Do you want to come and wash?" That invitation I declined. My hands were dirty, but I hadn't the strength to face another battle to get into the washroom. In any case, the water always stopped running just when there was the greatest demand. I told Lilly I'd wash in the morning with the so-called tea. I'd been pushed around enough for one day.


I hope this heartbreaking and luminous book stays in print forever, so that no one will forget.

- Hilma Wolitzer, Author of Introducing Shirley Braverman and Silver

What is so amazing is the delicacy and refinement of emotion brought to a description of the most brutalizing environment. The "among women only" perspective gives the collection a unique air among Holocaust accounts. An engrossing, powerful set of narratives, beautifully translated.

- Phillip Lopate, Author of The Rug Merchant and Against Joie de Vivre

Winner, the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award: The meeting of the fluent, transparent sureness of Liana Millu with Lynne Sharon Schwartz's imaginative identification with the text distinguishes this translation as a rare achievement. To have such an important and overlooked work of Italian - not to mention Holocaust - literature rescued and so ably translated is indeed a cause of celebration. This Italian testament has both polish and poetry and strong images of suffering barely borne, but more indelibly it serves as a particular focus into the specially female hell of camps.

- Kirkus Reviews