Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America
Koehler Books (2017)
Reviewed by Josh Cramer for Reader Views (1/18)
“Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America” is incredible. Katrina Shawver tells a beautiful story of friendship and survival, while mixing in an unforgettable history lesson. This is a book that you will not soon forget. In fact, Jack Mayer (another author who writes about the Holocaust), said that “Everyone who reads Henry becomes a witness.” I have to agree with him—now that I’ve read “Henry,” I am a witness to his life and torture, and the love and friendship that he gained as well.
Throughout this book, the author explores how she came to meet and interview Henry Zguda, a Holocaust survivor, becoming a part of his and his wife’s lives. Shawver, and I for that matter, learn that there were many, many more people in concentration camps who weren’t Jews, and what life was like for them. We see Henry’s life growing up in Poland as well as learn about Poland’s history. We learn about the social environment that led to Auschwitz and other camps. And we learn that the prisoners did things other than just work or die. This book was eye-opening to me in that way. Henry describes how the Germans allowed their relatives to put money in an account for them (that they would be charged from regularly) and that he and a fellow prisoner turned a giant barrel into a swimming pool one night. He describes the death around him as well as the lengths that he and his fellow prisoners went through to survive. All the while, Shawver interlaces history lessons and her own search for the truth of Henry’s claims once he passed away. The story of their friendship is one of the most beautiful things about this book.
We eventually see Henry’s attempted escape, (which caused me to laugh out loud – you’ll laugh too – I can’t believe he and others could find humor in what was going on), and eventual rescue by the United States. It’s exciting to see his escape, but frustrating when you realize he trades one prison for another because Russia now controls Poland. He has to escape from the Communists who had taken over Poland. It is amazing the thin threads that allowed him to survive and thrive in his life—to see where he was before the war and after the war.
The most spectacular part of Henry’s journey is the lesson that he did not allow the war or the abuse he received to define him. He did what he could to help others to live a life of meaning. In fact, in the end, Henry has this to say about his life: “Thank you America, for being such a wonderful country and for being so good to me. Thank you, New York, for giving me your wonderful girl, Nancy, as my wife. For 40 years she has survived my broken English, and is always there when I need her. I am truly blessed. Life can be beautiful!”
Interlaced throughout the narrative are pictures, cards, and other documents that Shawver collected during her research. Seeing these pictures makes what Henry had to go through feel all the more real.
I have to admit, no other book that I’ve read on the Holocaust has made the heartache feel so real and as heart-breaking as this one. I highly recommend you read “Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America” by Katrina Shawver. Take your time and absorb the stories Henry tells about his experiences. Some are incredibly shocking, and not even for the brutality. Some are shocking just because of the little ways that people fought for survival. So go on. Read it.