Book Review: The Crate: A Story of War, a Murder, and Justice by Deborah Vadas Levison

After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust – in ghettos, on death marches, and in concentration camps – a young couple seeks refuge in Canada. They settle into a new life, certain that the terrors of their past are behind them. They build themselves a cozy little cottage on a lake in Muskoka, a cottage that becomes emblematic of their victory over the Nazis. The charming retreat is a safe haven, a refuge from haunted memories. That is, until a single act of unspeakable violence defiles their sanctuary.

Poking around the dark crawl space beneath their cottage, they discover a wooden crate, nailed tightly shut and almost hidden from view. Nothing could have prepared them for the horror of the crate’s contents – or how the peace and tranquility of their lives would be shattered. Now, their daughter, Deborah Vadas Levison, an award-winning journalist, tells the extraordinary account of her parents’ ordeals, both in one of the darkest times in world history and their present-day lives.

What I Thought:
Generally, my practice in undertaking reviews is to see what other people are saying about a book. In reading some of the reviews on Goodreads, I wondered really if they had read the same book as I had, as some of the criticism of the book seemed to somewhat miss the point of it.

Although the inspiration behind the writing of this book may have been the real-life murder of Samantha Collins, what The Crate is, is a clever interweaving of true crime, memoir and historical record of some of the darkest days of world history.

By taking the discovery of a body at the family cottage, Deborah Vadas Levison is able to reminisce about her own, sheltered upbringing, which is in direct contrast to that of her parents who, being Jewish and Hungarian, were directly persecuted during the Holocaust, losing close and extended family to forced labour and the death camps. It is so important that stories like theirs are recorded – especially these days when ‘Lest We Forget’ seems more of a platitude than a genuine promise to not let these things happen again.

Joined with these horrific experiences is the story of Samantha Collins, whose life only came into contact with the Vadas family in the most tragic and violent way. Featuring information that the author has gathered directly from Ms Collins’ family, the account of her life is itself a cautionary tale of how easy it can be to fall onto a certain path, and how domestic violence affects so many families.

The book deals well with a catalogue of difficult subjects, and treats them all with the utmost sympathy and respect. It’s interesting to see the family’s focus switch from ‘why did this happen to us?’ to ‘actually, there was a young woman who was the victim here’ and we certainly could all do with having such empathy at times.

I have read a good deal about the atrocities of the Holocaust, both in fiction and non-fiction, but still it just seems unreal that such hatred was heaped upon one group of people. Ultimately, as Debbie Levison points out, the best way to honour the dead is to live, to make a life and leave a legacy for your descendants – something that the Vadas family has certainly done.

As I’ve said, the book is written so sympathetically to the horrors it tries to protray, and with such affection and some of the language is so evocative – in particular, Debbie Levison recalls a visit with her father to Budapest and the Dohány Street Synagogue, and feeling as though they were among ‘ghosts, whispering Kaddish for eternity’. Phrases like that pepper the book, and create such a sense of atmosphere and tragedy.

Books like this are crucial in these days when anti-semitism seems to be growing, the far-right are being listened to by many more people and nationalism is seen as something to be admired. Any one of the ever-dwindling number of Holocaust survivors can tell you where those roads lead, and it’s something we should all be concerned about.

The Crate is published by WildBlue Press. To find out more about the author and additional notes about her work, you can check out her website.

As a side note, I had no idea about Steven Spielberg’s project to record the testimonies of Holocaust survivors (Vera and Pista Vadas took part in this project), and I have further explored the Foundation that came out of the project. It’s a fascinating and ever-expanding project, which now encompasses the Rwandan Genocide, the Nanjing Massacre and the Cambodian Genocide, among other awful acts of mass violence. It’s well worth taking a look at the work of this Foundation.

Please note: I received a copy of this book through Netgalley for review purposes. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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