I am Ella: A remarkable story of survival, from Auschwitz to Africa

Panel of speakers at the launch of I Am Ella on 11 June: Shane Kaplan, Ella Blumenthal’s grandson; Evelyn Kaplan, Ella Blumenthal’s daughter; and Joanne Jowell, author. Standing: Richard Freedman, Acting Director of the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre

Reviewed by Beryl Eichenberger

I am Ella by Joanne Jowell on Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal is a truly remarkable book. 

Now 103 years old, Ella has revealed to Jowell the horrors she survived in the Holocaust, the spirit of hope that never left her, the remaking of a life that shows her extraordinary resilience, as well as sharing her thoughts and humour in an intimate and moving account. Inspirational in its message of joy and hope, here is a survivor story that, like so many others, lay unspoken for many decades. It was only some 15 years ago that Ella started speaking of what she had endured; since then she has addressed many audiences in her own feisty style, ensuring that her story lives on.

It was in 2017 that Jowell was approached by Ella’s daughter, Evelyn Kaplan, to help the family record Blumenthal’s story for her children and grandchildren and future generations. After 22 interviews over some 45 hours of conversation, it was clear that this was a book that needed wider publication than just family. 

There is no doubt that it became deeply personal to Jowell, as perhaps it might become to many Jewish people. There is perhaps something in our DNA, the generations of slaughter, displacement and horror that make us identify with survivors, however far removed we might be. Jowell writes in her author’s note of how, when gazing at the iconic Holocaust photo ‘Warsaw Ghetto Boy’, she sees to the side a little girl looking directly at the camera. She has a moment of eerie recognition — of herself at that age in similar dress celebrating Purim. This story reminds us that it could have been any one of us — ‘Perhaps in another incarnation it WAS me’ —and that this history belongs to each individual.

The writing is such that it creates a relationship between the reader and Ella. By the time I finished the book I had, by proxy, enjoyed tea, tasted Ella’s famous biscuits, laughed and cried with her as the stories came tumbling out, and placed a hand on my heart that the Holocaust horrors are never repeated. Add to that the story behind Ella’s name and why the simple title I am Ella is in fact “complex and layered, a declaration of strength and a statement of identity,” says Jowell.

It is an emotional account and yet Jowell is in control all along the way. Ella’s shards of memory are sometimes haphazard and yet Jowell has carefully, scrupulously placed them in context, building the whole picture in a way that draws the reader into Ella’s life, through her own words. We hear her loud and clear. A truly courageous woman, Ella is known for her outspokenness in her community, and she tells it like it is.

Jowell allows us to enter this sacred space of memory and take the steps with the young Ella learning to swim in the river near her home — swimming is a lifelong passion. We hear the laughter and warmth of her large family as the youngest of seven children; we are privy to enter her home and share those special Judaic moments of memory. And we are with her as the horrors start and continue — herding into the Warsaw Ghetto, activist underground, losing every member of her family, except her niece Roma to whom she became a protective surrogate mother. She was meant to survive; from ‘the gas chambers of Majdanek, the depravity of Auschwitz, and the utter hopelessness of Bergen Belsen,’ to liberation and the chance to rebuild her life.

That she was able to get from Paris to Palestine, meet her husband Isaac, settle in South Africa, have a large family and create a life of love, hard work and laughter, while holding her past in the archives of her memory is extraordinary.

Included in the narrative are interviews with her Cape Town family which reveal their closeness, the love and protectiveness of their matriarch and a very special relationship with granddaughter Jade. It is a frank, unsentimental and open account, skilfully woven together by Jowell.

What struck me particularly was the fact that through Ella there are now 23 members of family — the same number as she lost in the Holocaust. Her mantra is to keep on telling her story, that all survival stories should be told to future generations so that we never forget. What the Nazis could not take away was her ‘faith, hope and belief in Hashem …that is what saved us. That is what saved me. That is something I never lost’.

• Published in the July 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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