Book review: The Seventh Well by Fred Wander

My sister is the history freak in the family. Specifically, she reads a lot about the Holocaust, and for whatever reason, I've been doing some of the same. I spent the winter with The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn's journey to discover what happened to the one part of his family no one knew much about because they had disappeared during the Holocaust.

The Seventh Well is Michael Hofmann's 2008 translation of Fred Wander's Das gute Leben, a (probably not very) fictionalized account of Wander's own survival of the Holocaust.

Wander's title translates to "The good life;" but good as in rich, full, what (beer commercials aside) we might call "the high life."

Wander brings to life characters he met on his journey through 20 camps and several escapes: A studied and confident 16-year-old; a great storyteller; partisans; and last, a 10-year-old child who has taken on the role of father to his younger brothers.

The book ends in the delirious happiness of near-liberation and typhoid fever dreams.

Wander doesn't leave out the horrors, but he does bring out one thing we haven't seen in a lot of books and films about the Holocaust: life. In much the way that the film Life is Beautiful focuses on a man who, despite all that's happening in the camps, keeps his child alive with games and fun, Wander shows the individuality and the humanity of victims, not just in fleeting moments of despair, but in, as his own title suggests, the rich fullness of their lives.