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Review of I am Ella by Joanne Jowell

Reviewed by Karen Wilson

Ella of the book title is now 102 years old, just a few years after a series of interviews with author Joanne Jowell, in which she shared her remarkable life. Remarkable that, despite tragic loss and suffering as a young woman, she found the strength to rebuild her life from zero and to thrive.

Ella was born into a close-knit and prosperous Jewish family in Poland. The advent of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of her home country snatched away anything resembling normality for Ella, who was then in her late teens. She recounts their living conditions after they were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, the extermination of twenty-three of her beloved family members, and her miracle survival of the Majdanek, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, along with her niece.

When Ella emerged from this horror in 1945, she was 24. It is a testament to her faith, optimism, and resilience that she started a new life in Paris soon after, then moved to Palestine/Israel, where she met her husband and followed him to South Africa mere weeks later – knowing nothing about her new country and speaking very little English. She and her husband ran a retail business in Brakpan for many years and raised four children who became successful professionals.

For decades, she rarely spoke about what she had endured but gradually began giving small talks to niche audiences. Joanne Jowell had the privilege of spending time with Ella in Cape Town (where she now lives close to her daughter) and documenting her life story. Joanne’s commentary on her interactions with Ella intersperses the narrative and provides more insight into Ella and her experiences. There are also some helpful footnotes explaining the Yiddish words and Jewish traditions that Ella references as she unpacks her memories.

Ella’s fighting spirit and determination to get the most out of life shine through in this book, along with her sense of humour – and the lessons she no doubt hopes humanity has learned from the tragedy of the last World War.

A copy of I am Ella is available for short-term loan from the Chartered Client Library. We also have a copy to give away. To stand a chance to win, email Lyndsay, and you will be entered into our lucky draw.

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