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Surviving the Holocaust and Stalin (ePub)

The Amazing Story of the Seiler Family

Military P&S History WWII

By Vanessa Holburn
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
File Size: 23.4 MB (.epub)
Pages: 232
Illustrations: 32 mono illustrations
ISBN: 9781399063012
Published: 2nd February 2023


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The horrors of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and labour camps were just the beginning of the struggle to survive for the Seiler family. As Hungarian Jews, they faced persecution of the very worst kind both from their own government and Nazi Germany. After liberation by the Soviets at the end of WWII they endured further punishment from the Stalinist regime concealed behind the Iron Curtain.

This memoir is drawn from a recently re-discovered cache of precious family letters and exclusive interviews with Marta Seiler, who translated those letters for the first time. Marta has supplemented the account with childhood memories and original photos.

The narrative is told through the voices of Marta, her mother Izabella and her father Lajos on a journey that takes us from 1935 to the present day. The reader is able to piece together the family’s personal challenges set against the backdrop of international political conflict.

Exploring themes of resilience, identity and inherited trauma, by the end of the book we learn how Marta rediscovered her forbidden Jewish identity, found her place within the community and has moved toward a place of tolerance.

In the tradition of oral history, Marta told her remarkable family story exclusively to journalist Vanessa Holburn. For Marta it’s important we learn the lessons of the past before they are lost for good.

4 out of 5

As featured on Army Rumour Service

Army Rumour Service (ARRSE)

Article: 'My parents kept shocking wartime experience a secret'

Henley Life

As featured in the article 'My parents kept shocking wartime experience a secret'

Henley Life, June 2023

Author and book featured in

Writing Magazine

In the tradition of oral history, Martha tells her riveting family story with great warmth, humility, and sad but grateful tears to Vanessa who in equal love shares it with us.

Read full review here


This is a compelling story of one family's experiences of being a Hungarian Jew before, during and after World War 2.

No matter how many of these types of books I read, it never ceases to shock me how 'human beings' can develop an insidious culture against others just because they are different be it religion, race or whatever. What I didn't realise was how, even after the Russians liberated the death and labour camps created by the Nazi regime, the persecution of Jews continued for those living behind the 'Iron Curtain'.

This book has opened my eyes to the continued injustice and oppression that was inflicted upon the Jewish people by the Stalin regime despite the horrors they had been subjected to by the Nazis but what it also did was show the resilience, bravery and hope the Seiler family demonstrated despite the tragedies and hardships they encountered and experienced.

This is a must-read for people who are interested in European history and to ensure that the voices of those who went through one of the darkest periods of the twentieth century are not forgotten and I must thank Pen & Sword and NetGalley for enabling me to read and share my thoughts of this book.

NetGalley, Hazel Howorth

This non-fiction title is an excellent example of how a horrific family story can be conveyed. The narrative is told succinctly and eloquently, and without recourse to dramaticism. The author has enabled the telling of Marta's family history, which she discovered through a collection of letters, photos and documents kept by her aunt.

Marta had been aware of these but it took the lockdown during the covid pandemic to make her focus on them and familiarise herself with the lives endured by her parents.

Like so many people, following their internment in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen they did not want to talk about their experiences. They wanted to look to the future and not to the past, and so Marta had never been made aware of how they suffered in the concentration camps, and later in Soviet occupied Hungary.

Not only did they endue the horror meted out by the Nazi's in the concentration/death camps but on returning to their homeland they further endured anti-semitism, Soviet occupation and Stalinism.

However, the overriding thing I took away from this book is that the Seillet's were not victims but survivors, and anyone who reads this book will be inspired by the way in which they were able to move forward whilst dealing with such a traumatic past.

NetGalley, Anna Elliott

ARTICLE: 'My mother never talked of her time in Auschwitz but now I know that love kept her alive'

Sunday Mirror

ARTICLE: Letters of love and survival

Highlight: 'Timed to be released just after Holocaust Memorial Day... this book also talks about a much-less talked about subject: rediscovering Jewish Identity.'

Maidenhead Advertiser

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Surviving the Holocaust and Stalin is a harrowing, heart shattering and deeply emotive true story about a Hungarian Jewish family, the Seilers. Marta, daughter of Lajos and Izabella Seiler, decided that the world needs to hear this and other stories about the horrors of this time in history, barbarism of both Hitler and Stalin. She translated her family letters and told her story to journalist and author Vanessa Holburn. While difficult to read, it is extremely important to keep these stories alive as few Holocaust survives remain. The photographs are moving, personal and touching and documents very interesting.

The Seilers and other Hungarian Jews were relentlessly persecuted, humiliated, degraded, tortured and killed. Hungary unfortunately introduced anti-Semitic laws to their own people. Nearly half of the Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian and most were killed in ten weeks. Chilling.
Instead of liberating, the Red Army occupied Hungary and life for Jews continued in misery.

Marta's family documents, research, interviews and personal stories brought tears to my eyes. What they suffered is incomprehensible. If only this book was compulsory to every single person. The lipstick story is beautiful yet pitiful. The sawdust potato peel "bread" and other details are tragic and beyond sad. But what stands out is the outlook of the Seilers. They were resourceful, determined and incredibly courageous. Those who weren't killed reinvented themselves and remarkably lived in hope.

History readers of the Holocaust, please do not miss this.

NetGalley, Brenda Carleton

Reading Surviving the Holocaust and Stalin was like reading lost family journals. Although I do wish they were in order by year of my attention span, this book helped me understand the reality of these survivors truly faced upon returning home. Also the generational trauma the holocaust caused.

NetGalley, Lisa Berard

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What an amazing story, pieced together, about a family and their survival. How this family dealt with the horrible tragedies they encountered and still found a way to survive. Incredible history and amazing stories here.

NetGalley, Danielle Dudley

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

‘She knows the first step is answering the phone’

Surviving the Holocaust and Stalin is an incredible narrative of an entire family surviving and thriving throughout this terrible period. Vanessa Holburn’s writing allows you to read with empathy, laugh with the Seiler family and cry. A narrative for those who know very little about Hungarian history and those who know lots, all will enjoy and come out with a new insight to the effects of two dictatorships in a small amount of time.

‘The older generation didn’t want to talk about what had happened in places such as Auschwitz because they wanted to move on with a future, not stay rooted in the past’

The story of the Seiler family showcases this view tremendously- Izabella protected her entire family from the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and it wasn’t until her death Marta was able to learn more about herself and her community. Living through the Covid pandemic allowed Marta Seiler to spend time going through all the letters, postcards and diary entries piecing together her family tree. Translating documents from Hungarian and German into English. Understanding and tracing back events and places. Reminding herself of events in her own lifetime that seemed insignificant when she was younger. Without covid it is unlikely we would hear and learn from this family’s story.

A narrative of strength ‘Surviving the Holocaust and Stalin’ is a must read for enthusiasts of European History, social history, local history and those who want to understand more about people’s experiences during the Holocaust and the Communist Takeover of Eastern Europe.

To end this review I want to leave you with one sentence from Izabella: ‘although she would never forget her given number, she began to believe she was something other than G/01848154.’ The pen is mightier than the sword and by understanding and reading these histories we can improve the world.

NetGalley, Sharn Giddings

As featured in -

In and Around Twyford

No matter how many of these type books I read, I am always shocked, angry, and saddened by the stories they tell.

In this story, we learn of the Hungarian Jews and their treatment before during and after World War 2. The Seiler family's woes were explored and from their treatments, we learn the horrors of Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen. As if that was enough their homeland is taken over by the Communist rule where things got measurably worse for all those considered to be Jews.

This book is a memoir made up basically of letters that came into the possession of Marta Seiler, whose mother Izabella Seiler, father Lajos allow us to follow a timeline of events from the mid thirties until the present day. Filled with tragedy, they convey a sense of resiliency, courage and inner triumph against insurmountable odds. Through all of this, Marta is able to find her Jewishness, reestablish her identity and move forward in a world where Jews once again will triumph and survive. (although It makes me nervous whenever there is any anti Jew sentiments and deed expressed)

This story delves into hard lives, and loves that are left behind and lives that become shattered as families are wiped out or have only one remaining person. How do people carry on, but certainly through this and other stories of this ilk, we see that they do.

Marta today has not only found her faith but also has moved to a place of peace while encouraging tolerance. She has a proud heritage and I for one am glad she was able to get her word into press through telling her story to Vanessa Holburn.

NetGalley, Marialyce Weinreich

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This was an awesome history memoir. Very well written and researched. Highly recommend to anyone who loves a good history read.

NetGalley, Hannah Knight

About Vanessa Holburn

This is the fourth book by journalist and author Vanessa Holburn. Her titles cover historical and modern day political topics and she was recently part of a law-changing campaign that took her to Number 10.
Vanessa’s written work has appeared in national newspapers including The Telegraph, The Daily Express, The Mirror and The Sun, and magazines such as Private Eye, Fabulous, Bella and Woman’s Own. She has appeared on radio and television, and spoken on podcasts and at literary festivals, libraries, universities and museums.

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