The Seventh Well

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(323)

Fred Wander, Granta, £12.99

This a powerful and harrowing collection of memories from Fred Wander's life spent in 20 different Nazi camps in France, Poland and Germany from 1942 to 1945. But the author's constant avowal of the humanity of those whose stories he tells sustains the reader.

In The Drowned and the Saved Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi describes the shame accompanying the survivors' rule where only number one counts: "I come first, second and third. Then nothing, then again I; and then all the others." Wander's experience is less dehumanising. He finds himself in work gangs where, despite being treated like animals, individuals manage to maintain the dignity that goes with sometimes being able to help someone else.

We have these stories, set among endless deaths, most from the unremitting harshness of work in conditions of cold and hunger, some more chillingly terrifying, and all in the shadow of the creeping knowledge of the gas chambers, because Wander remembers them.

The Seventh Well is about real people and events, their stories filtered through Wander's memory into this fictional account. Despite not having been written down until 1971 the episodes are enriched by Wander's need to understand individuals' feelings, behaviour and thoughts. You trust him when he quotes poetry or the Bible that this is the very passage that this particular intellectual, or Jew, or Jehovah's Witness, recounted in the camp at the time and you feel how these passages served to lift their morale, momentarily.

Primo Levi noticed that those more likely to survive were the believers and the politicals. Neither Levi nor Wander were these, but you get a sense from both of a drive to know others.

Wander writes beautifully, with the concentrated meaning and sparseness of a poet. A mix of natural beauty and man-made horror disturbs his memories: "The toxic white puffs of smoke on the naked bodies"; "The sun hid behind veils of haze that glowed a milky red and then lilac, like the cheeks of our consumptive brothers."

Some chapters do not focus on death. In the French town of Perpignan, before the transports, there is hope, singing, even love. In another, the Jewish quarters of a European city are conjured up. De Groot, a bourgeois, recalls the "truffled veal chops" of a previous existence. And in the last chapters, while the forced marches take a terrible death toll, we are near the end of the war, the Nazis shelter from the air-raids and the prisoners watch Allied planes cross the skies.

Wander himself said elsewhere, "It's not possible to say anything about so many millions of dead. But three or four individuals, it might be possible to tell a story about." He has done this and we understand a little bit more.