How would you feel if, at age seventeen, the government removed you from school, evicted you from your home, looted your bank account and took all of your family's possessions? How would you feel if ruthless police prevented your parents from working and then deported you and your loved ones to a prison camp run by brutal taskmasters? How would you feel if you suddenly lost contact with everyone that you know and love? How would you feel if you were sent to the most frightening place in history, and then forced to perform unspeakable acts of horror in order to remain alive?
Jacob's Courage is a tender coming of age love story of two young adults living in Salzburg at the time when the Nazi war machine enters Austria. This historical novel explores the dazzling beauty of passionate love and enduring bravery in a lurid world where the innocent are brutally murdered. From desperate despair, to unforgettable moments of chaste beauty, Jacob’s Courage examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality.
This is the story of an Austrian Jewish family's experience during World War II. The protagonists are seventeen year-old Jacob Silverman and his lover, Rachael Goldman. Jacob’s childhood is magnificent, in every way. He has a very close and affectionate relationship with his father, a warm and loving physician named Moshe. In 1939, Jacob is deeply in love with Rachael Goldberg, the daughter of Moshe’s colleague. She has swept him completely off his feet. Jacob prepares to study medicine, as his father had done before him. Yet, he cannot bear to leave Rachael, the love of his life. With Rachael, life is beautiful and promising, the future enticing.
One night, Jacob has an incredibly vivid and realistic nightmare, in which he is forced to feed the dead bodies of Jews into a gigantic inferno. In the dream, he is killed by an SS guard. Greatly disturbed by this ghastly vision, and influenced by his father, Jacob begins to believe that he will have an important role to play in the future. Jacob reaches the conclusion that he will one day be responsible for saving innocent people.
Jacob and Rachael explore their burgeoning love, while conditions surrounding them steadily deteriorate. From their beautiful existence in majestic Salzburg, the lovers and their families slowly lose everything – their homes, jobs, school, money, possessions and finally their liberty. Moved from ghetto to ghetto, starvation and disease take a heavy toll. One by one, family members fall victim to the horror. Life became a disaster, but love never falters. Jacob and Rachael are soul mates, inseparable, devoted and faithful. The depth of their passion and their commitment to Judaism is explored during their secret wedding ceremony inside the concentration camp called Theresienstadt.
Consider gentle and kind Moshe, burdened by guilt for failing to move his family out of danger while time permitted. He descends into a morass of depression. Moshe continues to practice medicine in the camps. But the tools of his trade and medicines are denied him by his Nazi tormentors. Finally, in Auschwitz, Moshe is asked to perform medical experiments on prisoners by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
Experience an awakening in Jacob as he takes violin lessons from some of the greatest musicians of Europe inside Theresienstadt. Feel the frustration when Rachael and Jacob are paraded in front of the Red Cross, in a grand deception. Rachael is brutally raped by the cruel camp commandant. Consider her misery when she soon discovers that she is pregnant.
Feel the exhilaration of a daring escape from Theresienstadt through a tunnel that could collapse at any moment. Run with Jacob and Rachael as they join the Czech and Polish partisans and participate in military missions against the Nazis. Witness the anguish as Jacob is shot, recaptured and tortured by the Gestapo for information. His untreated leg wound never heals properly, leaving him crippled for life.
Although hundreds of miles apart, Jacob and Rachael have simultaneous dreams in which they walk on beautiful mountains overlooking a strange desert that is green with bountiful agriculture on one side and barren on the other. Their handsome dark-haired child walks with them as they gaze upon the extraordinary land that calls out to them. The meaning of the dream escapes Jacob and Rachel. But its importance is never far from their thoughts.
Rachael’s baby is born in Poland, where friends of the partisans protect them. She is driven there during a terrifying snowstorm by Anton, leader of the partisans. Anton is deeply in love with Rachael. She resists his advances with all of her might. For Rachael, there will never be another love besides Jacob. She is obsessed with rescuing Jacob and his parents. Rachael and Anton trudge through the storm, escaping the Gestapo at every turn. Anton protects her fearlessly. Experience Rachael’s terror when Anton is critically wounded at a military checkpoint. Believeing him dead, she is forced to abandon his body and drive on to Poland by herself. On the way, she goes into rapid and painful labor.
Rachael’s baby is born in a Polish hospital. He has blonde hair and blue eyes, bearing a strong resemblance to the evil Theresienstadt commandant. At first, Rachael despises the child. Later, she grows to love him. Anton made arrangements to have a Jewish family, the Levins, care for the baby, as Rachael rejoins the partisans. Sol and Freda Levin, hiding in a farmhouse from the Gestapo, swear to protect the child with their own lives. Their devotion to Rachael and the baby is unquestioned. Weeks later, the Gestapo arrives, torturing and murdering all of them, including the baby. Ironically, they murder the child of the German commandant.
Jacob and his parents are deported from Theresienstadt. Ride the crowded, fetid train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Jacob’s mother is immediately selected for “special treatment.” Reflect on the dilemma of Jacob’s father, a physician asked to participate in medical experiments with the mendacious Dr. Mengele. Moshe provides his own rebellion, at the cost of his life.
Jacob slides toward death from starvation, disease and his terrible leg injury. Yet, he is driven by the premonition that God has a plan for him to lead a rebellion. In Auschwitz, Jacob befriends many prisoners and kapos. They help him to collect data and photographs proving the terrifying Nazi criminal acts. Jacob manages to get the documents to the Allies through Rachael. In the process, his close friend Paul is killed, protecting the information and saving Rachael’s life.
Even while separated by hundreds of miles, Jacob and Rachael continue to have identical, repeated dreams. They walk on a silent mountainside with a beatiful young boy who is their son. His long, dark curls flow out behind as he races around his parents in joy. Somehow, they know that they have been made whole and happy, in a land that belongs to them. Gazing down, they see green, cultivated fields filled with luscious crops on one side, with brown, barren desert on the other side. The wind whips aroud them, breaking the stoic silence of the mountain. Suddenly the moutain is shaken by the crashing of artillery from on top. Far below, in a tiny agricultural settlement, a puff of smoke marks the explosion.
Like ants flowing from a disturbed antill, people run for cover in the far distance. The attack continues, as the frightened child runs to Jacob and Rachel with tears in his eyes. Who is attacking their beautiful home? Each night, the dream is repeated. But, where is this place? Why is it repeatedly attacked?
Jacob joins the Auschwitz orchestra. His ability to play violin saves his life, temporarily. But the psychological toll is horrific. Day after day, he plays for the long queue, waiting their turn for the gas chamber. He begins to have new nightmares, haunted by the faces of the innocent children, waiting for an underserved, premature death.
Jacob's obsession about saving innocent prisoners deepens. Is it his imagination? Or, is it a message from God? Jacob feels compelled to lead a rebellion against the brutal Nazi guards. But why has this vision been placed in his head?
Finally, when the orchestra is no longer needed, Jacob becomes Sonderkommando. His horrid dream from five years earlier comes to fruition, as Jacob is forced to push the dead bodies of recently killed Jewish prisoners into the crematoria fire. The horrid vision, implanted years ago in a terrifying nightmare, has become reality.
In January 1945, Russian troops draw near to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Surviving prisoners are force-marched into the frozen countryside. Without coats, hats, gloves and shoes, the prisoners soon begin to perish. The innocent prisoners of Auschwitz are exposed to a brutal, frigid winter, with no protection. Frostbite and hypothermia run rampant. Every prisoner who falls is shot. Jacob manages to stay on his feet, but he is forced to watch as hundreds of innocent survivors are shot, one after another. The icy temperatures cut deep into his bones. He cannot feel his extremities. Jacob's fingers and toes turn into a black morass of dead tissue and chronic pain.
The survivors are forced onto a train. Many cars have no roof. The frigid January wind plummets down upon them. Many more Holocaust victims die. Still, Jacob remains alive. The train stops in Austria, Jacob’s home country. Weighing little more than half his prior weight, Jacob has very little strength remaining. Still, Jacob is convinced that God has a plan for him to lead a prisoner rebellion.
As the survivors are marched from the train station through Bratislava, Austrian civilians are repelled, as though the survivors had Leprosy. They abandon nearby urban sidewalks as though death itself eminated from the Auschwitz prisoners. Finally, in the countryside, Jacob spots his location – the scene God had implanted in his mind. The sleeping leader finally awakens.
The emaciated survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau are guarded by the worst of the SS - untrained youth and frail old men. Despite losing half their number during the long, bitter march through the glacial countryside, the survivors have a ten to one superiority in numbers. On Jacob’s command, they use it to incapacitate the SS and confiscate their weapons. They also commandeer a truck filled with rifles, grenades, mortars and ammunition.
Jacob creates a military bunker inside a nearby cave, which he had also seen in his dreams. Thanks to his military training with the partisans, Jacob, becomes a powerful and compelling leader. His men proudly fight to the death for him. Being mostly Jewish, they call themselves the "First Brigade of the Fighters of Israel". For more than three days, the starving band of gaunt Auschwitz survivors defeat wave after wave of German army attacks.
Jacob’s epiphany that he was God’s instrument comes to fruition with frightening clarity. Like the biblical Jacob, his dreams were prophetic visions of the future. In a modern-day David and Goliath tale, Jews battle Nazis. A survivor paints two blue horizontal stripes on a pure white cloth with a Star of David in the center. He ties it to a pole and raises the flag that would one day represent the State of Israel.
Will Jacob and Rachael survive? Will they ever see the beautiful dark-haired child and the distant mountainside that called to them in dreams? Read Jacob's Courage to find out.
Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, Jacob’s Courage