Maria Gascon, of Holy Rosary Church in Portland, has written a memoir that describes her life in Nazi concentration camps. 
Maria Gascon, of Holy Rosary Church in Portland, has written a memoir that describes her life in Nazi concentration camps. 
Warning —This review contains graphic descriptions not suitable for younger readers.

Maria Gascon witnessed unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Nazis. Parents were forced to watch as doctors cut open their children and removed internal organs, all without anesthesia. Those who refused to observe were shot on the spot. Weakened prisoners were buried alive in large piles.  

Gascon, an 84-year-old member of Holy Rosary Parish in Portland, tells the stories her memoir, Maria: A Tale of Hope, Faith and Forgiveness. (Guardian, 19.95, 112 pages 1-800-238-6376, ext. 7575, or [email protected])

The book is just as graphic in its stories of goodness and forgiveness.

More detailed than a previous memoir, Maria includes details of Gascon’s happy childhood along the River Slovechna in Soviet-controlled Ukraine. After she was born in Poland in about 1930 (records are lost), the Haluschkewych family moved to homestead a large farm. Gascon recalls picking blueberries, taking care of geese with pride and helping a disabled child learn to swim. She picked apples and danced at harvest parties. When her mother was not looking, impish Maria fed her unwanted breakfast to the horse.

But many of Gascon’s childhood stories include a dark element — snakes near the berries, almost drowning during a day of swimming, a “creepy man” watching her as she played. It all foreshadows the tragedies to come.

Childhood ended for Gascon in 1937, when Stalin’s secret police arrested her father and other farmers because they opposed collectivism.

The memoir is a primary source of a little-known period in Ukraine. Religion was forbidden, but the Haluschkewych children secretly read Catholic books. Maria loved the faith and memorized the Our Father. Later, churches would re-open under Nazi control.
But mostly, when Nazi forces attacked Ukraine and Russia at the start of World War II, things got worse. Maria’s teachers, all Jewish, were marched away. Some villagers were rounded up into a barn, which the soldiers barred and then torched.

Amid pitched battles between Nazis and Soviets, the retreating Germans took pre-teen Maria and her mother to the first of four concentration camps in Poland and Germany where they would spend four years as prisoners.   

Gascon had learned German as a young child. That saved her as she was pressed into service in the kitchens that served Nazi officers. With an inside post, she begged for the lives of prisoners, including her mother’s. But she held no away when she was forced to work in the medical experimentation room at Auschwitz, where she saw just how awful humans can be.

As the war went on, she was forced to fend off soldiers who wanted to rape her and saw her brothers sent away, never to be seen again. But all the while, she saw small kindnesses and blessings, like the warm blanket a German farm woman secretly gave her.

She recalls 1945 and the sound of American planes and bombs in the days before