The Forgotten Holocaust details a lost but important chapter from the history books. The debut novel by travel writer, Caroline P. Cooper is about a group of people who are not often associated with life at Auschwitz. They are the Romani or gypsies who – like the Jews – were persecuted, punished and lost their lives at the concentration camps in World War II.

This book is a fictional tale based on historic events and facts. The story involves three different generations of characters and is set in England, continental Europe and Australia. It is a sad and dark narrative fraught with human emotion and drama where the imagery is quite stark and confronting.

We are introduced to Gil Webb as a rough, young gypsy boy who can live off the land or in the trees, if he so desires. After the war starts he is employed and trained for surveillance work by some non-gypsies. From here, he travels to Holland to carry out a series of top-secret projects with a Dutch Romani named Wim van Haar.

The pair are soon captured and sent to Auschwitz. It’s a place full of horror and confusion as they encounter a sympathetic Nazi who will take risks for starving prisoners. At the same time there are also fellow gypsies who will denounce their brothers just to survive, while the camp’s physician kills and tortures his patients in the same day he’ll whistle, sing and hand out lollies to the children. It is mad.

Webb survives the concentration camp in a series of extraordinary circumstances and eventually looks to make a new life for himself and his new bride in Australia. It’s a good enough life but this bubble bursts when his granddaughter Lily unearths some family secrets and encounters a mysterious stranger who in turn looks set to challenge the family on multiple levels. The two stories intertwine through a series of flashbacks to the war and life in present-day Sydney.

The story is a confronting tale of the persecution of the gypsy under-dogs and is at times reminiscent of a Bryce Courtney book. The second part of the novel about Gil’s granddaughter Lily is a much lighter affair that actually verges on being a fluffy piece of chick literature. This latter part is not unlike a book by Nicholas Sparks, as it details this young woman’s romantic quests.

The two halves are very different in texture- one is sheer horror while the other is a domestic work/life scenario and this means it can be jarring at times to jump between these two very different periods. But the key here is in the story and the telling, because the execution redeems the proceedings and stops it from being completely drowned in the past’s sorrows and prevents the present from becoming too throwaway.

The Romani people sure are some amazing individuals. Their strength of character, humour in hard circumstances and sheer persistence at the face of adversity are so admirable. The Forgotten Holocaust is therefore an interesting account that celebrates these people and captures the essence of their powerful spirits and their strong sense of pride in themselves, their culture and shared history. The novel is a compelling read about a rich cast of characters that will shine a light on an important part of history, and one that should not be consigned to those back book shelves any longer.

Originally published on 27 December 2012 at the following website:

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