Hidden Valley Road – Book Review

By: Robert Kolker

“…for almost as long, Donald has consistently and unwaveringly maintained that he is, in fact, the offspring of an octopus.”

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker is a true story of a post-world war II family, the Galvin’s, living in Colorado, USA. Through the Galvin family, the reader sees the advancement of mental health research in America’s medical community, beginning in the 1950s and progressing to the modern-day. Six of the twelve children in the Galvin family get diagnosed with varying levels of schizophrenia. This number of diagnoses within one family is extremely rare, and therefore they become the primary test family for mental health research in America. 

“As she walked through the door of the house at Hidden Valley Road, she couldn’t help but recognize a perfect sample. This could be the most mentally ill family in America.”

Kolker dives into the story of the Galvin family, hearing first-hand accounts of what life was like growing up as a Galvin, watching members of your family “lose their minds.” Diary entries, first-hand interviews, medical records and community research are used to piece together who the Galvin’s were. He explores the children’s childhood, Mimi and Don’s marriage, and even the paternal and maternal family history. By the end of the book, you have a clear understanding of who the Galvin family were and how they live their lives today. Kolker writes this book with such vivid detail that it is sometimes hard to believe that this isn’t a work of fiction.  

“At the heart of Jung’s objection was the question of the nature of delusional mental illness: Is schizophrenia something you’re born with, a physical affliction of the brain? Or is it acquired in life, after one has become scarred somehow by the world?”

I was a bit worried about how difficult it would be to read and comprehend the scientific medical information that Kolker would inevitably include in his book about mental health. This is where I believe Kolker deserves the most praise. He includes detailed and complex information about mental health research written in such a simplistic way to allow everyone to understand the information regardless of scientific background. In each of those chapters, I learned something new about mental health and understood the medical advancements he discusses. These sections are very well done, leaving the reader feeling enthusiastic with the scientific progression and, at times, disappointed with the research results. I hope that there will be a follow-up book after twenty years showing more advancements in mental health.

“One of the consequences of surviving schizophrenia for fifty years is that sooner or later, the cure becomes as damaging as the disease.”

There were a few topics that Kolker explores that really affected me. At the beginning of the book, it was clear that when the Galvin’s first son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1960s, the medical community had few answers for them. Additionally, it seemed that the doctors were blaming mental illness solely on mothers. As a mother myself, I know what it feels like to continuously wonder if I am making the right decisions for my child. This is a feeling I think most mothers feel. I believe mothers from the 1960s would have also had these same thoughts. Now, after doing the best they can, these mothers are being told by a room full of mostly men (if not all men) that they have concluded that there is a correlation between mothers and children who develop a mental illness. Mimi, the mother in the Galvin family, was devastated by this accusation and challenged it relentlessly whenever doctors would discuss it with her. As far as she was concerned, she did everything in her power to raise her children right, committing no different acts than other mothers. My heart broke for Mimi thinking about how she felt during this time. This type of “mom blaming” continues later on when a woman in the medical community chooses to continue her studies after having children; Lynn DeLisi is told by her medical peers that this choice could cause her children to develop mental health problems. DeLisi challenges those conclusions, asking for proof. However, the researchers could give no evidence; these conclusions were, in fact, unresearched and anecdotal. The doctors were merely stating opinions, not researched facts. What mothers like Mimi and DeLisi would have experienced during this time is unimaginable but women like DeLisi challenged the medical community and eventually debunked these theories. I think mothers everywhere owe her a debt of gratitude.  

“And so I was crushed,” Mimi said. “Because I thought I was such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.”

Unfortunately, this was not the only time I felt disappointed by the medical community. There were many examples in the book where companies were more interested in the monetary benefits of the medical research than the possitive results. Time and time again, we see funding for mental health diminishing; we see private for-profit organizations choosing to shelf necessary research because the monetary benefits were not high enough. There were some medical advancements made that needed to be halted because of these reasons, and that is truly devastating for families who are in desperate need of support for their mentally ill family members. 

“The National Institute of Mental Health spends only $4.3 million on fetal prevention research, all of it for studies in mice, from its yearly $1.4 billion budget,” Freedman noted recently. “Yet half of young school shooters have symptoms of developing schizophrenia.”

Lastly, the repercussions of the stigma on mental health are shown clearly in the “well” children’s accounts. Since Mimi and Don tried to hide what their family was experiencing in fear of what people would say, the children who were not affected by mental illness underwent many challenging times. Often these children did not understand or could not comprehend what was happening to their siblings. These same children couldn’t separate appropriate behaviours from inappropriate ones, and unfortunately, their parents were providing little insight into what was happening. Although I initially wanted to blame Mimi and Don for these experiences, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose everyone around you, even your closest family members, at your most vulnerable time. This reaffirms the importance of breaking the stigma towards mental illness.

“When you don’t find a sense of love and belonging where you are, you go searching for it somewhere else.”

I believe this book is one of the most essential reads of our generation. Hidden Valley Road teaches the reader about mental health, early detection methods, the effects on families and how to treat and care for the mentally ill. For years people with mental health were stigmatized and ostracized, which isolated the most vulnerable people in our society. Kolker shows his reader the importance of supporting families who experience these illnesses. This book has impacted me in many ways, and I recommend that others read it. 

“Our relationships can destroy us, but they can change us, too, and restore us, and without us ever seeing it happen, they define us. We are human because the people around us make us human.”


My COVID Lockdown Booklist

As a new year begins, the hopes of a new beginning away from COVID is slowly diminishing. In Switzerland, where I live, we enter into our 3rd week in lockdown, with three more weeks to go. One way I plan on passing the time is by reading some of the unopened books I still have on my shelf. I decided to make a list of all the books I want to read during this time. I’m hoping it will give me something to look forward to each week and help get me through this lockdown!

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by: Christy Lefteri

This book caught my attention because of its connection to current events, specifically the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe. Over the last couple of years, we have been watching heartbreaking scenes of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria for Europe. This book tries to put a face to this crisis by writing about a fictional Syrian family and their refugee story. The family decides to leave Syria after the war has already begun; they embark on a dangerous journey to freedom, trekking through many of the same escape routes Syrian families are all too familiar with. I’m sure this will be a very captivating story and shed light on the struggles refugees worldwide experience.

What Alice Forgot by: Liane Moriarty

Many friends and family have continuously recommended this book, so I have finally decided to add it to my list. This story is about the effects of memory loss and piecing together a life that is unrecognizable. It is slightly different from the type of books I usually read, but lockdown is a great time to explore some new genres!

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by: Heather Morris

This book has been on my book list for many years, but every time I think about opening it, I wonder if I am truly ready for the emotional roller coaster I know this book will embark on. However, recently I read another book by Heather Morris, called Cilka’s Journey, and I loved it. It was definitely emotionally tormenting but, I am very glad I read it. So I decided I needed to give The Tattooist of Auschwitz a read.

A Promised Land by: Barack Obama

I haven’t read a biography in a long time, and I find myself craving to read one. Since American politics has been a focal point in world news recently, I found it only fitting to add A Promised Land by Barack Obama to my book list. Whether you agree with his politics or not, you cannot argue his presidency’s historical significance and wonder how he got there.

What does your lockdown booklist look like?


The Happy Ever After Playlist- Book Review

Author: Abby Jimenez

“You can’t control the bad things that happen to you. All you can do is decide how much of you you’re going to let them take.”

I want to start by saying that The Happy Ever After Playlist, by Abby Jimenez, is actually the second book of a series.  However, I didn’t know this when I started reading it; I only realized it after I had finished the book.  The Friend Zone is the first book in the series but, The Happy Ever After Playlist can definitely stand alone.  Zero knowledge of The Friend Zone is needed to read this story.

I picked this book up from the bookstore because I felt it was time to read a lighthearted, fun, romantic book that would make me smile.  This book did just that.  My last few books had been pretty dramatic, serious and emotional, so this was a welcomed break. 

What is this book about?

The main character, Sloan Monroe, is trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her fiance suddenly died in a motorcycle accident two years ago.  The first book gives the excruciating details of the accident and the hospital scene; in this book, you are left to imagine how terrible this experience would have been for Sloan.  I, for one, am very glad I didn’t have to read about those details.  This story is focused more on how Sloan will help herself move on from this loss and bring happiness back into her life.

One day as Sloan was driving and stopped at a stoplight, a dog (which we later find out is named Tucker) ran into her car, causing quite a big scene.  Once Sloan pulled off the road with this dog, she tried to look for the owner but could not find anyone that knew the dog.  She decided to bring the dog home and care for it until she could locate the owner.  Little did she know this encounter would change her life.  Tucker brought so much energy into Sloan’s life, and you begin to see Sloan coming out of her depressed shell while trying to care for this dog.  Eventually, we find out the dog owner is a man named Jason, who is currently in Australia for work.  Sloan and Jason begin speaking over the phone, at first only concerning Tucker, but gradually, they find themselves more interested in learning about one another.  Jason is the first man that Sloan finds herself crushing on since she lost her fiancé.  This is how their romance begins.   The beginning of their relationship is exciting and playful, everything a new relationship should be.  Eventually, as they start to fall more into one another, their relationship becomes a serious love affair filled with dramatic ups and downs, especially once Sloan realizes that Jason is an up and coming musician.

My thoughts on the book…

This is an enjoyable, lighthearted romance novel.  You know the characters will fall for one another right from the beginning, but the turns and twists it takes along the way are pretty surprising.  I also really loved Sloan’s character; I was always rooting for her.  I truly wanted her to find happiness, whether it was with Jason or in her own life.  I think the character development of Sloan was the best part of this story.  You watch her struggle in the beginning to find a way to move on with her life after her sudden heartbreak, then slowly see her trying to put happiness back into her life.  I liked that even though Jason had a big part in helping her move on from her loss, Sloan individually worked on how she could better herself and move on from her tragic story.  When she finally gets back into the hobbies she loves, it is genuinely heartwarming. She began as a fractured love hurt young women and grew into an independent artist who woke up every day prioritizing her happiness. 

Jason’s character I fell in love with right from the beginning, I think most women would.  He was incredibly charming, flirtatious, kind and caring.  He knew what Sloan had gone through and approached it perfectly.  He always put her happiness at the forefront of his life, which is something every woman deserves.  His character definitely hit many women’s fantasies of falling in love with a beautiful famous singer.

This book was a very enjoyable read; I especially loved the ending.  This is a perfect book to lift your spirits and make you feel so warm inside. The songs Jimenez included before each chapter really represented the feelings you experience when reading that chapter, and I thought that was a unique twist to this romance novel.   Whenever I would read this book throughout my day, I was instantly in a better mood and really, what more could you want from a book?

A little bit about the author…

Abby Jimenez is the author of The Friend Zone and The Happy Ever After Playlist. Jimenez is also a famous baker who has won many Food Network Competitions. She first showed off her literary skills through comments on her baking page: Nadia Cakes. She has a new book coming out in spring 2021 called Life’s Too Short.


The Age of Light – Book Review

This book is an interesting work of fiction because its main characters are based on real people. Parts of their lives have been put together by the author, Whitney Scharer’s, imagination. I didn’t know this until I had completed the book and began to do some research into the author. I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of reimagining peoples lives but, many of Scharer’s readers seemed to like it.

A little bit about the book…

The book begins in 1966 in England with the main character, Lee Miller and her husband Roland, living in the countryside. At the time, Miller is writing cooking pieces for Vogue. She writes about her cooking methods and photographs each step of her cooking process. This is where it becomes evident that Lee Miller is a skilled photographer. Miller is very unhappy in her current life, and you even begin to wonder, because of her attitude and drinking, if she has always been unhappy?

As the first part of the book continues, we are introduced to many new characters, including her editor at Vogue, Audrey Withers. Withers asks Miller to write a new piece focusing on her time in Paris working with the famous photographer, Man Ray. Immediately Miller refuses but quickly realizes that she doesn’t have much choice if she wants to continue working for Vogue. Miller lists some stipulations for the piece and then accepts.

It is at this point that Miller began her story, beginning in Paris 1929. She moves to Paris to begin her photography career and eventually meets and falls in love with Man Ray. This romance is a whirlwind from the very beginning. Man Ray was much older than Lee Miller, which isn’t surprising once you understand the relationship Miller has with her father. She begins her career as Man Ray’s assistant, learning from his photography skills to help her own future career. However, as their romance begins and while she continues to be Man Ray’s assistant, she begins to fear her own photography career is becoming secondary to Man Ray. It also becomes clear that their relationship was turning destructive. As the relationship grew, Ray became much more controlling, and his obsession with Miller becomes very concerning. For these reasons and many others, the love story in the book didn’t captivate me.

Scharer also includes short stories about Miller’s childhood. Miller experienced a very traumatic sexual assault when she was very young, by a trusted family member. This event, plus her parents’ reactions to the event, I believe, impacts the way Miller views most of her sexual encounters. I also felt like this experience influenced her relationship with Man Ray. Showing how these traumatic events hurt the victims for almost their entire lives.

Would I recommend the book?

Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy this book. I didn’t find myself connecting with the main character Lee Miller. I also felt there was no closure with this book’s ending, and I found myself wondering what the book was really about? Scharer also included information about Miller’s life during World War II and those events were never really connected to her current life or to her life in Paris. In the end, I wasn’t sure why they were even included. The ending provided no closure to Miller’s current life and her obvious unhappiness.

Overall I don’t think I would recommend this book to my peers but, if you disagree or have additional comments to my review comment below!


Self Love Club Volume 2 – A Book Chat

I haven’t fully finished reading Self Love Club Volume 2 yet.  However, I wanted to write this post anyway because this book is a collaboration of stories written by different women, focusing on their journey to self-love. Books like this, in my opinion, do not need to be read in one sitting.  I plan on picking up the book and reading different chapters from time to time. 

A very good friend of mine wrote one of the chapters of this book, Lisa Freeman. Freeman writes about her experiences as a first time mother. Her beautiful daughter was born with health complications that resulted in an emotional couple of months in the NCIU after she was born. This was obviously a difficult time for her and I believe other mothers who are experiencing the same struggles would really find comfort in her story.

Freeman’s baby girl eventually does get to go home with her parents but the whole process was not at all what Lisa had always envisioned for her first baby. It is an incredible story of courage and resilience and I think it is important that women who encounter similar situations have stories like this to bring them comfort.

I hope you take the time to read this book!


Beautiful Bookstores of Switzerland

When I moved to Switzerland, one of the first things I did was visit all the bookstores near me. It was a bit intimidating at first knowing these stores would mostly (or only) sell German books but, I had to take a tour anyway. To my surprise and delight, many of the bookstores in the area sold English books! Most of the shops seem to be small family-run businesses in Switzerland, which added a layer of charm to these bookstores. 

Below are some of the small bookstores that I have explored around my home in Switzerland:

The Travel Book Shop

This is one of the most unique bookstores in Switzerland because it features one primary genre: Travel. From fiction to non-fiction, all the books in this store have to relate to travel. This shop also sells old and new maps of places all over the world. They have some antique maps on display that were quite beautiful.

Buchhandlung Beer & Co.

This bookstore is laid out more recognizably. Most of the aisles are coordinated between fiction and non-fiction. A small section near the back features English books. Once I began scanning the titles, I noticed pretty quickly that they were a bit different. I barely recognized any of them. It seems this shop focuses on books centred around Anthroposophy, a philosophy which was created in the 20th century by Rudolf Steiner. This would explain why the authors were not familiar to me. Beer & Co. is a fascinating shop to visit and explore.

Peter Bichsel Antiquariat/Peter Bichsel Fine Books

Visiting this bookstore is like stepping back into history. Peter Bichsel Fine Books sells fine/antique books. Some of them date back to the 15th century! As a history buff, this fascinates me. They look so delicate, fragile and exceptional. The old fashion step ladder in the center of the store added more charm to this little space. Although I do not dare touch any of the books, I explore each aisle and love viewing all the featured titles. This is a beautiful bookstore.

Pile of Books

Pile of Books is the only all English bookstore in Zurich (maybe all of Switzerland?). This shop features all the recognizable authors and bestsellers. For English speakers like myself, Pile of Books suits my needs the most, while also keeping the appeal of a small European bookstore.

Hirschmatt Buchhandlung

This bookstore has a fabulous selection of German books from all different genres. Their English section is pretty small, but they have an online store you can order from. Although this is a pretty small shop, they have managed to squeeze in many aisles. Hirschmatt offers the coziness of a small shop but with an extensive book catalogue.

What are some of your favourite bookstores?

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Beach Read – Book Review

By: Emily Henry

“…when the world felt dark and scary, love could whisk you off to go dancing; laughter could take some of the pain away; beauty could punch holes in your fear.  I decided then that my life would be full of all three.” (Henry, 3)

I want to start by saying I do not like the title of this book; it does not do this book justice AT ALL. I’m not sure why the author chose this title because it also doesn’t seem to connect to either character.  That being said, the title is literally the only negative thing I can say about this book.  Beach Read by Emily Henry was simply amazing. 

I came across this book at a local bookstore in Switzerland.  They had a small English section near the back.  I saw Beach Read perked up on display broadcasted as a new read.  I almost ignored it because of the title.  However, once I looked into the reviews, they were all fantastic! I was on a hunt for a funny, easy read, and this seemed to match perfectly.  I am so glad I picked up this book, it was exhilarating from beginning to end.

What is the book about?

This book centers around two characters, Augustus Everett (nicknamed Gus) and January Andrews. The book is narrated by January. It is set in the summertime in a small lake town called North Bear Shores.  Gus and January are both staying in cabins next door to one another.  January is visiting this cabin for the first time and stumbles upon her neighbour, Gus Everett.  January realizes that she recognizes her neighbour Gus from her college years, she remembers that he often was rude to her, but she always had a small crush on him.  She always felt like they competed with each other, even after college, when they became published authors.  When Gus and January first stumble upon each other outside of their cabins, their interaction does not go well.  Gus is visibly angry about something, and January is mad with the way he is speaking to her.

As time progresses, Gus and January find themselves continually running into each other; they realize later on that the town people may have had something to do with that.   They eventually form a friendship with one another, becoming more and more fond of each other.  Their relationship challenges both of them to come outside of themselves in different ways. This book is a story of grief, love, laughter and acceptance.  It is so much more than just a ‘rom-com’.

My review…

I think you can already tell how much I love this book.  The book made me cry, made me laugh and made me yearn for the characters to fall in love.  Henry’s writing is so detailed that although I knew these characters were not real, I found myself genuinely caring about them.  She shows how different these two characters are, but she also makes you feel like they belong together. The smart, sarcastic way the characters communicate is so entertaining.  The heartwarming story she forms around January and Gus is tantalizing.  As well, the father-daughter relationship that January is trying to figure out is heartbreaking. Simultaneously, the reader is trying to understand Gus’s tortured past with his father. I did not want this book to end; I was incredibly sad when it was over.  Emily Henry knows precisely how to captivate her audience. I had never read anything by Emily Henry before but, I have already ordered another one of her books!

More books by Emily Henry:

The Love that Split the World 
When the Sky Fell on Splendor 
A Million Junes
People we Meet on Vacation (will be released May 2021)


The Dutch House- Book Review

By: Ann Patchett

Why I chose to read this book…

I came across this book at multiple different bookstores and finally decided to pick it up. The book is very positively reviewed as well.

A little bit about the book…

The book centers around a large estate in Philadelphia nicknamed The Dutch House. The interior of the home is decorated with large painted portraits of past residents and covered with embellishments that are compared to the Palace of Versailles. The current inhabitants of The Dutch House are the Conroys. The book follows the brother and sister, Danny and Meave Conroy with Danny narrating their story.

Patchett chooses to divide The Dutch House into three parts.

Part one focuses on Danny and Meave’s childhood. Through their perspectives, readers get a glimpse into what it would have been like growing up in the Dutch House. It is clear that their father, Cyril, really loves this historic home, despite his family’s distaste for it. As years progress, Cyril moves on from his failed marriage with a woman named Andrea. When Andrea and her two daughters move into the home it becomes increasingly clear things in the Dutch House will be changing. Some catastrophic events follow for the Conroy family, and by the end of part one, the siblings have lost the Dutch House and need to rebuild their lives elsewhere.

Part two begins with Danny returning home from college for Thanksgiving. Home is now a small apartment that Maeve lives in. Patchett paints a clear picture of how the siblings live after leaving the Dutch House. Maeve has a steady job she likes, and Danny is studying in Medical School even though he doesn’t want to be a doctor. The siblings always feel an urge to go back and see the Dutch House and a couple times a year they choose to go see the house form a distance. Despite this, Danny’s life seems to move on from the house; he goes to school meets a woman, gets married and has children. In contrast, Meave’s life does not seem to change as the years pass. After a close encounter with Andrea, part two ends with the siblings vowing never to revisit the house.

Part three began with some trouble for Meave, which sent Danny into a whirlwind of emotions. This event also brings back an old family member that Danny isn’t ready to accept back into his life. Danny tries to figure out how to best deal with this returned family member as well as focus on being a good husband and father. The ending is quite moving and has a couple surprises.

The central theme of the book…

One of the most dominant messages of the book was the power of love. You see this in the relationships that are formed, kept and treasured among family and friends. The love that Maeve and Danny have for one another is a perfect example. We also see this with their love for their childhood nannies, for their father, and all the new characters throughout the book. The power of love is shown from the beginning of the book through to the end. The different relationships that are formed in the book are what interested me the most.

My thoughts on the book…

My overall thoughts are that it is a good story about the lives of two siblings and their broken family. Ann Patchett is a skilled writer and makes the characters of her book come to life. However, I did find the book a bit predictable, which didn’t allow for much excitement or intrigue. It also seemed that Patchett added a bit too many unnecessary details that made the book a bit too long.

Other books by the Author:
The Patron Saint of Liars
The Magician’s Assistant
Bel Canto
Run
State of Wonder
Commonwealth


Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader – Book Review

By: Matt Qvortrup

For some time now I have been looking for a biography written about Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. Merkel has interested me for many years and I believe she is an incredible role model for women. Regardless of where you stand politically seeing a women lead one of the largest economies in the world is an incredible thing. After a couple weeks of research I chose, Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader by Matt Qvortrup to learn more about this inspirational woman.

The beginning of this book logically began with Angela Merkel’s childhood, which I really enjoyed reading about. I was shocked to hear that her family moved from West Germany to East Germany. A move that many questioned, especially since Angela’s father was a minister and communism frowned upon religion. She was asked to volunteer with various communist organization, which she obliged because to decline the offer would mean no possibility of being accepted into university. She did as she was told in order to avoid any scrutiny from government officials, she knew she and her family were always being watched. She gets accepted to university and begins to study physics, eventually completing her doctorate in quantum chemistry. These are just a few of the Merkel’s accomplishments.

Eventually the book progresses to her political life, exploring how she initially got into politics and how she made her way up the ranks. The book also explores the difficulties she faced as a woman politician during that time. Showing, even more, how impressive her progression in the political sphere really was. Qvortrup also explores her Chancellorship, focusing on her accomplishments and her disappointments.

Unfortunately, once the book got to Merkel’s political career, the book was a bit hard to get through.  The author gave too many details on the specifics of the political world of Germany.  As someone who is not from Germany, I was a bit confused, it just seemed the author moved too far away from the main topic.  At this point in the book, my interest began to decline. It took me some time to convince myself to keep reading this biography and to complete her story.

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Lilac Girls- Book Review

By: Martha Hall Kelly

This book is a bit of a twist on the typical historical fiction novel. Kelly included some fictional characters but also real historical figures. I didn’t realize this until I had completed the book and did some research. This was an intriguing discovery that made the book a bit more appealing.

This story is centered around three women, each effected differently by World War II. Each of their stories shows a different perspective of this war. It is a social history perspective that is rarely explored in textbooks. The way these three women were connected in the end was the most captivating part of this story.

I enjoyed reading this book and going through the emotions of each of the characters but, I didn’t find I was fully captivated by this story. I’m not exactly sure what was missing but, the characters did not draw me in or excite me to keep reading. I think if there was a bit more character build up I would have felt more connected to these characters and then maybe more glued to the book. Part of me also wonders if I have been reading too many similar books lately and maybe that is why I felt a bit bored by this book.

Some main topics explored by Lilac Girls:
*Polish prisoners in concentration camps
*A doctors struggle between the Hippocratic oath and the orders from Nazi superiors
*Soviet ‘liberation’ of concentration camps
*The human experiences of trying to escape Europe during World War II