I Have Lived A Thousand Years Summary Essay

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 64-page guide for “I Have Lived A Thousand Years” by Livia Bitton-Jackson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 40 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Jewish Identity and The Survivor’s Responsibility.

Plot Summary

Holocaust survivor Livia Bitton-Jackson (b. Elli L. Friedmann on February 28, 1931) is the author of three memoirs:I Have Lived a Thousand Years, Bridges of Hope, and Hello, America. She was born in Šamorin, Czechoslovakia. Hungarian troops occupied her hometown, renaming it Somorja, in 1938. In 1944, German troops occupied Hungary and deported Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. Among the deportees were Bitton-Jackson; her parents, Markus and Laura; and her brother, Bubi. After the war, Bitton-Jackson immigrated to the United States and earned a Ph.D. from New York University in Hebrew Culture and Jewish History.

I Have Lived a Thousand Years received a Christopher Award, presented to writers, producers and directors that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” The book chronicles Bitton-Jackson’s experiences before and during the Holocaust, from the days leading up to the German occupation through her liberation by American troops. Fifty years later, Bitton-Jackson returns to Germany for a Holocaust remembrance ceremony. Her message to future generations is to fight intolerance and prejudice and never give up.

Bitton-Jackson’s story begins in 1943, when she is twelve years old, and nurtures dreams of becoming a celebrated poet. Life in her small farming community revolves around the Danube River. Electricity and cars are rare, and most residents live by nature’s rhythms. Since the Hungarian occupation of her region, authorities have subtly persecuted Jewish residents. They’ve confiscated her father’s business and staged raids in Jewish households. The German occupation of 1944 intensifies the persecution of Jews. Authorities require Jewish residents to wear a yellow star and paint this same star on their houses. Jew are forbidden from appearing in public, their valuables are confiscated, and, ultimately, they are deported to ghettoes. It is in such a ghetto that Bitton-Jackson experiences an awakening of her Jewish identity.

After a few weeks in the ghetto, her father receives a summons to report for transport to a labor camp. Shortly after, Hungarian authorities order the remaining ghetto residents to surrender books and personal documents. The authorities then burn them in a public bonfire, after which they deliver the women, children, and elderly to the Nazis, who transport them to Auschwitz on windowless, airless cattle cars. At Auschwitz, SS officers separate the men from the women and children. Bitton-Jackson’s brother, Bubiis sent with the men. The officers separate women sixteen and older who are fit for work from elderly or infirm women and mothers with young children. Bitton-Jackson is thirteen, but her blond hair captures the attention of Dr. Mengele, the SS officer in charge. He sends her with her mother to the group fit for work and tells her she is now sixteen years old.

Inmates are forced to shave their hair, and authorities send them through public showers, after which they give the women prison dresses and send them to their barracks. Bitton-Jackson reunites with an aunt and two cousins, but the reunion is short-lived. Ten days after arriving, guards select Bitton-Jackson and her mother for transport to Plaszow, a labor camp. The women work for hours on a hilltop in the sun, developing blisters and sores. They eat worm-infested food and suffer whippings and verbal assaults. Guards accuse the inmates of sabotage for stopping work to seek shelter during a storm and threaten them with execution, but unrest beyond the camp gates leads to a large influx of civilian prisoners, preoccupying the guards and inadvertently saving the women. Bitton-Jackson witnesses mass interrogation and execution. At the beginning of September 1944, authorities evacuate Plaszow and transport the women back to Auschwitz.

The trip exhausts Bitton-Jackson’s mother, Laura, and she becomes indifferent to her own survival. Bitton-Jackson assumes a parental role, urging her mother to continue fighting, despite despair and exhaustion. An accident in the barrack partially paralyzes Laura, and she is sent to the infirmary. Bitton-Jackson enlists the help of neighbors from home to spirit her mother out of the infirmary and prevent her from being exterminated with patients deemed unlikely to become fit for work. The next day, guards select women from her barrack for transport to a German factory. They choose Laura and reject Bitton-Jackson, but she sneaks back to the line and makes it onto the transport. The Wehrmacht soldiers at the factory treat the women humanely, and Laura is able to recover. The improved conditions restore a sense of worth in the inmates, but Bitton-Jackson struggles to reconcile aiding the Nazi machine, creating instruments to annihilate the Allies working for her liberation. The women are thrilled when their guard orders them civilian clothes for the winter, but Bitton-Jackson finds a name, Leah Kohn, stitched onto the hem of her coat and realizes she is benefitting from someone else’s suffering.

Bitton-Jackson and her fellow inmates pass the winter at the factory. As Allied bombings intensify at the beginning of April, guards transport the inmates to a camp at Dachau. Laura and Bitton-Jackson learn Bubi is in a nearby men’s camp. He has survived a typhus outbreak that has ravaged the camp in the winter and is starved and battered. Laura and Bitton-Jackson share their bread ration with him, and he slowly begins to improve. In late April, Bitton-Jackson discovers the inner camp gates are open, and she is able to reunite with Bubi and begin thinking about the future. He gently prepares her for them to be the only survivors.

At the end of April, guards evacuate Dachau, loading inmates onto boxcars and transporting them for days without food or water. When the train stops in a meadow, inmates inform them they are liberated, but shortly after, an Allied plane strafes the celebrating inmates. German guards rush surviving inmates back onto the trains, and they resume traveling as prisoners, unclear where they are headed and what will happen to them. A second Allied attack wounds Bubi, but Bitton-Jackson, Laura, and Bubi take shelter under their boxcar and survive. After another day and night of traveling, Bitton-Jackson realizes the train has stopped. American soldiers greet them. They are finally liberated.

They return to their home and learn Markus has died in Bergen-Belsen two weeks before liberation. For the Friedmanns and the few survivors of their pre-war Jewish community, Samorja is no longer their home. Markus’s brother in America offers to arrange their immigration. Bitton-Jackson prefers to immigrate to Palestine to be among their people, but Laura and Bubi choose America as the more practical option. The family vows never to separate again.

Discussion questions

Spoiler alert! Some of the questions contain key elements of the plot. Do not read if you don't want to know what happens!

  1. What is Elli's relationship with her mother like?
  2. How does the family almost lose Bubi in Budapest?
  3. Elli's father buries the family jewels in the cellar and asks Elli to remember the location. Elli cries out, "I don't want to know about the spot! I don't want to be the one to survive! I don't want to survive alone!" (pg. 28). Do you understand her fear and confusion?
  4. Elli is able to save her poems from the mass burning. Why does she feel guilty about that? (pg. 58-59)
  5. Elli is advised by the infamous Dr. Mengele to lie about her age, in order to survive in the work camps. Look up Joesph Mengele in an encyclopedia and learn what role he played in the Holocaust.
  6. After attacking an SS female guard, Elli is beaten nearly to death. When she awakes and finds that she has survived the attack she thinks, "A sense of triumph overwhelms the anguish. I have won. I have attained the first, and the greatest, triumph of my life. My whole being is awash with a sense of gratitude." (pg. 144). What has Elli won?
  7. React to the interaction between the German woman and Elli on page 199. How do you feel about the German people who did not protect the Jews from Hitler? How can a country heal after such a betrayal?
  8. In the forward to this memoir, the author writes, "For you, the third generation, the Holocaust has slipped into the realm of history, or legend . . .Reading my personal account I believe you will feel - you will know - that the Holocaust was neither a legend nor Hollywood fiction but a lesson for the future. A lesson to help future generations prevent the causes of the twentieth-century catastrophe from being transmitted into the twenty-first." How do you respond to this statement? Does the author acheive this?
  9. Is there hope in this story?
  10. What does the title of this memoir mean?
  11. Have you read other accounts of people who survived the Holocaust? How does Elli's story compare?
  12. Did you read the Appendix? Did you look up words in the glossary? Does having these "extras" at the end of the book make it more meaningful to you?

If you enjoyed this book, try

  • My Bridges of Hope: Searching for Life and Love After Auschwitz by Livia Bitton-Jackson
  • No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War by Anita Lobel
  • In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Gut Opdyke

Created in part with funds granted by the Oregon State Library under the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.

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