The Last Checkmate


Publication Date: 27 Oct. 2021
Format: Paperback / softback

ISBN 9780063214231

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    Readers of Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz and watchers of The Queen’s Gambit won’t want to miss this amazing debut set during World War II. 

    A young Polish resistance worker, imprisoned in Auschwitz as a political prisoner, plays chess in exchange for her life, and in doing so fights to bring the man who destroyed her family to justice.

    Maria Florkowska is many things: daughter, avid chess player, and, as a member of the Polish underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, a young woman brave beyond her years. Captured by the Gestapo, she is imprisoned in Auschwitz, but while her family is sent to their deaths, she is spared. Realizing her ability to play chess, the sadistic camp deputy, Karl Fritzsch, decides to use her as a chess opponent to entertain the camp guards. However, once he tires of exploiting her skills, he has every intention of killing her.

    Befriended by a Catholic priest, Maria attempts to overcome her grief, vows to avenge the murder of her family, and plays for her life. For four grueling years, her strategy is simple: Live. Fight. Survive. By cleverly provoking Fritzsch’s volatile nature in front of his superiors, Maria intends to orchestrate his downfall. Only then will she have a chance to evade the fate awaiting her and see him punished for his wickedness.

    As she carries out her plan and the war nears its end, she challenges her former nemesis to one final game, certain to end in life or death, in failure or justice. If Maria can bear to face Fritzsch—and her past—one last time. 

    Information

    Book Type: Junior High
    Age Group: 15 years +
    Traffic Lights: Amber
    Class Novel: Yes
    Good Reads Rating: 5/5
    Literary Rating: 5/5

    Review

    When 14-year-old Maria—a passionate chess player—finds anti-Nazi pamphlets and fake identification papers hidden in their apartment, she asks her parents if she can join the Polish underground and work alongside them. 

    Mrs Sienkiewicz, her mother’s close friend, is a prominent figure in the Resistance, and her daughter Irena—who is just 3 years older than Maria—is to show her the ropes. Irena doesn’t hesitate to tell Maria what the Gestapo will do to her if she is captured, and continuously warns her that Irena will not risk her own life to save Maria if something goes wrong. 

    The girls’ primary role is to take forged baptism certificates to the Franciscan Sisters, which the Reverend Mother uses to disguise the heritage of Jewish children rescued from the getto, before hiding them with Polish families who commit to protecting them. 

    All goes well until the day Maria steps out of their apartment and comes face to face with the Gestapo. When they find the baptismal papers hidden in the bottom of her basket, her family—mother, father, sister Zofia, and 4-year-old brother Karol—are arrested and taken to Pawiak Prison. Then Maria is taken to Gestapo headquarters for questioning. Despite their brutality, she refuses to betray the Resistance—well aware that their promises of freedom in exchange for her testimony are pure lies. 

    Despite her protestations of innocence, they are soon on a transport to Auschwitz with no idea of what that really means. When they are stepping off the train, Maria drops the tiny chess piece her father made for her in the prison, from a small piece of bread. While recovering it, she comes face to face with Fritzsch, an SS officer. When she asks how to find her family—unbeknownst to her—he points her in a different direction. 

    Maria is processed into the camp as Prisoner 16671. Shortly afterwards she recognises her sister’s golden curls in a pile of bodies, then little Karol, her mother and father. She is all alone. Also troubling is the fact that somehow she is one of only two females who have been interred in the men’s camp. 

    Maria soon discovers that Fritzsch has her there for a reason—he is a keen chess player—and he forces her to play matches with prisoners, guards and himself. The first prisoner who loses to her is shot in the head. He thinks the entertainment is good for camp morale. 

    The other woman in camp, Hania, tries to tell Maria what it will take for her to survive. Hania will do whatever it takes to live, desperate to return to her two little boys who have been hidden by the Resistance. 

    When her friend Irena arrives in the guise of a camp guard, Maria can’t believe she is still alive. Despite all her protestations that she would leave Maria to her own fate if she was ever captured, Irena is there specifically to help her escape, and it has taken a long time for her to work herself into the right position to make that happen. 

    But freedom relates to far more than just the physical body, and Maria is determined to confront Fritzsch with the terrible truth about the role he has played …

    An absolutely brilliant book that will have you reaching for the tissues more than once! While this is a fictional story, it draws on history and the testimonies of survivors. Many of the characters really existed, including the incredible Franciscan monk, Father Kolbe, who exhibits true love, self-sacrifice and grace in the face of terror. 

    The author’s ability to deftly portray the nuances of emotion, motivation, thought and action both in the prisoners and the Nazis, provides powerful glimpses into what life may have been like in the concentration camps that elevates this book above many other holocaust novels. A highly recommended read.

    Themes

    Polish resistance, Auschwitz, family, grief, loss, arrest, courage, determination, survival, PTSD, secrets, guilt, murder, self-sacrifice, faith, grace, holocaust, friendship, love


    Content Notes

    1. Language: f**k x 15 (p26, 27, 45, 46, 125, 245, 253, 260, 262, 264, 268, 273, 348, 350 x 2), shit x 8, bitch x 16, bastard x 24. 2. Maria is forced to strip down to her underwear during an interrogation, purportedly so she can be ‘searched’ but really as an act of humiliation (p12). On arrival at the camp Maria and the other prisoners are forced to strip naked, and their heads shaved (p63). 3. A camp guard, Protz, intends to force Maria, but is interrupted before he can remove her from the larger group. Protz has an ongoing sexual relationship with Hania (no descriptions at all), which helps Hania to protect her brother Isaak who is also in the camp, and get extra rations etc. to help her survive and return to her sons. 4. As you would expect given the setting, there are various examples of brutality, but none of it is gratuitously described. 

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