Sofia Z-4515 tells the true life story of Sofia Taikon, a Polish Roma Gypsy who survived Auschwitz, written and illustrated as a comic book.  It was originally published in Swedish in 2005, and translated to English in 2012.

The story is told through the words of an elderly Sofia, recounting her experience to her grandson.  Initially Sofia is reluctant to tell her story, but her grandson is insistent.  She begins outside Warsaw in 1938, describing the happy family life she knew as a child – with what she had thought was an ordinary Polish family.

As Sofia grows up, she starts to become aware that many other people do not see her as ordinary; they treat her differently because she is a Gypsy.

Then, in September 1939, the Nazis invade.  Sofia’s family go into hiding but are eventually caught.  They are sent to a ghetto, and then on to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The family become separated, and Sofia is taken to Ravensbrück.  As she relates her time in these camps Sofia recalls many different people, some of whom helped her in small but meaningful ways.

Sofia survived the camps, and she goes on to tell of her time in Sweden, where she was taken as a refugee after the war.  She gradually adjusts to life there; in time she falls in love, gets married and has children.  She searches in vain for her lost family, but in the end she takes comfort in the new family she has created.

Back in Stockholm in 2005, her husband admonishes her for telling the story to their grandson.  ‘You shouldn’t have told him all that. It has only made him sad’.

About Sofia Taikon

Sofia Taikon was born into a Polish Roma Gypsy family in 1931.  She was 12 when, in March 1943, she was imprisoned in the special Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp) at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  After being separated from her family she was taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, escaping the gassing of the remaining Gypsies at Auschwitz on 2 August 1944.  Sofia survived the war and was taken to Sweden as a refugee by the ‘white buses’ of the Swedish Red Cross.  Unable to find her family, she remained there and met her husband, Janko.  She recounted her experiences to her grandchildren and to the author, Gunilla Lundgren.  Sofia died in 2005, only months before the original Swedish edition of the book was published.

Key themes

Journeys
Sofia goes on a number of forced journeys as she is transferred from camp to camp, in cattle wagons and covered trucks.  These panels in the comic are often dark, with just eyes, words and thoughts visible.  This reflects Sofia’s confusion and powerlessness, as she does not know where she is being taken.  ‘Are they going to kill me now?’ she wonders.

Dehumanisation
The title of the book, Sofia Z-4515, refers to the number that was tattooed on Sofia’s arm at Auschwitz.  ‘I was no longer Sofia Brzezinska, 12 years old.  Now I was a number, the 4515th person to be registered as a Gypsy prisoner in this camp.’  Sofia also has her head shaved, another part of the Nazi’s attempt to strip her of her identity as a human being.

Acts of kindness
Amongst the people who she meets in the camps are some who help her in small but meaningful ways – from a Jehovah’s Witness who gives Sofia food, to a Jewish woman who picks her up off the floor when she wants to give up.  Sofia has said herself that it is these people she wants to remember, not those who hurt her.

Dealing with trauma
Sofia devotes a lot of time to recounting her life in Sweden after the war, how she started a new family and found a home.  She also rediscovers her culture, telling fortunes as her mother used to do.  There is a hopeful message in the way she manages to find herself – and a purpose in life – once more.

Discussion Questions

1.    Sofia was originally reluctant to tell her story, and Janko echoes her feelings at the end: ‘you shouldn’t have told him all that.  It has only made him sad’.  Do you think it is worthwhile telling stories like Sofia’s?  Why?

2.    Sofia herself has asked: ‘Is the book horrible? Have we concentrated too much on evil and dreadful people?’  Do you think the book concentrates on the victims or the perpetrators?  Do you think this is right?

3.    Is the comic book style appropriate for this kind of story?  What do you think does or doesn’t work about it, and why?

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