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 gruelling 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.
I often cry at the end of a book, especially if the ending is sad, but I have to admit I cried throughout most of The Last Checkmate. After so many years have past since the holocaust I still struggle with the notion that there are people out there who can do these things to one another. And those who not only believed the killing and torture was OK but that it was actually justified – the destruction of an entire race was justified. But this story is not about the Jews, it’s about one 14-year-old girl who joined the Polish resistance in Warsaw with her ‘friend’ Irena and got caught, and how she survived the horrors of Auschwitz.
My Polish father was 16 when the war broke out, but he didn’t live in Warsaw. He was ‘lucky’. He joined the army and was taken prisoner in freezing, northern Russia until he escaped and found his way to the UK.
The Last Checkmate is one of the most moving books I have ever read, if not the most. And Maria is such an inspiring character. How she survives the horror is anyone’s guess, especially without hope. Because we know from the very beginning that her mother, Tata, nine year old sister and four year old brother were murdered as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz. She knows because she recognises her sister’s golden curls amongst the piled up bodies, ready for disposal in the crematorium. That image of her sister’s golden curls is the one that will never leave me.
Then there’s the guilt. She believes that it is her fault that her family were arrested, because she got caught on one of her assignments. It is only after meeting a humble Catholic priest that she understands that what she needs to do for her family is to ‘live, to fight and to survive’. And she does this by playing chess against the sadistic camp deputy, Karl Fritzsch. She knows that eventually he will tire of her and she will be shot like the rest of her family. Unless she can devise a plan to have him removed to another camp.
This book is amazing. It’s hard to believe it’s a debut. The images of the concentration camp, the treatment of prisoners, the cruelty, the torture, the killing of children, it doesn’t bear thinking about. But we must never forget and it’s our duty to make sure it never happens again.
Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours
About the Author
Gabriella Saab graduated from Mississippi State University with a bachelor of business administration in marketing and now lives in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama, where she works as a barre instructor. While researching The Last Checkmate, she travelled to Warsaw and Auschwitz to dig deeper into the setting and the experiences of those who lived there. The Last
Checkmate is her first novel.