Review: The Last Checkmate

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.

I was not prepared for this book in any way whatsoever. It was heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time, and it just put me in awe of anyone who survived the Holocaust. I’m also flabbergasted at how anyone can believe it didn’t happen because why would anyone make this up? Anyway, the book was inspired by real people – mainly Father Kolbe – and how life in Auschwitz would be like for a 14-year old girl who befriended him.

Maria’s story of her captivity in the concentration camp is one that, while fictional, was very real for many people. When her family is taken to Auschwitz, she is the only one who survives. She’s spared by a camp deputy, Karl Fritzsch, and used to play chess against himself and others for his entertainment. After befriending Father Kolbe, Maria is inspired to stay alive not only for herself, but for her family.

There is a sort of dual timeline, starting with Maria three months after she escaped Auschwitz confronting the general, Fritzsch (who was behind her family’s execution), hoping to bring him to justice. It swaps from then to the beginning of Maria’s imprisonment until we get to her currently, after the confrontation with Fritzsch. 

I enjoyed the focus on Maria’s friendships with others in the camp. First with Father Kolbe until his execution, where he serves as a mentor and inspiration to Maria to keep on living through this hell that they’re in. Maria later meets Hania, and is reunited with resistance member, Irena. Both women are like older sisters to Maria and the three of them are just amazing characters. They’re flawed, but bring out each others’ strengths, and form a bond that’s stronger than friendship.

Another element I loved about this book was the game of chess. It was something unique to add into the story and Maria’s character, especially how she likens her imprisonment to a game of chess and how her place there as a pawn is enough to win a game (aka: her survival). I’ll be honest in saying that the element of chess is the main reason I picked up this book because I typically don’t read historical fiction nor stories about Auschwitz. 

As to be expected with any book about Auschwitz, this is a heavy story. There were a few times I had to stop reading because the heartache for this fictional girl was too much for me; I can’t imagine how reading real accounts of Holocaust survivors would be. I don’t usually read these books for that reason, but again, I was drawn in by chess. However, reading this book made me realize how important these stories are, fictional or not, because they highlight something very real that happened and affected so many people – some who are even still alive today.

It goes without saying that I loved this book and recommend it to any historical fiction lover, or someone who likes to read stories that take place in Auschwitz.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

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