Thursday, August 3, 2017

Mr. Benjamin's Suitcase of Secrets written and illustrated by Pei-Yu Chang

When I was in grad school, getting ready to write my dissertation, I read a lot of Walter Benjamin’s literary criticism, particularly what he wrote about children’s literature and toys. Benjamin was a prolific writer, cultural critic and philosopher. He was also a German Jew who had left Germany because of Hitler and Nazism, and, like so many other German intellectuals at the time, he moved to Paris. But after France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, Paris’s German population knew they were at risk and it was time to leave Europe. And that’s where the story of Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets begins.

But getting out of Europe wasn’t all that easy, so Mr. Benjamin sought out the help of Mrs. Fittko. Pack light so as not to draw attention to yourself, she told the few people she was willing to lead to safety. But on the night of their escape, Mr. Bennie, as Mrs. Fittko calls him, doesn’t pack lightly, in fact, he packs a big heavy suitcase, one he could barely carry. The problem is that the suitcase would have to be carried over rough terrain and then across the mountains and it was heavy and awkward.

Couldn’t Mr. Benjamin just leave the suitcase behind? Mrs. Fittko asks again. No, he can’t, as he tells her “The contents of this case can change everything.” But just as the group arrive at the border and the possibility of safety is just ahead of them, the guards refuse the allow Mr. Benjamin over the border crossing. He returns to the hotel where he had spent the previous night, and then, Mr. Benjamin and his mysterious suitcase simply disappeared. And to this day no one knows what he had been carrying that was so important to him.

This historical fiction picture book for older readers is as unusual as it is interesting. It is based not only on what actually happened to Walter Benjamin and why he was forced to flee, but also on the mystery surrounding the fate of the suitcase and its contents, which he tells Mrs. Fittko are “more important than my life.”

I have to admit, I never thought I would see a children’s book written about Walter Benjamin yet I really like the way some things were presented. I thought the way it shows that intellectual ideas were such a threat to the Nazis that they felt it necessary to arrest those people “who had extraordinary ideas" was very effective throughout the book, as represented by the importance of the suitcase and Benjamin's need to hold on tightly to it. I also liked that the soldiers who were arresting people didn’t have swastikas on their armband, but a kind of generic mark making it relevant to any act of this type. I did enjoy the variety of people speculating about what they thought was actually in Benjamin’s mysterious suitcase, which also defects the reader from wondering what Benjamin's fate was (in fact, he committed suicide after being turned back).

The textured mixed-media illustrations are wonderful. They are both quirky and serious. Look closely at the different bits that go into making the collages on each page, they almost tell their own story. I thought the one below was really effective at conveying the fear that people must have lived with during that time

This is a book I would definitely recommend for units on WWII, or even on units about refugees. Benjamin was a refugee twice over - once fleeing Germany, once trying to flee Nazi occupied France. Pei-Yu Chang has successfully depicted a world where ideas and opposition are seen as dangerous by those in power, making this a potent and relevant story for today's readers.

You can find a detailed essay on Walter Benjamin, his suitcase, and his attempt to flee the Nazis HERE

Who exactly was Mrs. Fittko? She was a courageous Holocaust activist who helped many people escape the Nazis over the Pyrenees working with her husband and with Varian Fry. Find out more about Mrs. Fittko HERE  

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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