Monday, January 27, 2020

International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Never Shall I Forget by Elie Wiesel

In the preface to his autobiographical narrative about surviving Auschwitz, Night, Elie Wiesel wrote that it is the responsibility of witnesses to history to bear witness, that "[s/he] has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory." In Night, "[t]he witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future." (pg xv)

In Chapter 3 of Night, Elie describes how he and his father had survived the first selection process by which who lives and who dies is immediately decided upon arriving at Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp, and their subsequently witnessing the burning of the bodies of adults and children that same night. As the Jewish men begin to say the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, Elie wonders where God is in Auschwitz. Elie breaks out of the narrative form and inserts this poem:

January 27, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and sadly there are fewer and fewer people who can bear witness to these atrocities are fewer and fewer every year.

And given some recent events in the world today, where people are again flirting with fascist ideas, remembering the genocide of Jews, Roma, gays, and the disabled committed by men and women eager to blindly support their leader, Adolf Hitler, International Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us of the importance of not just remembering but also of actively acting against all forms of hate and bias.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Anna at War by Helen Peters

When Daniel's class begins studying WWII, he volunteers that his Granny, Anna Schlesinger, had come to England as a refugee from Germany, but that is all he knows. When he asks her about it, he also discovers that there is an M15 file on her with the Secret Service. Now, Daniel can't wait to hear her story.

And what a story it is, one that really begins on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, when the Schlesinger apartment is destroyed by Nazis and Anna's father is arrested and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. Back home weeks later, a heartbreaking decision is made by her parents to send Anna, 12, to safety in England on the Kinderstransport. No sooner does her journey begin, then she has a sleeping baby boy thrust at her through the train window. Anna cares for the baby, refusing to give the little stowaway up until they arrive in England and she has assurances he will be taken care of properly.

After more traveling, Anna finds herself on an estate farm in Kent with no electricity or indoor plumbing, but with a family that warmly welcomes her into their home - Aunty Rose and Uncle Bert Dean, their young son Frank, 6, and Molly, also 12-years-old and with whom Anna will share a room.

Anna adjusts to English life on a farm, but when Hitler invades Poland, and England and France declare war with Germany, she is crushed as all hope that her parents could also escape to England is completely destroyed.

Meanwhile, a boy at school, Billy Townsend, insists that Anna is a German spy, sending secrets back to help the Nazis invade England, even going so far are to write up a list of reasons to prove it and to turn the other kids in school against her. But when Molly betrays her because of Billy, it is almost more than Anna can take and she begins to avoid Molly as much as possible.

Until an injured man who calls himself Peter Smith and who claims to be a British soldier is found in the hay loft in the barn. He tells them that his mother is very ill and he wants to visit her, even though he doesn't have leave to go, and that he had injured his ankle on his way, so he can't walk. The children are very sympathetic, offering food and water, and even agreeing to mail a letter for him. But after they leave the barn, Anna goes back to get the family cat and hears the soldier speaking German. Realizing he probably is a German spy injured when he parachuted into the area, Molly and Frank refuse to let her report him to the authorities - Frank had repeated some important top secret war-related information to Molly that he had overheard his dad telling his mum. If they report the spy, and he repeats what he may have overheard Frank say, their dad might be tried for treason - punishable by death.

What can they do to get the spy arrested and still keep Mr. Dean safe? They do come up with a plan for that, but will it work?

Some things I really liked about this book:

Anna at War is my favorite kind of WWII story. It's exciting, it has lots of local detail about what WWII was like for those living in the English countryside, and most importantly, it has lots of detail about what life was like in Nazi Germany for Jews like the Schlesinger's. Helen Peters doesn't hold back on her descriptions of the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses on Kristallnacht, the cruel anti-Semitism of people who used to be their friends, and what a few weeks in a concentration camp did to Anna's father. And the decision by the Schlesinger's to send Anna away, not knowing if they will ever see each other again, is presented in all its agonizing difficulty and its emotionally wrenching reality. Yet, it is all handled with a good deal thoughtfulness, considering the age of the target reader.

Anna is depicted as a sensitive girl, who has a strong understanding of right and wrong, and who always tries to act responsibly. She's also pretty courageous, resourceful, stubborn and even defiant when she needs to be - character traits that are made very clear right from the beginning. Her story is compelling and because it is Anna recounting her life to her grandson, it is told in the first person in a voice that is authentic, clear and very powerful.

Peters has also captured the fears of the English that they too could be invaded by Nazi Germany just as so many European countries had been. And fears that spies like Peter Smith were parachuting into England (this did happen, but not all that frequently) to make the invasion easier are also presented in Billy Townsend's insistence that Anna is a spy and his rallying schoolmates, including Molly, into believing such a far-fetched idea is testament to how contagious and persuasive hate can be - even in the schoolyard, even in the face of facts.

Anna at War is a must read for anyone interested in historical fiction set in WWII. I picked it up and couldn't put it down once I started reading. And there is a wonderful denouement that makes Anna journey just so very rewarding.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Room for One More by Monique Polak

It's 1942 and there is nothing Rosetta Wolfson, 12, likes more than eavesdropping in on a good conversation. So when a man named Mr. Schwartzberg arrives at the Wolfson home in Westmount, a small suburb of Montreal, Canada, Rosetta is right there hiding behind the overhang of the dining room tablecloth. And what she overhears will suddenly change the whole Wolfson family's - Mom, Dad, older sister Annette, 16, and young sister Esther, 6 - dynamic.

The Wolfson sisters are about the get a new brother, 16-year-old Isaac Guttman, a German Jewish refugee who had been part of the Kindertransport, was later interned by the British, and is presently living in a Canadian internment camp.  Coincidentally, while in England, Isaac had been supported for a while by the Wolfson's granny living in London.

It's decided that Isaac will be given Rosetta's room and she will move into Annette's room, an arrangement neither is happy about. Issac's presence, however, doesn't really upset the household very much and it doesn't take long for him and Rosetta to become good friends with each other. Of course, Mr. Wolfson is delighted with Isaac - here is the son he's always wished he had.

So far, the war in Europe has only been an inconvenience to Rosetta's life because of the rationing of things like sugar and butter. Little by little, though, Isaac begins to confide in her about his life in Germany and about his Tante Dora who raised him. But when Isaac gets a letter from Granny saying that his mother wants to reconnect with him, he becomes very upset. Eventually, Isaac tells Rosetta about his mother, who wasn't Jewish, and who, thanks to her perfect Aryan looks, became part of the Nazi regime teaching young girls how to be good wives and mothers, and to hate Jews. She even cruelly turned her back on him in front of her students, treating him as if she didn't know him. More curious than ever, Rosetta goes snooping in Isaac's personal things and discovers the yellow fabric stars that Jews are forced to wear in Germany.

Anti-Semitism isn't something Rosetta has really witnessed before, but then her best friend's older brother goes after Isaac with some vile remarks about being Jewish and letting him know he isn't welcome in Canada. Later, Rosetta learns that are quotas imposed on the number of Jews that can be admitted to McGill University's School of Medicine, the school Isaac is applying to. All of this opens Rosetta's eyes to just what is really happening to the Jews in Europe, and helps her accept Isaac as a brother not just a guest in the Wolfson home.

There are a number of things I liked about this book.

To begin with the title Room for One More could easily have been The Education of Rosetta Wolfson because that's really the main thrust of the story. Rosetta's life had been happy and sheltered, and she had yet to witness anti-Semitism. But it was there all along, it just needed a catalyst to bring it out - like Isaac, with his Jewish background and German accent. And though the story takes place over only 2 months, Rosetta learns life changing lessons about the importance of standing up for what is right. In reading Rosetta's story, I think young readers may also find many parallels between what was happening in 1942 and what is happening in today's world. It certainly resonated for me.

The anti-Semitic events in Germany are presented by Isaac in a very age appropriate way. They are factually correct and clearly painful to Isaac, but they are not graphically described, making this a good book to use for introducing the Holocaust to young readers.

I really liked the Wolfson's family dynamic. The sibling scrapes between Rosetta and Annette reminded me of sharing a room with my own older sister, right down to the line separating their space. And yet, they are able to put aside differences when they need to. I also thought that Rosetta's jealousy over the bond that formed between her father and Isaac was very realistic.

I didn't like that the author sporadically accented the way Isaac spoke. I found his saying things like vas der (was there) or vent der (went there) to be distracting. All that was needed was an occasional mention that Isaac spoke accented English.

I also didn't like so many coincidences. One or two in a novel can feel believable, more than that is troublesome.

All in all, though, Room for One More is a welcome addition to Holocaust literature. It presents a warm, close-knit, happy Jewish family living in Canada, including traditions and inside jokes, and how one person changed their lives forever.  I would highly recommend this poignant, well told novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Saturday, January 4, 2020

My Survival: A Girl on Schindler's List, A Memoir by Rena Finder with Joshua M. Greene

Like most Americans, I first learned about Oskar Schindler and the 1,200 Jewish lives he was able to save watching Steven Spielberg's movie Schindler's List. And yes, I am sorry to say I have not yet read Thomas Keneally's 1982 book Schindler's Ark (published as Schindler's List in the US). However, you may recall a book published in 2013 called The Boy On the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson, who was a young Jewish boy working for Schindler. Now, we have this book by Rena Finder, who was a still a young girl when she was working for Oskar Schindler.

Rena, who maiden name was Ferber, had lived a pretty happy and comfortable life in Krakow, Poland with her parents Moses and Rosa Ferber. But all that changes in 1939 when the Nazis march into and occupy Poland and World War II begins. First, friends and neighbors begin to turn their backs on their former Jewish friends, and Krakow's Jews are faced with more overt acts of anti-Semitism, even as more and more restrictive laws are imposed by the Nazis. Jews are not longer allowed to go to school, the park, the movies, they are subject to a curfew, and forced to wear a blue and white armband with a Star of David on it signifying that they are Jewish. And soon enough, arrests and deportations of Jews to concentration camps begin.

In 1940, Rena and her parents are issued permits allowing them to remain in Krakow while her father works, but they are forced to leave their lovely apartment and move into the Krakow ghetto - 320 apartments for 3,000 people. Then, on December 31, 1942, Rena's father is arrested despite having a work permit. Sadly, Rena will never see her father again.

Not long after her father's arrest, liquidation of the Krakow ghetto begins and the ghetto's Jews are forced to march to Plaszów Concentration Camp, a march that includes Rena and her mother Rosa. There, they both end up working in Oskar Schindler's factory, a factory that had originally been located near the Krakow ghetto, where he could use cheap Jewish labor. But now that his labor was in Plaszów, they would have to walk 2 1/2 miles each way to get to and from work. Schindler convinces Plaszów's Commandant, Andrew Goeth, to allow him to build a subcamp for the factory's Jewish workers. Amazingly, Goeth agrees to allow this.

Rena's story is told in a very matter of fact way in the first person, but also in a very intimate voice that makes you feel that she is speaking directly to you, the reader. I've given you most of the historical background, but her story is naturally much more personal, recounting what life was life for Europe's Jews under the Nazis, including the fate of some of her family and friends. She also talks in harrowing detail what it was like when she and the other people working for Schindler were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. Luckily, Schindler was able to reclaim them thanks to his list of workers and take them to his new factory in Czechoslovakia. And unlike many real life Holocaust stories, Rena also talks about what her life was like after the war, meeting her husband and moving to America.

My Survival: A Girl on Schindler's List is a very accessible, age appropriate book, perfect for introducing young readers, and especially reluctant readers, to the Holocaust. Rena breaks down the different events on her personal life and how she was impacted by the things done to Jews under the Nazis. The pages of photographs of the Ferber/Finder families at the back of the book makes her story that much more real. Rena's "Closing Thoughts" bring the past into the present with her plea for today's youth to stand up for those people who are being targeted now, reminding us that genocide begins when people begin turn their backs on what is happening to others.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library.