Saturday, January 30, 2021

Out of Hiding: A Holocaust Survivor's Journey to America by Ruth Gruener with Rachel Klein

Anyone who has already read Alan Gratz's Prisoner B-3087 , the fictionalized Holocaust account of Jack Gruener, who survived 1 ghetto, 10 concentration camps, and 2 death marches, will also want to read Ruth Gruener's Holocaust survival story. Ruth was Jack's wife, but that came years after the Holocaust. And though Ruth never found herself in a concentration camp, her story is definitely harrowing, considering she was only five-years-old when the Nazis marched into her life.  

Ruth was originally named Aurelia Gamzer and called Luncia for short. She was a happy chid living in Lvov, Poland with her parents, Barbara and Isaac Gamzer, who owned a chocolate shop. Restrictions on Jews were imposed, and soon Luncia couldn't go to school, Jewish people had to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David, former friends and neighbors turned their backs on Jews, and they were forced to turn over businesses, including the Gamzer's chocolate shop, and any personal property of value to the Nazis. Soon, Jews were put into a ghetto, followed by roundups and deportations and certain death.

When a former customer offered to hide Luncia. her parents decided to do that to save her life. After sneaking her out of the ghetto, Luncia found herself in a situation where she had to sit quietly without getting up or looking out the window, all day long. When a neighbor did see her through the window one day, the family first put Luncia in a burlap bag in the basement during the day to hide her, and late insisted she climb into a trunk and hide in there.

Eventually, it was discovered that her parents were in hiding with a former employee of their shop, and Luncia was reunited with them. But imagine what it must have been like to be a child and overhear your mother talking about ways to kill herself and her family. Fortunately, the person who was supposed to do this backed out at the last minute, saying he didn't have stomach for killing. Finally, in July 1944, Lvov was liberated by the Russians and the Gamzer family could come out of hiding.

But surviving the Holocaust and finally being able to come out of hiding and restart their lives presented a whole new set of problems. Since Gamzers had lost their extended family, their home, and their possessions, they decided to emigrate to America, where they did have some relatives. But the immigration process was slow and the Gamzers were displaced persons. Eventually, they made their way first to Krakow, and later to to the apartment of other Holocaust survivors in Munich. And it was there that Luncia first met Jack Gruener, who finally immigrated in 1947.

By 1948, the Gamzers were also still trying to immigrated and finally received their visas in 1948, sailing for America on January 7, 1949. Arriving in America, Luncia became Ruth. She begins attending high school in Brooklyn, NY and making new friends. But suddenly she is plagued with vivid memories of her life in hiding. But Ruth is determined not to let these memories control her life and reconnecting with with Jack Gruner helps. They eventually married and had two children.

Ruth Gruener's story about surviving the Holocaust, about spending her childhood living in a ghetto, than in hiding, living with constant starvation, even with a bout of severe frostbite, separated from her parents and knowing that the people she loved had been killed is one more story that helps us understand just what happened. She describes her experience in a very detailed, matter of fact manner, but underneath you can still feel the horror and pain she lived through. 

I found it interesting that her father had the idea of hiding family photos in a jar and burying it was brilliant. After the war, before they left Lvov, he dug them up, untouched by war and nature. Those family photos must have felt like such a great gift after losing everything else. And thankfully, Ruth shares them in her book.  

Pair this book with Prisoner-B3087 for two very different but connected Holocaust survival stories. 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Monday, January 18, 2021

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and 
the Children He Rescued
written and illustrated by Peter Sís
Norton Young Readers, 2021, 64 pages
Available January 26, 2021

I remember reading about Nicholas "Nicky" Winton (1909-2015) while I was doing some dissertation research on Czechoslovakia. Nicholas is credited with saving 669 children in 1938, separate and apart from those children saved through the Kindertransport program. Now, Nicholas's act of heroism has been made accessible to today's young readers, thanks by the very talented Czech-born American artist Peter Sís.

Sís begins Nicky's story with a brief biography of Nicky's early life. Then, in  December 1938, a friend of Nicky's told him to come to Prague, Czechoslovakia. Earlier, in October 1938, Adolf Hitler's army had marched into the Sudetenland on the Czechoslovakian border. As soon as he arrived in Prague, Nicky realized that something had to be done. The world would soon be at war, but he knew that England would accept children under 17 if sponsors could be found for them and travel could be arranged, and so he set to work.

In a town outside of Prague, 10-year-old Vera Diamantova's mother heard about an Englishman who was trying to get Jewish children out of harm's way, and her parents decided to see if Vera could be one of those children.

Nicky spent most of 1939 in Prague and London preparing everything that was needed to get the children out of Czechoslovakia - making lists and getting photographs of the children, finding train connections, getting visas and advertising for families to take them in. Nicky paid for all of this himself. 

Meanwhile, in March, 1939, Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, and Vera's family were told they must give up their home to the occupying German army. Finally, though, the day came for Vera to leave, and her father gave her a diary to record memories so they could read them after the war. Three days later, Vera arrived safely in London, one of the 669 children Nicky rescued.

After the war, Nicky lived a quiet life and no one would have learned about his act of heroism if his wife had not found his old records. Now, the world knows what this quiet, kind, unassuming man managed to accomplish against all odds. Sadly, when Vera returned to Czechoslovakia, she learned her parents and most of her family had perished in the Holocaust. 

Although I knew Nicky's story, there are lots of details I hadn't known before in this beautifully render picture book biography for older readers. And I loved the way Peter Sís intertwined Nicky's story with Vera's making it more personal and emotional, sensitive without being sentimental. 

Sís tells Nicky and Vera's stories using spare text and simple declarative sentences. Using stylized maps (see illustration above), cutaways, and color, the illustrations really moves the story along, providing a multitude of images to pour over and discuss. I'm sure you will notice immediately that blue is the dominant color for Vera, while a light green is used for Nicky, and gray for the Nazis. Two of my favorite illustrations show the readers the internal memories that are carried by Nicky after the war (above) and Vera arriving in London. I found this to be exceptionally moving and poignant.

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued in a compelling look at these to lives. If you read the Author's Note, you will learn how and what motivated Peter Sís to write Nicky and Vera's stories. 

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Charles's Bridge by Sandra Novacek, illustrated by Nicole Lapointe

Charles's Bridge by Sandra Novacek, 
illustrated by Nicole LaPointe
Ten21 Press, 2021, 36 pages
Available January 12, 2021

It's 1938 and Charles Novacek, 11, his parents, and sister are being forced to leave their home in Hrachovo, then part of western Czechoslovakia and recently occupied by Nazi soldiers, and relocate to Náměšť nad Oslavou, Charles's father's hometown in eastern Czechoslovakia.* Charles desperately wants to take his precious art supplies with him, but his father is adamant about leaving them behind. There simply is no room for them in the cattle car that carrying their belongings. After all, they are not the only family being evacuated. 

Lonely and homesick, sharing a room with his sister, and being made fun of because of his Slovakian* accent when he speaks Czech. Charles spends his afternoons roaming the nearby forest, fishing and looking for good hiding places once the imminent war begins. One day, Charles notices a beautiful bridge spanning a river. With it's impressive statuary of archangels lining the bridge on either side, Charles fervently wishes he could paint this magnificent bridge. If only he had his art supplies!  

But with paper and paint in short supply and war coming, painting this beautiful bridge, or anything else, seemed an impossible dream. Or was it? A few days later, on one of his solitary walks, Charles's notices some wet clay in the river bank, and suddenly he has a brilliant thought. Could he make his own paint using all natural ingredients and begin painting again? Using the clay from the river, plus some of the different herbs and vegetables in his mother's garden, and finally being given some paper used by the town barber, Charles cobbles together paints and brushes and is finally able to paint the bridge he has come to admire so much. 

Charles's Bridge is a wonderful story of creativity, ingenuity, and resilience and ingenuity in the face of all odds. Charles need to paint, to express himself through his art, and to help him through his isolation and loneliness should be a real inspiration to young readers. When I read this to my young readers, I didn't go into the reasons the Novacek's had to leave their home, but the kids did understand that the family was forced to leave (we've read enough refugee stories and talked about them a lot recently). What really impressed them was the way that Charles managed to make his own paint and brushes. In a time when so many kids feel isolated because of Covid-19, I think they felt as though they had found a fellow traveler in Charles.   

* For those who may have forgotten some pre-WWII history, the Novacek family were forced to leave their home because of the Munich Agreement. This was the 1938 agreement between Germany, Britain, and France that allowed Adolf Hitler to annex the mostly German Sudeten territory in Czechoslovakia in the hopes of avoiding war. 

Be sure to read the Author's Note to find out about the fate of the original painting of Charles's bridge and its painter. I should mention that the author, Sandra Novacek, was married to Charles and it was he who told her about how he came to paint the bridge. 

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was a PDF copy gratefully received from Rachel Anderson at Ten21 Press

You can read more about Charle's life in Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, written by Charles Novacek and also published by Ten21 Press. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Until the Nazis invaded Poland in 1938, Chaya Lindner had lived a relatively good life in Krakow with her parents, her younger brother, Yitzchak, and much younger sister Sarah. By 1940, the Nazis had placed so many restrictions on Jews living in Poland until finally they were all ordered to leave their homes and move into the Podgorze Ghetto, where they were forced to live four families to an apartment. But for Chaya, it meant being on the next Nazi train out of Poland. Instead, Chaya set off on a long journey, leaving Krakow to stay with her grandmother.  

After three days of wandering, Chaya passed a place with a familiar name. Shimshon and Gusta Draenger, who had been the leaders of her Jewish scout group, Akiva, live on a farm nearby. Chaya is invited to stay on the farm, helping out with the work, and learning more about what was happening to the Jews in Poland until one day, a man name Dolek brings her bad news from the Podgorze Ghetto - 8-year-old had been sent to Belzec, a death camp, and Yitzchak, 12,  has disappeared.  

Chaya's Akiva group on the farm decide it's time to take decisive action to resist the Nazis however they can. And because Chaya can pass for Polish with her long blond, light complexion and her ability to speak fluent Polish, she immediately volunteers to be a courier for the Jewish resistance. With false identity papers, Chaya becomes Helena Nowak, a Polish Catholic who can now pass into and out of the ghettos, smuggling food and medical supplies to the people in desperate need there, goods obtained through raids of German supplies that Chaya also participates in. 

But when Chaya is paired with the inexperienced Esther Karolinski, she is less than happy. Esther brings her own baggage to the resistance - her father is a hated Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto who has had to make lists of names for deportation. At first, Chaya feels that Esther is a liability to her own resistance work, but as time goes by and they work together, going from ghetto to ghetto, Esther feels more like a partner than a problem. And she proves herself to be especially helpful once she and Chaya find themselves inside the Warsaw Ghetto as the Jewish resistance begins to prepare for their uprising there. 

Resistance is an engaging novel, action-packed but not gratuitously so. Motivated by the death of her sister and disappearance of her brother, the book's purpose is to highlight the courageous life of teenage Chaya, and the dangers she faced on a daily basis, knowing that capture would mean torture and death for her by the Nazis. But it is also a testament to faith in God - something the Nazis have successfully caused her to question: "What good is faith if you're dead?" (pg 139) So Chaya fight is on two fronts - physical and spiritual. 

Chaya is a well-drawn character, with all the mixed emotions - anger, compassion, and ideology - you would expect from a teen living under Nazi threat. No one else is given her depth, although Esther comes close. And, like others who have read this book, I would have liked to know more about Esther. 

Though Resistance is a Holocaust story, it takes place away from the Nazi death camps, and is set in several of the ghettos the Nazis forced Jews to live in. Nielsen has not shied away from the horrors of those ghettos, of people dying of starvation, Nazi cruelty, and the horrendous living conditions. Nor does she ignore the Jews who volunteered to be part of a ghettos Judenrat, as Esther's father was, and who become almost a cruel as the Nazis thinking it will save them and their families. This is a very realistic novel, but Chaya's story is also a compelling one. 

And although Chaya's story is fiction, there is much that is based in reality in this book. Nielsen breaks it all down in her Afterword, which I highly recommend reading.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press