Sunday, August 21, 2022

American Shoes: A Refugee's Story by Rosemarie Lengsfeld Turke and Garrett L. Turke

In 1930 Rosemarie Lengsfeld, affectionately called Rosel by her family, was born in New York City to parents who had emigrated to the United States from Germany and were awaiting their final citizenship papers. Despite that, they decided, in 1935 when Rosel was four-years-old, to return to Germany to visit family in Breslau. It was to be only a short stay, but lasted longer than expected, so when it came time to return to the US, the family discovered that their tickets would not be honored. Adolf Hitler, then Chancellor of Germany, had closed the borders so that German citizens could not leave the country. At first, Rosel enjoyed being with her extended family in Germany, and her parents soon welcomed baby Eleonore into the family. But when the war began, the family found themselves struggling to stay alive without enough food to eat amid bombing by the Allied Forces. 

Finally, in 1946, with the war over, Rosel received a letter telling her she could return to the United States. Convinced that this would include her parents and now nine-year-old Eleonore, the family showed up at the American Embassy and were told only Rosel, 15, could return home, since she was the only American citizen - her parents and sister were German citizens. 

Making a snap decision to go it alone and hopefully find a way to bring her parents and sister to the United States, Rosel finds herself traveling across the ocean on a 10 day trip aboard the SS Marine Flasher, a former troop transport ship along with other American citizens who were stuck in Germany and "surviving Jews and other displaced persons..." On board ship, Rosel meets the mysterious Liesel, another American with German parents, a few years older Rosel, who is traveling with her brother Kurt. She also meets David, a talented musician who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. As the ship gets closer and closer to the United States, Rosel begins to fear that no one will believe that she is American, that she will be branded as a Nazi because of her German accent. 

It is during this journey at night when she is alone in her bunk bed that the reader discovers what life was like for Rosel, her family and others living under the horrors of Hitler's dictatorship before and during the war. Interestingly, she never talked about her experiences until she was 85 years old and therefore it is all based on her memories, but told in the first person from her 15 year-old perspective, and, in my opinion, making her something of an unreliable narrator. Even so, it's hard to imagine a 15-year-old making the kind of decision Rosel was forced to make that day in the Embassy, leaving her parents and sister behind, traveling alone to who knows what future, and at the same time, dealing with the trauma of the war as it returned night after night on the trip to the US. But Rosel's story is definitely one of courage and a different kind of true WWII story in that it is told from the point of an American child. It is often not an easy book to read, but I found it hard to put down. 

American Shoes is a book that will appeal to readers interested in WWII, the post war experience, especially the experiences of Americans can in Nazi Germany, and war-related trauma. Back matter includes maps, a glossary, an author's commentary on WWI, WWII, and the Holocaust, and thoughts by the author's son about writing this book, as well as extensive Discussion Questions. 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Pax, Journey Home (Pax Book #2) by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A year has passed since Peter, now 13, was forced to release his beloved pet fox Pax into the wild when his father decided to join in the war that was happening. Now, the war is over and Peter has returned to Vola, a former soldier with a prosthetic leg who had taken him in after he was injured while looking for Pax. 

During the year after his release, Pax had finally found his place with Bristle and her younger brother Runt. And now Pax had a family of his own after Bristle gave birth to three kits, two males and one female, a curious vixen who immediately became her father's favorite, the one towards whom he feels most protective. But when Pax decides his family needs to find a new, safer home, he and the little vixen set out to find one. Those they face many dangerous obstacles, the worst is the contaminated water that makes Pas's daughter very sick.

Peter, meanwhile, has learned that his father did not survive the war. Now an orphan, he decides to join the Junior section of the Water Warriors, a group whose purpose is to "repurpose the training, the equipment, and the workforce of the military to repair the damage done in the war" and kids could help to clean the now contaminated water. 

As Pax and his increasingly ill daughter make their way back to Bristle, Peter, filled with guilt, realizes he must face his past and stay in his childhood home, then stand in the spot where he let Pax go and later lost his father. Embarking on their respective journeys home, Peter and Pax each faces obstacles and choices that could change their lives forever. Peter's journey could be one of redemption, Pax's journey one of forgiveness. But does Peter have the courage to do what he must do? And will Pax be able make a desperate decision to try to say his daughter's life? 

Pennypacker has kept to the same format as the first book, telling Peter and Pax's respective stories in alternating chapters. Reader's of Book #1 know that Pax is not an anthropomorphized fox (which would definitely have spoil the whole ambiance of the books). Instead, Pennypacker has again used italicized  words to represent the "vocalization, gesture, scent, and expression of fox communication. 

Whereas Pax is a wartime story, Pax, Journey Home is a post war story, and includes all the useless destruction and loss war brings. And while Peter is seeking personal redemption, he is also redeeming the land that was destroyed by soldiers like his father. And what of the wonderful Volo, who has taught Peter so much about rebuilding his body and his life, she's still there and waiting for Peter to find home. 

I didn't really expect there would be a sequel to Pax, but I'm glad there is. I didn't realize I wanted closure after finishing book #1 until I finished the perfectly titled Pax, Journey Home

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Mordechai Anielewicz: No to Despair by Rachel Hausfater, translated by Alison L. Strayer

Four hundred thousand Jews who had been living in and around Warsaw, Poland were herded into a ghetto created by the Nazis in the autumn of 1940.  Locked up in the overcrowded, unsanitary ghetto, people were cold, hungry, and sick, and death was everywhere. Most knew it was just a matter of time before they were sent to Treblinka and certain death. Feigele was a 12-year-old smuggler who was rescued by a young man one evening whole sneaking food back into the ghetto. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis initiated an Aktion, in which three hundred thousand Jews were rounded up and sent to Treblinka, including Feigele's entire family. Later, when she was 14, Feigele was recruited by her rescuer Mordechai Anielewicz to join his band of resisters and it is Feigele, devoted to Mordechai, who narrates the story of his final days in the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Knowing there was no chance of escaping the deportations that had finally begun to happen, Mordechai decided he would rather choose how he would die and go out with dignity than let the Nazis choose for him. And he wasn't the only one who felt that way. Soon, he had amassed an army of Jewish children between the ages of 13 and 24 who were still left in the ghetto and were willing to fight to the end. They were organized to find weapons outside the ghetto any way they could, and runners who were smuggling letters, provisions and guns into the ghetto. 

Mordechai was only 24 years old when he made his fateful decision on April 18, 1943. Knowing the Nazis were about to enter the ghetto, knowing that they would all die, that their struggle is hopeless, Mordechai refused to give into despair and declared war on the Germans. The next day, armed with tanks, machine guns, and planes overhead, 2,000 Nazi soldiers march into the ghetto and are repelled back by this small band of fighting Jews. No one was more surprised than Mordechai when the Nazis were repelled, and continued to retreat from the ghetto day after day, until the Nazis finally demolished it in May 1943.

Though this is a work of historical fiction, it is based on the real life of revolutionary Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the true hero of the Warsaw Uprising. Mordechai, Feigele tells the reader, had been bullied as a child and learned how to organize his friends and show their local tormentors that Jews can and will stand up for themselves when the need arises. And it was those skills he learned as a young boy that Mordechai called upon when he decided he would not let his Nazi captors choose the time and method of his death. 

Feigele's belief in and support for Mordechai never wavers and it is a testament to his courage that she was such a willing fighter along with the other revolutionaries in the ghetto. Additionally, her narration gives us a detailed picture of life in the ghetto, and the way people were forced to live. The story is well researched and Feigele's voice is quite compelling. I found I could not put the book down and read it in one sitting and even though I knew how the Warsaw Ghetto uprising ended, I found there were som facts I didn't know. 

Mordechai Anielewicx: No to Despair is a fascinating fictional biography that should appeal to anyone interested in the Holocaust, heroes of the Holocaust and Jewish history, as well as WWII.