Sunday, March 21, 2010


As I took a trip through this beautifully illustrated children's version of Brundibar by Tony Kushner, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, I listened to an interview on PBS NOW between Sendak and Bill Moyer. Sendak went on to assist in the production of the opera in Chicago where he met one of the women who performed in the original production in the Nazi camp described in detail in the previously reviewed book, The Girls in Room 28.

The 2003 Brundibar is a retelling of the 1938 children's opera by Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister. It is the story of Pepicek and Aninku, two young children whose mother is sick and needs milk from town. The two run to town only to find they need money to get milk. They are poor and decide to sing for the money to buy the milk. But they are thwarted by Brundibar, a hurdy-gurdy man who sang with his monkey and got all the coins. Finally 300 children join the two and they defeat the bully Brundibar. The children sing the final song:

The wicked never win!
We have our victory yet!
Tyrants come along, but you just wait and see!
They topple one-two-three!
Our friends make us strong!
And thus we end our song

Unfortunately the original authors and Kushner and Sendak remind us of potential future dangers with this final note from Brundibar:

They believe they've won the fight,
They believe I'm gone - not quite!
Nothing ever works out neatly -
Bullies don't give up completely.
one departs, the next appears
and we shall meet again, my dears!
though I go, I won't go far...
I'll be back. Love,

Sadly this serves to remind us that we must remember what happened to these children and thousands of others who have been oppressed and murdered. We might defeat one bully, but there are others we should seek to defeat. Only by our persistence in the defeat of evil in our world can we honor these children who together defeated Brundibar.

TITLE: Brundibar
AUTHOR: Tony Kushner
ILLUSTRATOR: Maurice Sendak
TYPE: retelling of 1938 children's opera
RECOMMEND: I always love Sendak's illustrations, and this is a story of courage which tells a simple story of good over evil.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Girls of Room 28

The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt by Hannelore Brenner is a remarkable memorial to girls who lived together in one room, in one building at the children's camp at Theresienstadt, a "model" transit camp a short ride from Prague. While this was not a death camp, many died there or left there by rail to their deaths in Auschwitz. This is a story of their lives in the ghetto and often how they arrived there at the hands of the Nazis. They were young, mostly 12-14 during their stay in Room 28. They were trying to grow up in the worst of times. Today fifteen or so of the women who survived meet yearly to remember and share the best of times they have had as survivors.

The book is filled with primary sources: photos, journal entries, drawings, copies of documents. It is an amazing resource even beyond the tribute the materials pay to friendship and love. In the beginning, one of the survivors remembers what the young girls had promised one another as they were forced to leave Room 28:

"On one of the first Sundays after the war we shall wait for each other under the Bell Tower in the Old Town Square in Prague." This is what Flska and her comrades had promised one another when they had to say goodbye in Theresienstadt. They reinforced their promise with words that resonated like an incantation and a secret password.

You believe me, I believe you.
You know what I know.
Whatever may happen,
you won't betray me,
I won't betray you.

These women carry all of the young girls with them, even today, until the last one is gone. Throught their mutual experiences, they are bound to those who are no longer alive and to each other. Theirs is an intimacy that goes beyond space and time.

One experience that binds these women and many others from the Children's Home in Theresienstadt was the children's production of Brundibar. On July 7, 1943 there was a transport of children from the Prague orphanage. After a performance of The Bartered Bride in their honor, Rafik Schachter and Rudolf Freudenfeld decided they would cast and perform the children's opera Brundibar at Theresienstadt. This process was magical and as many children as possible participated. This is an opera of triumph, of good over evil. Young children won out over an evil adult. The first performance was on September 23, 1943 and there was an audience of over three hundred. It was magical and the performances continued weekly until the last performance in August 1944.
Read an excellent article on the opera here. According to the article, the cover of the book The Girls of Room 128 shows the original cast of the opera. There are many videos of new performances of the opera Brundibar which brought joy and hope to those who lived under the oppression of the Nazi hatred. Also, please see my next review of the children's book Brundibar.

TITLE: The Girls of Room 128: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt
AUTHOR: Hannelore Brenner
TRANSLATED BY: John E. Woods and Shelley Frisch (from German)
PAGES: 320
TYPE: non-fiction
RECOMMEND: A wonderful resource for middle and high school students interested in the Holocaust.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee, with an afterword by Hiroki Sugihara is a beautiful book which shows that the actions of one person, supported by their family, can make a huge difference.

The opening page of the book contains the following two proverbs, which serve as starting places in ones thoughts for reading the book:

If you save the life of one person,
it is as if you saved the world entire. -- Jewish proverb

Even a hunter cannot kill a bird
that comes to him for refuge. -- Japanes proverb

This beautiful story is told through the voice of a five year old boy, Hiroki Sugihara, who lived with his mother and father and other family members in Lithuania in 1940. His father was the Japanese diplomat to Lithuania. One morning in July, the family awoke to see hundreds of Polish Jews standing outside their front gate. These people were refugees who begged Mr. Sugihara to issue them Japanese visas so they could escape through Russia to Japan and avoid certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Mr. Sugihara asked his country if he could issue these visas and was repeatedly told no. After asking his family, including the young boy and his siblings, Mr. Sugihara decided to issue as many visas as he could before he was stopped by his government or the Nazis. In doing so, he put his family in the line of danger as well.

Passage to Freedom is a very moving story and the illustrations are beautiful - according to the book they are "rendered by applying encaustic beeswax on paper, then scratching out images, and finally adding oil paint and colored pencil." The result is an image in monochromatic tones of brown with haunting clarity. The cover brings forth an interesting thought - I had passed this book a number of times, wondering what in the world a Japanese father and son could possibly have to do with the Jewish Holocaust in Europe. Certainly the Japanese were involved with World War II, but not to liberate the Jewish people. After reading the short book, I am fairly ashamed of my own ignorance, and perhaps my bias. Still, an unusual link which is further highlighted in the Afterword, with Sugihara stating, In 1969, my father was invited to Israel, where he was taken to the famous Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. In 1985, he was chosen to receive the "righteous Among Nations" Award from Yad Vashem. He was the first and only Asian to have been given this great honor. (Afterword)

The publisher, Lee & Low Books provide a Classroom Guide for the book. Here is another lesson plan for conflict resolution. And another guide for students who are a little older - 6th grade lesson plan. The book is versatile in that it is writtten at a lower reading level, but the story itself transcends age.

TITLE: Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story
AUTHOR: Ken Mochizuki
TYPE: non-fiction
RECOMMEND: A very unusual Holocaust book, with a strong moral story.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Thanks to My Mother

Thanks to My Mother by Schoschana Rabinovici (translated from the German by James Skofield) is startling in its brutality. The book is narrated by a young Jewish girl, Susie Weksler. Susie was only eight years old when the Nazis came to her city of Vilnius, Lithuania. It is interesting that the perspective provided is from Susie's young eyes. The fact that we have a very young narrator (who wrote the book after the fact) makes the narrative even more compelling - I wondered throughout how such a young girl could have coped with the events she describes in great detail. I know that having her mother with her, to protect her and encourage her were key. The two were first moved into a ghetto, then to labor camps. Raja, Susie's mother, who had disguised Susie to look much older, worked hard to ensure that Susie had extra food and clothing. In the midst of cruelty and murder, Raja also found ways to help the other women in the camps. At the end, only Raja, Susie, and one other family member survived the Holocaust.
I was unable to locate any specific lesson plans for this title. I suspect the detailed horrors will be difficult for some children, so it might be best for it to be an individual read. If you locate any teaching materials to go with this work, please include a link in your comments.
TITLE: Thanks to My Mother
AUTHOR: Schoschana Rabinovici (translated from the German by James Skofield)
PAGES: 246
TYPE: non-fiction, Holocaust narrative
RECOMMEND: A very brutal account of one Jewish family and their experiences during the Holocaust. This book covers the horrors of the ghettos, camps, and marches.
AWARDS: 1999 Batchelder Award winner

The Secret of Priest's Grotto

The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola is a different sort of Holocaust story. Two stories are told together and one supplements the other. Chris Nicola is an American caver and has traveled all over the world looking at and crawling into caves. In 1993, he was exploring the Gypsum Giants, a large cave system in the Ukraine, when he heard about the special use of one small part of the cave. Legend had it that a number of Jewish families survived in the cave throughout 18 months of the Holocaust. Through the magic of the Internet, Nicola was able to connect with survivors of this amazing Holocaust story. Luckily Esther Stermer, one of the Jews in hiding in the cave, wrote her memories in a book titled: We Fight to Survive. Through interviews with the living survivors, Stermer's memories, and an extended visit to the cave, Nicola produced The Secret of Priest's Grotto which is informative and amazing. One main idea through the book is that the cave provided the Jews a freedom the outside world could not. Esther wrote: We were masters of our own fate in the cave. There was no one to whom we owed our safety or upon whom we depended. After our men came in from the outside and scraped off the mud which would cling to their clothing as they slid through the entrance, and they had washed, they were free men. (p. 59)
To view some pictures of the cave, click here to visit the Ukranian American Youth Caver Exchange Foundation. Or visit the Priest's Grotto Heritage Project.
Another excellent article about the research and expedition can be found at the National Geographic Adventure Magazine.

TITLE: The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story
AUTHOR: Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola
TYPE: non-fiction
RECOMMEND: An exceptional book telling two stories. Both are stories of persistence, one an unimaginable story of survival.