Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Final Journey

The sliding-door of the railway truck closed with a deafening clang. (p. 1)

These are the opening words of The Final Journey by German author Gudrun Pausewang. This is a harrowing fictional account of the journey of a young Jewish girl from innocence to knowledge, from home to Auschwitz, from life to death. Except for brief interludes, the entire novel takes place inside this cattle car on a train bound for Auschwitz. The grim story is told from the perspective of eleven year old Alice who has been sheltered by her grandparents and, in the beginning, really has no understanding of the dire position of the Jews in Europe. On the train with only her grandfather, Alice interacts with all of the different people in the train car who initially only have the Jewish star in common. They come to share hunger, thirst, intimacies, and death. Gradually Alice begins to understand that she has been lied to by her grandparents and lashes out at her grandfather, who dies shortly thereafter. A child is born in the train car, almost certainly to die very soon. Still Alice is hopeful, even as she arrives at the gates of Auschwitz and is led to the "showers".

Alice tipped back her head. Soon, soon, water would pour down over her from the nozze up there. The water of life. It would wash her clean of the dirt and horror of the journey, would make her as clean as she had been before. She raised her arms and opened out her hands. (p. 154)

And the book ends. Was Alice hopeful up to the very end? As she entered the showers, she began her first menses - a sign of life. While Alice did not know the outcome, readers of course know that for millions of Jews, this shower was the absolute final journey. Did the author stop at this point to allow the reader to contemplate hope vs. acceptance, knowledge vs. denial? In any case, the ending broke my heart all over again.

Another interesting tidbit (from a novel full of instances which could serve as discussion points) is the following passage:

The train was still standing in the afternoon sun. "This is murder!" shouted a man's voice from the neighbourhing truck. Alice's eyes opened with shock. "And God lets it happen!" screamed a woman. "What have we done? Just lived our lives like everyone else!" "Those people outside see the trains passing and no one does anything about it," moaned the woman. "Saw nothing, heard nothing." (p. 48)

I have wondered about just this scenario over my years of reading Holocaust materials. How many people saw the events taking place, but for whatever reason felt incapable of action? I know there were many who agreed with Hitler's assessment of the Jews, but there were also people who opposed the treatment of fellow human beings. There are records showing that at times people would throw bread to the people in the cattle cars. But, sadly, there are also reports of people jeering at the Jews.

Gudrun Pausewang was born in 1928 in a village in what is now the Czech Republic. Her father was a diplomat and was killed on the Russian front in 1943. In 1948, Gudrun and her family fled from communism to West Germany where she trained as a teacher. She has written a number of other books, mostly dealing with social issues, with only a few translated to English. Fall Out (about a nuclear accident) and Traitor (Holocaust related) are two that have been well-reviewed.

TITLE: The Final Journey
AUTHOR: Gudrun Pausewang
TRANSLATOR: Patricia Crampton
COPYRIGHT: 1996, original in German 1992
PAGES: 154
TYPE: Holocaust fiction
RECOMMEND: I found this to be one of the most difficult books I have ever read - only because I knew that the end would not be good. I am not sure I had ever really considered how difficult the journey.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

All But My Life

All But My Life is often a difficult book to read. The author, Gerda Weissmann Klein, did, in fact, lose everything to the Nazi's except for her life. She lost her family, friends old and new, and her possessions. In the epilogue to this new edition of the memoir, Klein writes: Survival is both an exalted privilege and a painful burden. (p. 247) I can only assume that writing this book and telling her amazing story of survival fulfills the commands of both - by her privilege of survival, Klein has taken on the burden and shared it with others. So that we will better understand the price she and millions of others paid, and to remember.
The book is divided into three almost equal parts. Part One deals mainly with Gerda and her family's experiences during the early years of the war before they were sent to camps. The fear is palpable as the family deals with the Nazi attempts to locate the men of the family. Part Two begins with the family being removed from their home and taken to camps. Gerda describes the last time she sees her mother and father and discusses how she relied on new friends in the camps to stay strong. Part Three deals with the time after liberation. In some ways, although the road forward was difficult, this is a love story. Gerda eventually marries the American who liberated her and helped her regain her health. The details provided in all three parts of the book are achingly true to Klein's memories.

Just one other thought about the book. In many ways the book reminds me of Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl speaks of his own Holocaust experiences and concludes that survival was dependent on a number of things, but central to that survival is expressed in the words of Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how." This is vividly apparent in the book with a number of people expressing this exact sentiment.

Please do take the time to visit the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation. The header at the top of the website states: You alone have the power to eliminate bigotry and hunger. While there are many wonderful links and videos to visit on the site, if you are a teacher or librarian be sure to order your free copy of ONE SURVIVOR REMEMBERS: A Teaching Kit for Grades 8-12. Our library has this kit and it is a fantastic resource telling Gerda's story through a multi-media exploration.

TITLE: All but my Life
AUTHOR: Gerda Weissmann Klein
COPYRIGHT: 1995, expanded edition (originally published in 1957)
PAGES: 261
TYPE: Holocaust memoir
RECOMMEND: The book covers the losses felt by so many young Jews during the Holocaust. With striking detail, life in the camps and death on the forced marches, the author illuminates the past for people in the future.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom

Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom, the autobiograhy of Isabella Leitner and co-written with her husband Irving Leitner is actually the combination of the author's two previous works Fragments of Isabella (published in 1978) and Saving the Fragments (published in 1986). It is interesting to note that Irving also produced a play Isabella, based on the first book, which was first performed in Russia on May 8, 1993 as part of a celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany. This was one of the first times that the people of Societ Russia were exposed to the experiences of Nazi prisoners in the death camps and the play received a standing ovation. Interestingly enough, on May 8, forty-eight years earlier a United States ship brought the first survivors of Auschwitz into an American harbor. Isabella and her sisters were among the passengers. Isabella recalls that In our battered beings we carried the charred souls of millions of innocent children, women, and men. (p. 15) And so begins this extraordinary book.

Leitner's book is divided into three parts:
  • Book One: Auschwitz
  • Book Two: Liberation
  • Book Three: America
There is also an Epilogue: This Time in Paris by Irving Leitner and an Afterword to one of the previous books by Howard Fast. The authors also provide two additional helpful sections: Lager Language and Lager Lexicon.

Even with these individual sections, the book moves forward and back in time. Even so, it is beautifully written. As I was reconstructing a brief account of her story, I was perusing another set of books that I plan to review soon. People of the Holocaust is a two volume set containing brief biographies of many different people connected in some way to the Holocaust. Isabella is one of the people included and her story is succinctly told in only a few pages. Isabella, her mother, four sisters and brother were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz in May 1944 after three months in a ghetto. Isabella's mother and youngest sister were killed immediately on arrival. Isabella and two of her sisters escaped during the Death March. Years later Isabella learned that her brother lived while her other sister died shortly after liberation. The survivors were liberated by the Soviets and made their way to America.

In an opening poem, Isabella remembers the day her mother and sister died:

My eyes turned skyward in search of a patch of sky,
but all I could see was a kingdom of hell
breathed in the darkest of swirling, charcooal gray smoke,
and my nostrils were saturated with the scent of
burning flesh, and the scent was that of my mother,
my sister, and each passenger's kin,
and half a century later, I am unable to inhale
air only, for the scent of singed human flesh
is permanently lodged in my nostrils.
I do not look different from other people,
but tread gently as you pass me by, for my skull
is inhabited by phantoms in the dark of night
and sights and sounds in the light of day
that are different from those that live in souls
who were not in Auschwitz a half century ago.

Because this pain was still so real and touchable even fifty years later, it is so important for us to remember and teach tolerance and peace to our young.

TITLE: Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom
AUTHOR: Isabella Leitner and Irving Leitner
PAGES: 233
TYPE: Holocaust memoir
RECOMMEND: In particular, I really liked the format of this book. The chapters are often brief and lend themselves to reflection. I also think it is important for the reader of Holocaust works to realize that for many the war was not over when peace came - rather it was merely the beginning of survival and adjustment outside of the camps. This book covers both aspects of survival.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hidden on the Mountain

Deborah DeSaix and Karen Ruelle write children's books. In 2002 the pair took at trip to France where they visited a small museum in the south of France. This visit would result in years of research and personal interviews during which Hidden on the Mountain: Stories of Children Sheltered from the Nazis in Le Chambon was born. I am finding it very difficult to review this important book because each chapter, which contains the story of one child, could be, and also has been, written as a book unto itself. As an avid reader of Holocaust memoirs, I must confess that I had never heard of this refuge for Jewish children. The authors confirm that no children's book has ever been written on this topic.

To assist others who might not be aware of this small area of France, I would like to spend some time on the third chapter entitled "An Isolated Haven: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and La Montagne Protestante" before going on to the meat of the book. The geographic area in question is an isolated mountain plateau in South-central France. Hundreds of years before the Second World War, this area had been a hiding place and refuge for French Huguenots who were persecuted by French Catholics. Ancestors of these Protestants still lived in this area and had a special understanding of the hardships of religious persecution. Fiercely independent, the Huguenot Protestants had a strong sense of right and wrong. They valued their own freedom and respected the freedom of others. They were modest and humble. They beoieved in tolerance and in sharing what they had with others. Every day they read the Bible. and they were committed to living their lives according to what they read. They didn't blindly accept the authority of the government if it contradicted their religious beliefs. (p. 12). After the Germans overtook France, the country was divided into occupied France and unoccupied France which, under the Vichy government, collaborated with the Nazis. In both areas of the country, Jews were rounded up and sent to holding camps and then on to their deaths. And so these often poor farmers and villagers were ready to hide Jews, especially young children, in their homes until they could be relocated to Switzerland or until the war was over. This entire French community of Le Chambon cooperated to keep these children safe, with some offering warnings if a round-up was coming so that the children could be hidden high in the mountains for a day. Today, this beautiful story has been told by one of the Jewish children who was born there - Pierre Sauvage made the documentary film Weapons of the Spirit (the name comes from a speech by Protestant pastor Andre Trocme who urged the parishoners to stand up against injustice in non-violent ways, using "weapons of the spirit" (p. 14)).

And stand up they did, with several thousand children hidden in these mountains. DeSaix and Ruelle interviewed many of these survivors and include their stories as first person narratives in the book. To provide a broader picture of the area and the times, the authors also include chapters, written in third person, of non-Jewish people who lived in the area or helped the children in some special way (many of whom were no longer alive). Each child's story jumps from the pages, with memories often in conflict with that of another child who lived in the mountains during the same time. The authors observe that both memories are correct. Some of the children traveled across countries to arrive in this haven. They traveled without parents or friends. Some came from the nearby camp at Gurs. One thing they all found in Le Chambon was a sense of normalcy - schools, hard work, fun, friendships that continue to this day. What amazing bravery of both the children and their protectors. These stories gave me hope that within us all we have weapons of the spirit and are capable of standing up for what is right.

The history of the area and war, along with the individual histories and memories of the children are enhanced by photographs of the children in their daily activities, maps, a glossary, timeline, and recommended readings. To learn more about this topic, visit The Chambon Foundation and the authors' website for the book.

TITLE: Hidden on the Mountain: Stories of Children Sheltered from the Nazis in Le Chambon
AUTHOR: Deborah DeSaix and Karen Ruelle
PAGES: 275
TYPE: non-fiction
RECOMMEND: I thought this was a hopeful book - people did what they needed to do to save the lives of these children.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust

Terrible Things: An allegory of the Holocaust written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Stephen Gammell is a very unusual book. First, if you look at the age range posted here, do not be fenced in by the ages listed because I think the book could be used by a much broader group. This is the first unusual aspect. The second unusual aspect is the use of a children's allegory to ask a question which is often considered but rarely asked.
Eve Bunting is a prolific writer I have read many of her children's books, and while they cover a wide range of topics - even difficult topics, I did not know until recently that she had this book on the Holocaust. Terrible Things is in many ways a very simple tale, as are most allegories or parables which are defined as "short moral stories." In her introduction to Terrible Things, Bunting explains the moral of her story better than I could:

In Europe, during World War II, many people looked the other way while terrible things happened. They pretended not to know that their neighbors were being taken away and locked in concentration camps. They pretended not to hear their cries for help. The Nazis killed millions of Jews and others in the Holocaust. If everyone had stood together at the first sign of evil would this have happened?

Standing up for what you know is right is not always easy. Especially if the one you face is bigger and stronger than you. It is easier to look the other way. But if you do, terrible things can happen. -- E.B.

The allegory is set in a forest with animals of all types. Our narrator seems to be a rabbit who with the other animals looks up to see a terrible shadow which blocks the sun. From the shadow comes a loud voice saying they have come for all animals with feathers. The other animals are happy that they do not have feathers and do nothing to help the birds. Then the shadows come for animals with bushy tails, then animals that swim, then animals with quills, and finally for all animals that are white. Suddenly the rabbits are no longer safe and wonder if they could have stopped the Terrible Things in the beginning by standing up for the birds. Have you ever asked yourself the same question? Was there a time when you could have stopped a bully? Or even stopped something that was wrong from being done? I think we all must answer yes. This is, of course, the power of the story.

The illustrations, by award winning illustrator Stephen Grammell, are very powerful. The cover above shows the rabbit running from the Terrible Thing and shows the style of illustrations inside the book. I like that they are in a simple black and white, with shadows used for things we might not understand but intuitively know are bad. I think the technique is excellent in that it allows for a wide use of the story - nothing that would terrify a younger child, but detailed enough to be readily understood by an older child.

The Mandel Fellowship Teaching Resources site contains a very nice lesson plan for Terrible Things. The actual web site contains other very interesting and informative links. Check it out if you have the time.

TITLE: Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust
AUTHOR: Eve Bunting
ILLUSTRATOR: Stephen Gammell
TYPE: Holocaust fiction
RECOMMEND: I loved this little book. This book asks the question I, along with many other people, have asked so many times. Why did no one stop the madness? Why did so many people turn a blind eye? This book helps explore this topic and what can happen when no one stands up for what is right.

Goodbye Marianne

Goodbye Marianne by Irene Kirstein Watts is considered documentary fiction as it is based on the author's experiences in Germany during the Holocaust combined with experiences of others. Uniquely, this small volume is a play with three to seven actors. Marianne is a young Jewish girl living in Berlin in 1938. She experiences the tightening of laws against Jews. She finds she cannot attend school, cannot sit in the park, and sadly Marianne cannot trust her own emotions. She meets a boy who seems to be her friend until he finds out she is Jewish. She is unhappy to see that he is just like all the rest. In the end, he really is different, but it is not enough. Marianne's mother sends her on one of the first Kindertransportes to Canada. The sadness of this event is all too real for both mother and daughter. Still it saved Marianne's life.

The play is brief at only approximately 30 pages in a small book. I can easily see it being used in middle and high school history classes. The author also provides a well-defined glossary.

TITLE: Goodbye Marianne
AUTHOR: Irene Kirstein Watts
TYPE: Documentary fiction
RECOMMEND: As I mentioned earlier, this could be used as a preformance during a Holocaust unit and open many different discussions.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Please make sure that you watch for Book Blogger Appreciation Week which will be September 13-17, 2010 this year. Tomorrow is the last day to register (which will list your blog in a directory and increase your visibility). In addition, you may submit your blog for awards. Although this blog is very specific in focus, I believe that the resources I review are vitally important for children's literature. Therefore, I am submitting the following five reviews for the Best KidLit Book Blog.

The Hidden Girl: A True Story of the Holocaust

The Cat with the Yellow Star


Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story

Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust

Thank you so much for your consideration and for remembering those whose stories will never be told.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Number on My Grandfather's Arm

This is a very simple book with a great deal of information. The Number on My Grandfather's Arm is a conversation between a young girl and her grandfather. For the first time, the young girl notices a number on her grandfather's arm. She asks him what the number means. The girl's mother urges the grandfather to explain the number to the girl. The grandfather explains his experiences during the Holocaust in Poland. Both begin to cry and the young girl tells her grandfather,

I put my hand on Grandpa's and told him, "You shouldn't be ashamed to let people see your number. You didn't do anything wrong. It's the Nazi's who should be ashamed." (p. 22)

The beauty of this book is that each page has a photograph of a grandfather and granddaughter talking together. The author chose to use real people rather than illustrations and it adds to the realistic feel of the book. The author also includes some background history on the war - very simple so that it can be understood by a younger child.

TITLE: The Number on My Grandfather's Arm
AUTHOR: David Adler
TYPE: Holocaust fiction
RECOMMEND: I really like this book for the younger child. The author touches on the many topics of anti-Semitism during the war. The number on the grandfather's arm stands for all the horrible things that happened to the Jewish people.