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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: holocaust, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. The Upstairs Room (1972)

The Upstairs Room. Johanna Reiss. 1972.  HarperCollins. 208 pages. [Source: Library]

I am so glad I decided to read Johanna Reiss' The Upstairs Room. This one has been on my list of books I needed to read for quite a while--over a decade at least. It is nonfiction--a biography--set during World War II. The author and her sister were Jews that hid for several years from the Nazis.

Readers meet Annie, the young heroine, and her family. She has several older sisters, a mother and father. The war changes everything for the family. The mother, who was close to death anyway--the Nazis invasion of Holland didn't really change the outcome. The family found hiding places, but, separate hiding places. Annie was placed in a hiding place with one of her sisters. Readers meet the two families that hid the two girls. One family became like a second family to her. I found the book to be a quick read, and quite intense.

The book itself was well-written: both compelling and well-paced. What surprised me a little bit, and what might surprise others as well, is the language. I wasn't expecting (strong) profanity in a Newbery Honor book! I really wasn't. That being said, it wasn't a huge issue for me--as an adult reader. But I could see how it might not work for certain families as a read-aloud choice.


© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee

Hiroki Sugihara, the son of a Japanese diplomat posted to Lithuania in 1940, tells how his father suddenly found himself confronted with a terrible dilemma.

Hundreds of Jewish refugees, driven out of Poland by the Nazis after they had invaded and then occupied that country, began to show up at the gates of the Sugihara home, which doubled as the Japanese embassy.  The Sugihara's, Hiroki, his younger brothers Chiaki and Haruki, his Auntie Setsuko, and his parents lived upstairs, and his father, Chiune Sugihara, worked downstairs.

Men, women and children, dressed in layers of clothing despite the July heat, were seeking visas that would enable them to travel through Russia to find asylum in Japan.  Sugihara knew he had to do something, so he asked the crowd to choose five people to come inside and talk with him.

The next day, Sugihara cabled the Japanese government asking if he might be allowed to issue visas to the desperate refugees.  His country refused his request, leaving Sugihara with a tough moral decision - turn away the people outside his gate and leave them to certain death at the hands of the Nazis or disobey his government.

Sugihara chose to issue visas to each and every person outside his gates, disregarding Japan's order.  Day after day, from early morning to late in the evening, Sugihara hand wrote about 300 visas per day.  Even after the Nazis and Soviets began to close in on Lithuania, visas were written, right up until the family was ordered by Japan to leave when Sugihara was reassigned to Berlin.

In telling his father's story, Hiroki writes in the Afterward that it is a story that he believes "will inspire [readers] to care for all people and to respect life. It is a story that proves that one person can make a difference."  His father remained a diplomat for many years after the war, eventually leaving the Foreign Service.  In the 1960s, Chiune Sugihara began to hear from some of the people to whom he had given visas, and who referred to themselves a Sugihara survivors.  He ultimately received the Righteous Among Nations award from Yad Vashem in Israel.

Dom Lee's sepia-toned illustrations provide close detail and give a feeling of dimension and authenticity to the story being told, seemingly based on old photographs of the July 1940 events.  They are done by an very unusual method.  Lee applied encaustic beeswax to paper, scratched out the image he wanted and then added oil paint and colored pencil.

Passage to Freedom is indeed an inspiring story and one that should be shared with young readers.  Sugihara was a real hero, a man who put human life above politics,  even at a time when Japan was at war with China and relations were already contentious with Great Britain and the United States.  One thing that did amaze me was that his government didn't call him back to Japan to censure him.

An extensive PDF Classroom Guide for Passage to Freedom is available from the publisher, Lee & Low books.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

This 11 minute video recounts the life of Chiune Sugihara at the time he was writing so many visas, it includes Sugihara survivors and his wife's recollections.



Today is Nonfiction Monday:

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3. Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle

This free verse novel, written from a first person perspective by three separate and distinct voices, introduces the reader to Daniel, a 13 year old German Jewish refugee who held the hand of his grandfather as he died on Kristalnacht; Paloma, the 12 year old daughter of a corrupt Cuban official who determines, for a high price, who gets a visa to enter Cuba.  Paloma also works at a shelter to help the refugees adjust to their new surroundings; and David, an elderly Russian Jew who fled his country in the 1920s because of pogroms and with whom Daniel is able to communicate in Yiddish.

The novel begins in June 1939 and, as each of these three characters tell their story, the reader also learns that Daniel's parents are musicians who decided to save Daniel because they could only scrape together enough money to pay for one ticket on a ship and send him away from the Nazis.  It was his and their hope that they would be reunited in New York someday.  

Paloma, ashamed of her father's abuse of power and the high price he charges desperate people for a visa, works with the American Quakers in Cuba to help people find shelter and provide them with food and clothing more suitable to a warm climate.

David, who hands out ice cream and food to the refugees with Paloma, befriends Daniel and convinces him to take off the heavy winter coat he brought from home, and metaphorically shedding his old life.  Over time, Daniel, David and Paloma become friends and David helps Daniel begin to move on with his life, though never forgetting his parents.  

In December 1941, when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, paranoia that Germany has sent spies to Cuba increases and the Cuban government orders all non-Jewish Germans to be arrested.  The three friends watch husbands and wives torn from each other because one spouse is Jewish and the other is Christan, and think of the oldest couple in the shelter.  Having crossed Europe together, hiding from Nazis any way they could, Miriam, a Jew, and Marcos, a Christian, are about to be separated in what should have been their place of safety.  Are Paloma, Daniel and David willing to risk everything to help this elderly couple hide from the police?  Does the fear of German spies mean that ships from Germany will now be turned away from Cuba?

Despite being written in free verse, each one of three characters begins to really come to life as they tell their thoughts and secrets and share the different obstacles they must face and overcome, but each is also willing to do what they can to help others in the difficult times and circumstances they find themselves in.    

This is the fourth book I've read about the experience of Jews fleeing Europe and Hitler's cruelty, seeking refuge in Cuba.  This book covers a three year period, from June 1939 to April 1942.  Read carefully, because Engle packs a lot of information about life in Cuba during that time as the characters speak.  There is both corruption and kindness to be found, as well as the anti-Semitic propaganda campaign launched by Germany in Cuba; the eventual turning away of other ships and forcing them to return to Germany and death, and the rounding up of Christians married to Jews and believed to be spies.  Engle includes that and more in her spare, yet graceful poetic style.

There are a lot of excellent stories written about the experience of people during the Holocaust, but not many about the experience of Jews and Cuba.  Books like Tropical Secrets give us another side of what life was like for Jews living under Hitler and their desperate attempts to escape - sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  Ships like Daniels continued to be turned away from the US and Canada, and even though Cuba eventually did the same, it did provide a relatively safe haven for 65,000 refugees.

Be sure to read the Author's Note at the end of the book to learn more about Cuba in WWII.

Tropical Secrets is a very moving novel about family, friendship, tolerance, love, and survival.

A reading guide can be downloaded HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL



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4. Escape in Time by Ronit Lowenstein-Malz

Living a comfortable life in Tel Aviv, Nessya, 12, is stunned to hear that her grandmother, Miri Malz, has been invited to speak at her school's Holocaust Remembrance Day program.  Nessya has never heard her happy, smiling grandmother speak being a Holocaust survivor, and besides, she doesn't even have at tattoo AND she has her family's old photo albums - items always destroyed by the Nazis.

When Nessya and her friend Rachel cook up a scheme to get into Grandma Miri's apartment to search for evidence while she is out to look for clues, the plan backfires.  But, is Grandma Miri really a survivor?  For almost two weeks, Grandma Miri keeps to herself, seeing no one but her husband.  When she finally does come to visit, she takes Nessya aside and begins to talk to her about her past.

Living in Munkács, Czechoslovakia, Miri Eneman was part of a large, loving family and life was pretty peaceful.  The family thought they were Hungarian and pretty safe from the Nazis, until one night in the spring of 1944 it all changed with a knocking on their door.  The family was being rounded up.  That night, Miri's father escaped out the back window, leaving everyone to think he had run off and deserted his family.  But in reality, that was just the beginning of his fight for their survival.

When she leaves, Grandma Miri gives Nessya a packet of letters written by her family members and tucked into their diaries, all of which her grandmother had spent two weeks translating for her granddaughter and including her own memories of her family during the Holocaust.  The story of her family's survival is her gift to Nessya for her upcoming bat mitzvah.

Miri's story is riveting.  The Eneman family is often on the run after escaping the Munkács Ghetto, in hiding and living in fear, separated from other family members and never knowing what is happening to them.  All the while, Miri's father manages to anticipate what to do and stay one step ahead of Nazi actions, even hiding in plain sight in Budapest.  At one point, they find themselves living in and caring for a grand apartment after the owner flees to Switzerland.  Here, they lived across the street from the virulent anti-Semitic Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party's headquarters and under the nose to an equally anti-Semitic concierge.  But can their collective luck whole out until the end of the war?

Escape in Time is a truly apt name for this novel about one Jewish family's survival during the Holocaust.  It is a story of courage, daring, luck and survival doing whatever needs to be done.  Lowenstein-Malz based this story on actual memoirs giving it a real sense of authenticity.  The book is written in such a way that the reader reads Miri's story right along with Nessya, but there are occasional breaks where we see her reaction to what she is reading (don't be surprised if your reactions are similar to hers).

There aren't many good middle grade books about the fate of Hungarian Jews in WWII so this is a welcome additon to the body of Holocaust literature.  For so long, they, like the Eneman family, thought they were safe, but it was just a question of time and politics and it all changed.  It is one of the reasons that I found myself so drawn into Miri's memories, and her family's letters and diary entries.  This is a slightly different Holocaust story in that, interestingly, no one in Grandma Miri's immediate family spends any time in a concentration camp, though extended family were sent there from the ghetto in 1944.  Young readers will not only meet this courageous family, but they will also meet some really good people willing to help the Enemen family as well as some really hateful people who would turn them in in the blink of an eye.

Escape in Time was originally written in Hebrew and I found the translation to be a very smooth one.  Having done some translating myself, I know it is often hard to get together all the elements that make a book great, but that wasn't a problem here.

Throughout this novel, there are realistic sepia-toned portrait illustrations that enhance the narration about the Eneman family.

Miri and her older sister Magda
Escape in Time is a well-written book with well drawn, realistic characters for young readers interested in the Holocaust or historical fiction, and since it is a story of survival against great odds, don't be surprised if you shed a few tears along with Nessya.  I did.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This was an EARC recieved from Net Galley


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5. The Wren and the Sparrow by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

It's hard to imagine that such a lyrical story could be written about a time as terrible as the Holocaust, but that is exactly what J. Patrick Lewis has done in this new picture book allegory.

The story takes place in a small town in Poland that has shriveled up under the occupation of the Tyrant and his Guards.   Living in shadow, an old man nightly plays his hurdy-gurdy, singing so beautifully, he is called the Wren by his neighbors.  He has on music student - a young girl called the Sparrow with fiery red hair.

One day, the Guards order all the residents of the town to turn in their musical instruments.  The Wren brings his beloved hurdy-gurdy but begs to allowed to play one more song before handing it in.  As he plays, the whole town begins to sing.  At the end of his song, the old man gives his instrument to the Guards and disappeared himself, never to be seen again.

The instruments are all thrown into a pile to be destroyed later.  But later that night, the Sparrow sneaks into the storage area and finds the hurdy-gurdy.  Inside it is a hidden note from the Wren to the Sparrow.  She takes the instrument and note and hides the them in the hope that they will survive the war and be found in the future and that the finder will know exactly what happened in this small town in Poland and the world will never forget.

I think this is a wonderful example of an allegorical story, Allegory, you will remember, is typically used as a literary device that uses symbolic figures, events etc for revealing a more complex issue or meaning in a work with a moral or political message.  Here, Lewis uses symbolic types rather than realistic characters, - the Wren, the Sparrow, the Guards, the Tyrant - in an abstract setting - a small town in Poland - to achieve maximum impact of this Holocaust story about the Nazi occupation and the the fate of Europe's Jews.   The result is a powerful multi-layered picture book for older readers that should not be missed.


Patrick's words and text reminded me of the way Expressionist writers sought to convey feelings and emotions in an anxious world.  Here his words are simple and elegant in contrast to his topic, but at the same time so very ominous.  Unlike Eve Bunting's excellent Terrible Things: an Allegory of the Holocaust, another picture book for older readers, which ends on a note of hopelessness, The Wren and the Sparrow sees hope for the future.

Perhaps following Patrick's lead, Yevgenia Nayberg's expressionistly styled illustrations are painted in a dark palette of yellows, greens and browns that ends in a lighter illustration done in bright blue-green at the end, symbolizing a message that even in the darkest of days, hope can survive.  Illustrations and text compliment and enhance each other throughout this allegory.

And be sure to read the Afterword at the end of the story that explains how Lewis was inspired by the street musicians and performers in the Lodz Ghetto.  In fact, performers and music were a sustaining force in ghetto life under the Nazis and Lewis has written a beautiful homage to them in The Wren and the Sparrow.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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6. Mister Doctor: Janusz Korczak & The Orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto by Irène Cohen-Janca, art by Maurizio A.C. Quarello

Janusz Korczak was a well-known, well-respected children's pediatrician in Poland in the early part of the 1900s.  Among his many accomplishments, he had founded an orphanage to care for some of Warsaw's young Jewish orphans. He loved children and would often regale his charges with stories he made up, including the now classic tale of King Matt the First, as well as looking after their health and cheering them up with their needed it.  And the children loved him back, affectionately calling him Mister Doctor.

On November 29, 1940, all the orphans living in the big orphanage at 92 Krochmalha Street in Warsaw, Poland were ordered to leave by the Nazis.  Accompanied by Mister Doctor and his assistant Madam Stefa, all of the children walked to the ghetto that would be their new home for a while carrying their meager belongings, softly singing, and the flag of King Matt the First.

Their new home is small, located within a two block radius, surrounded by barbed wire and armed watchman, their living quarters are cramped and dirty.  When their wagon full of potatoes were confiscated by the Nazis, Mister Doctor put on his WWI uniform and went to Gestapo headquarters, where he was laughed at, ridiculed, beaten and temporarily arrested.

Life in the ghetto grew more and more crowded as more Jews were brought in, food became scarcer and scarcer, with men, women and children dying in the streets everyday from starvation and disease.  Finally, in August 1942, the children were ordered to the train station and from there to a concentration camp and death.  But Mister Doctor was offered his freedom, after all, he was a famous doctor.  Instead, he refused and choose to accompany his children on this final journey.

The story Mister Doctor is told by a young boy named Simon to a younger, newly arrived orphan named Mietek.  Simon describes in detail how the orphanage was run, how the children were educated and how Mister Doctor took such special care of all of them.  At the same time, Simon is talking about past, he also gives detailed information to the reader about what is going on in their present situation.  Cohen-Janca has really captured the sense of longing and nostalgia in Simon's voice when he talks about life in the orphanage before the Nazis invaded Poland, and the fear and apprehension he feels about what is to come.

The story told here is a fictional reimagining of what happened to Dr. Janusz Korczak and the children in his care, but based on the true story of what happened to them during the Holocaust.  Pay particular attention to the last three paragraphs of this book and ask yourself who wrote them and why?

Like Michael Morpurgo's Half A Man, this book also looks like a chapter book with only 68 pages a simple narrative style and many illustrations, but it is also deceptively complicated and really for a middle grade reader.

The realistic black and white illustrations set against a marbled peach background are a precise reflection of the words that Cohen-Janca has written, and give the reader a real-to-life sense of the children, the doctor and their lives from 1940 to 1942.  Little touches, like the figure of Puss in Boots leaping over the barbed-wire fence of the ghetto as Simon talks about how that cat and his courageous deeds always gave the orphans courage.  But there is a subtext that says the Nazis can take away housing, food, dignity, but not the stories that means so much and help the get kids through very difficult times.

This is a powerfully poignant story that shouldn't be missed.  Additionally, at the end of Mister Doctor is information about the real Janusz Korczak, whose real name was Henryk Goldszmit, followed by a briefbut useful list of Further Reading and Resources, Children's Books by Janusz Korczak, Resources for Parents and Teachers and Related Links.

Mister Doctor was translated by Paula Ayer

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-ARC received from NetGalley

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7. Determined (2014)

Determined. A. Avraham Perlmutter. 2014. Mascherato Publishing. 172 pages. [Source: Review copy]

For anyone with an interest in World War II and/or the Holocaust, you should consider reading the memoir Determined by A. Avraham Perlmutter. I am always eager to read more, so, I was happy to receive a copy of this for review.

The first third of the memoir focuses on the war itself. On his experience as a Jew during World War II trying to survive. Readers also learn about his family, his background, his childhood, Hitler's rise to power, etc. Everything readers need to know and understand to appreciate his personal story.

The final two-thirds of the memoir focus on his life AFTER the war sharing his experiences in Europe, in Israel, and finally the United States. This section focuses more on moving on with his life and establishing himself. Readers see him as a survivor, a soldier, a student, a husband, a father, and an engineer. The story of his life is so much more than just a surviving-the-war story.

The book includes plenty of photographs and documents to supplement the story.

I'm glad I read this one.
© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. Emil & Karl (1940)

Emil and Karl. Yankev Glatshteyn. Translated from the Yiddish by Jeffrey Shandler. 1940/2006. Roaring Book Press. 208 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I love the idea of loving Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn. Emil and Karl was written in 1940 in Yiddish. It is set in Austria. It is the first--or at least among the very first--book written for children about the persecution Jews were experiencing from the Nazis.

Emil and Karl have always, always been best friends. Emil's Jewish. Karl's the son of socialists. Both are "orphans" in a way because of the Nazis. The book opens with intensity: readers first glimpse of Karl is haunting. Karl's mother has been taken away by the Nazis. He's witnessed this: not only the arrest, but the beating too. He's alone in the apartment, feeling very alone, very frightened, very worried. For they told him they'd be back to take him too. He doesn't know what to do next, where to go, who to trust. He decides to run to Emil's house. Emil's world has also been devastated within the past day or two. His father was taken and killed. His mother is grieving and shattered.

Karl and Emil are very much on their own it seems. The two stick together no matter what. They'll face danger and be put into difficult situations time and time again. There are many scenes that stay with you.

But while I find the premise of this one fascinating, it isn't the absolute best book about the holocaust. It may be among the first, but, that doesn't make it among the best of the best. Worth reading? I think so if you already have an interest in the subject. But if you only read one book on the subject, I'd have to recommend you go with another book.

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. 50 Children (2014)

50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission Into the Heart of Nazi Germany. Steven Pressman. 2014. HarperCollins. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission Into the Heart of Nazi Germany is a must-read. It is incredibly compelling and, in my opinion, unforgettable. It tells the true story of an American Jewish couple, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, and how they diligently worked to save 50 Jewish children from Nazi Germany in 1939. Why 50? Well. They faced obstacles. You might think the biggest obstacles they faced were in Nazi Germany, working with the Nazi regime/government. And no doubt the obstacles they faced when they actually traveled there themselves to do the paperwork and bring over the children were many. But. What might surprise you is how BIG the obstacles were in the United States that they faced. The truth: the United States knew about the ever-increasing risks and dangers facing Jews, they knew that it was a matter of life-and-death, but they did not care. They simply did not care. They did not want Jewish immigrants. Plain and simple. There were laws in place, and those laws were kept strictly, limiting the number of immigrants, of Jewish immigrants. And loopholes had to be found, in a way, to get even those fifty into the United States. Want to know another sad truth? The couple faced opposition from Jewish Americans, from Jewish organizations in America! The book tells how some Jews worried that by bringing MORE Jews into the country, it would increase prejudice and hatred towards them.

The book tells the remarkable story of the men and women involved in this rescue mission. It tells of their determination and stubbornness, their perseverance, how they would not stop until it was accomplished, how they would not quit and say well, we tried, but, there's nothing more we can do. No, they could not turn away from what they knew to be right and good. It's an inspiring, courageous story.

I definitely recommend this one!

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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10. Hidden Like Anne Frank (2014)

Hidden Like Anne Frank. Marcel Prins. Peter Henk Steenhuis. Translated by Laura Watkinson. Scholastic. 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]

If I had to pick just a few words to describe this Holocaust collection, I would choose the words honest and haunting. Hidden Like Anne Frank is a collection of fourteen true stories of survival. All of these stories are set in the Netherlands during World War II. All focus on children (or teenagers) who hid from the Nazis. Anne Frank is perhaps the most famous hidden child from the war, but unlike Anne Frank, these are the survivor stories, the so-called happy-ending holocaust stories. Before I read the book, I would have considered the fact that they survived through the war enough to make it a happy ending. What I learned was that was not always the case.

What followed was years of tears. A whole lifetime. That war will not be over until I take my last breath. (211, Donald de Marcas)

The fourteen: Rita Degen, Jaap Sitters, Bloeme Emden, Jack Eljon, Rosemary Kahn, Lies Elion, Maurice Meijer, Sieny Kattenburg, Leni de Vries, Benjamin Kosses, Michael Goldsteen, Lowina de Levie, Johan Sanders, and Donald de Marcas.

I liked the fact that these were individual stories. Each writer, each survivor, has their own voice, their own story, their own message. No two stories really read alike. This is as it should be. Readers catch glimpses of what life was like before, during, and after the war.

I found Hidden Like Anne Frank was a book I had to read very slowly. To read more than two or three stories at a time proved too much. This one is not a light read. It is compelling and honest and important. But it is not easy.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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11. Hidden like Anne Frank by Marcel Prins

Hidden Like Anne Frank: 14 true stories of survival by Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis; translated by Laura Watkinson An Arthur A. Levine Book; Scholastic. 2014 ISBN: 9789545543620 Grades 7 thru 12 To review this book, I checked a copy out from my local public library Anne Frank recorded in her diary the two years the Frank family spent in hiding during World War II. Though Anne’s story

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12. The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

In the Summer of 1941, the manager of the large animal reserve in the Ukraine, Askaniya-Nova, told his senior caretaker Maxim Borisovich Melnik to kill all the animals before the Germans arrived and did it themselves to replenish their dwindling food supplies.

But Max can't bring himself to do it, and when the Nazis arrive and take over the reserve, he is sure that the Well-educated, well-bred, well-spoken Captain Grenzman will spare the animals, especially his beloved untamable Przewalski's horses.  But soon it is winter and the soldiers have to eat and little by little, the animals on the reserve are killed until only the small herd of Przewalski's horses are left.

Until the day Grenzman tells Max that he has received his orders from Berlin to "remove from the animal population of the Greater German Reich what is, after all, a biologically unfit species, in order to protect the line of decent domesticated horses…from possible contamination by your wandering pit ponies." (pg 25) Besides, the Nazis have run out of food again.

Meanwhile, Kalinka, 15, the only Jewish survivor of a Nazi mass shooting that included her entire family, has found her way to Askaniya-Nova, where she befriends and is befriended by the lead stallion and mare of the Przewalski's herd there, a most unusual thing for these horses to do.

Like Max, Kalinka witnesses and is horrified by the killing of the herd of Przewalski's horses and when it was over, she goes looking for the mare and stallion who had helped save her life to see if there is anything she can do for them.  Not finding them, Kalinka returns to her hiding place, only to discover that the two horses have made their way back there, too.  But the mare has a bullet lodged in her shoulder and Kalinka knows she needs to seek help from Max.

Max is overjoyed to see the two Przewalski's and welcomes Kalinka with open arms.  He removes the bullet and puts the two horses and Kalinka in the abandoned waterworks buildings not far from his cottage.  But soon, that becomes a dangerous place for them, as well, and the two hatch a plan to get both the horses and Kalinka to where they can find safety with the Red Army.

It's a dangerous plan, but if it doesn't work, it will be the end of the Przewalski's horses.

The Winter Horses is based somewhat on the real shooting of Przewalski's horses by the Nazis during WWII, but the rest of the story should not be seen as a history but as a legend, which contains only an element of historic fact, but also has a rather mythical quality.  Or at least, that is how Philip Kerr introduces this story of an unlikely hero, heroine and the two horses they want to save, and which accounts for the very understated element of fantasy in the novel.

I though that because of this legend quality Kerr gave his story, that writing the novel with an omniscient third person point of view really worked well.  It provided just the kind of distancing that a novel like this needs.  In fact, it reminded me of the original Kinder- und Hausmärchen by the Brothers Grimm, which all had that same dichotomy of cruelty and kindness to them (unlike their prettified, disneyfied fairy tales counterparts of today) found  in The Winter Horses.

Even so, I suspect that this is may be as difficult a story to read for others as it was for me.  The calm cruelty of Captain Grenzman and his obsessive need to eradicate the all horses was almost unbearable, mainly because it was so analogous to what was being done to the entire Jewish population.

Still, I highly recommend The Winter Horses to anyone with an interest in WWII, and given what is going on in the Ukraine at the moment, readers may find this even more of an interesting read, asking themselves, as I did, will history be repeating itself here?  After all, the Askaniya-Nova reserve still exists in the southern Ukraine.

Philip Kerr is a favorite author of mine, having written a wonderful mystery series about a detective named Bernie Gunther set in pre-war Berlin for adult readers.  The Winter Horses is his first historical fiction for young readers (but not his first work for kids - as Ms. Yingling points out in her review, Philip Kerr also wrote a fantasy series, Children of the Lamp,  under the name P.B.Kerr).

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

Random House has an educator's guide to The Winter Horses complete with CCSS tie-ins that can be downloaded HERE

If you would like to know more about Przewalski's horses, you might this article in Scientific American  interesting, or this entry on Wikipedia giving the history of Przewalski's horses or the history of Askaniya-Nova

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13. Holocaust fatigue and the will to remember

By Arlene Stein


If talk of the Holocaust was in the air when I was growing up in the 1970s I was barely aware of it, even in New York City which was home to a large Jewish population, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. We did not learn about the Holocaust in school, even in lessons about World War II, or about the waves of immigration to America’s shores. There was barely a category of experience called “the Holocaust.” The genocide of European Jewry was generally subsumed under talk of “the war.” A patchwork memorial culture was forming, but it was modest, somber, locally-based, and generally not seen as relevant to non-Jewish Americans. In encounters with family and neighbors in the early postwar years, survivors often felt misunderstood, unrecognized, and even shamed.

Today, in contrast, the genocide of European Jewry is a frequent subject of Hollywood films and part of US high school curricula. Our losses are much less private; now they have a name and a hulking museum in our nation’s capital. Few in the West would deny that remembering the Holocaust is one of our responsibilities as human citizens.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Bridges by Cumulus Clouds via Wikimedia Commons

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Bridges by Cumulus Clouds. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A number of historians have shown how American Jewish organizations gradually came to recognize the Holocaust and call for its public commemoration. But what of the efforts of survivors and their children? Paradoxically, they have been left out of such histories.

Interviews with survivors and descendants, and my own experiences, suggest that children of survivors were instrumental in bringing Holocaust stories into the public sphere. For decades after the war, few survivors talked openly about what they had endured, fearing that others did not want to hear, and trying to protect their children. That changed in the 1970s, when their children moved into adulthood. Influenced by feminism, the ethnic revival, and therapeutic culture, they began to probe their parents’ pasts, bringing their private stories of trauma into public view. In families where so many ghosts shared the dinner table, this was exceedingly difficult to do. Building a Holocaust memorial culture entailed a great deal of work: emotional, material, and political.

But even today, in the midst of a robust memorial culture, the Holocaust remains forbidden territory. We distance ourselves from it, bathing it in Hollywood homilies to the power of human kindness. We draw boundaries around it, housing it in concrete structures, hoping to contain it. A sense of fatigue seems to be setting in: many Jewish Americans yearn to be an ethnic and religious group defined by foods and ritual customs, rather than by pain and suffering.

A number of years ago, I sat in Carnegie Hall listening to the Klezmatics meld the music of the shtetl with contemporary folk. They had performed a song in Yiddish that spoke of the genocide in a small Polish town. As one of the performers translated the lyrics for the audience, a man sitting in front of me turned to his wife and said facetiously, “Oh that’s very uplifting.” It jarred his sense of what is suitable to perform in public, and what constituted entertainment.

More and more, one hears ambivalence about the fact that the genocide has emerged as a core element of Jewish identity. Like other Americans, Jews wish to move on from traumatic pasts. As sociologist Nancy Berns writes: “Closure offers order and predictability instead of ambiguity and uncertainty.” It allows us to “get on with our lives” and resume expectations of productivity and forward trajectories.

Yad Vashem Hall of Names by David Shankbone. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The permanent association of Jewish identity with victimization is highly problematic, to be sure. Jews, particularly in the United States, are no longer collectively powerless, even if they consistently perceive anti-Semitism to be more endemic to American society than public opinion polls say it is.

For much of the world the continued strife in the Middle East and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories captured in 1967 diminishes Jewish claims to moral authority and sympathy on the basis of past suffering. So do specious Holocaust analogies, such the recent claim by private equity titan Stephen A. Schwartzman that asking financiers to pay taxes at the same rate as those who work for a living is comparable to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

Still, those who say that the past is behind us and that we need to move on fail to appreciate what a hard-won accomplishment Holocaust consciousness was, how much resistance those who tried to speak openly about the genocide often encountered during the first decades after World War II, and how important it has been for survivors and their children to finally be able to share their stories. In this light, the call for Jews to stop talking so much about their tragic past may be awfully premature.

Arlene Stein is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers and the author of Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, The Forward, and Jacobin, among other publications.

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14. The Auschwitz Escape (2014)

The Auschwitz Escape. Joel C. Rosenberg. 2014. Tyndale. 468 pages. [Source: Library]

The Auschwitz Escape is a compelling historical novel starring two wonderful heroes. Readers meet Jean Luc Leclerc a pastor who follows his heart and sets out to rescue as many Jews as he can. He "rescues" them by providing for the needs of refugees. He takes Jews into his home and hides them, he encourages every one in his town to do so. His rescue work continues for several years before he is arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz. Readers also meet a young Jewish man named Jacob Weisz. He is part of the Resistance, Belgium Resistance, I believe? He is doing his all to help as well. He too is captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. However they don't learn his true name for many months. Both men learn the upsetting fate of most Jews upon arrival. Both realize that it is not a work camp, but, instead a death camp. Both men are chosen by others in the camp to be part of an underground resistance. Both are chosen to be part of an escape program. They feel very strongly that several teams of two-men need to escape from the camp and seek not only immediate refuge, but, to be messengers. They feel that if the outside world had even a small clue what was happening, they would act, they would do something, they couldn't not do something, right? So Luc and Jacob are the third or maybe fourth team over a year to attempt to escape. Will their escape succeed? Will they survive? Will they be able to find help? What will happen when they speak the truth?

The Auschwitz Escape is fiction. But there were men who did manage to escape who did carry messages and horrific proof about the camp with them to share with the outside world.

I would definitely recommend this one.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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15. The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay

It is Fall 1942 and the Nazis have been occupying Holland since Spring 1940.  Beatrix, 6, and her mother are Jews who have been running and hiding from the Nazis for that long.  But now it is time to hid Beatrix in a safer more stable place.

Sitting on the tram, on their way to meet the woman who would take Beatrix to safety, her mother is suddenly taken away by the Nazis who regularly board and search the trams looking for Jews.  Beatrix is left sitting on the tram by herself.

Brothers Lars, 63,  and Hans Gorter, 65, both life-long bachelors, work together on a tram - Hans driving it while Lars collects tickets.  When it looked like the Nazis were also going to take Beatrix away, Lars suddenly told them that she was his niece.  The war and all the rumors they had heard about Nazi treatment of Jews suddenly became real for the brothers.

Now, these kind, well-meaning though naive brothers must learn how to care for a little girl, who has been traumatized by the loss of her mother and who must become someone different than who she really is - if only for the duration of the Nazi occupation.  Luckily, Hans and Lars have help from their elderly neighbor Mrs. Vos, 80, and from a new, younger neighbor, Lieve van der Meer, 30, who husband is rumored to have escaped Holland and is flying for the RAF.

Why would two older men who have made it a point to always live quietly and keep a low profile, suddenly risk everything, including their lives, for a little girl they know nothing about?  That is the question at the heart of The End of the Line and Canadian author Sharon McKay answers it eloquently as the story of Beatrix and her new uncles unfolds.

There are lots of books about Jewish children who were rescued by people during the Holocaust and who did what they did simply because they believed it was the right thing to do.  But these stories are generally written from the point of view of the child.  What makes The End of the Line stand out is that it is written from the point of view of the two brothers. and yet it is a thoroughly appealing, totally engaging book for young readers accustomed to reading about protagonists their own age.

Living under Nazi occupation meant living under a daily shroud of fear and anxiety, never knowing if you were going to be singled out at any given moment.  There are plenty of these moments portrayed in the story of Hans, Lars and Beatrix, like the time Beatrix whispers Geb Achting, Yiddish for be careful, to a young Nazi soldier.  However, the story offers more insight into what it was like for the brothers in order to survive the war and the occupation of Holland, from dressing Beatrix as she grows, managing to find food when there is almost none to be had, even to buying her a doll to cuddle and comfort herself with may be new experiences for Hans and Lars, but keeping her safe from the Nazis turns out to be instinctual for these kind brothers.

The End of the Line is an interesting supplement to Holocaust literature written for young readers by an author who is part of the Canadian War Artist Program and has already written books about child soldiers in Uganda, young girls caught in the war in Afghanistan and short stories dealing with the Holocaust with Kathy Kacer, another Canadian artist who also writes books for young readers about the Holocaust.  This should be a welcome addition to any library.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was received as an E-ARC from NetGalley

You can find more information and a very useful lesson plan for The End of the Line from the publisher HERE

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16. Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

In spring 1944, Hungary was occupied by German soldiers and in the city of Debrecen, a ghetto was formed at the end of April.  Thinking her family was lucky because their apartment fell within the walls of the ghetto, Hanna Mendel continued to believe she would be able to attend Budapest Conservatorium of Music, where she had just been selected for a hard won place as a piano student.

But in the middle of a night in June 1944, a knock on the door by officers informed them that the Mendel family,  parents, high-spirited, defiant older sister Erika and Hanna, 15,  was ordered to assemble outside the synagogue at 8 the next morning.   Before leaving, Hanna rips the C-sharp from her beloved piano and takes it with her.  The next morning the Mendels, along with all of Debrecen's Jews, begin their long trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

Once they arrive at Auschwitz, the family is split up, but luckily Hanna, Erika and their mother are able to stay together in the same barrack, even sharing a bunk.  Put to work in the quarry, one day Hanna sees her music teacher playing piano with an ensemble made of up inmates and called the Birkenau Women's Orchestra.  Piri thinks that maybe she can get Hanna a place in it.

When that doesn't work out, Hanna is sent to audition with five other inmates for the camp's cruel commandant.  Believing she doesn't stand a chance at being chosen, the commandant leave the choice to his totally disinterested son, Karl Jager, who points to Hanna.

Day after day, Hanna trudges to the commandant's house to await the order to play for him and any guests he may have.  The only perks to playing for the commandant is a warm shower everyday (the commandant detests dirt), shoes, a warm coat and a warm house while she's there.  The only extra food is leftovers she must steal and risk getting caught and shot.

Gradually, however, she discovers that Karl Jager harbors his own dangerous secrets and is not as disinterested or as indifferent as she originally thought.  When he treats her kindly, Hanna finds herself more and more attracted to him.  But returning to the barrack at the end of each day, she sees that her mother and Erika are cold, starving and barely surviving.  To make matters worse, her mother, who had started going mad during the roundup in Debrecen, is having more and more trouble surviving the selections each time they are done.

Their one hope is that the Red Army is really moving east as rumored around the camp and that they arrive in time.

Playing for the Commandant is certainly a very readable book.  I read it in one day.  It is told in the first person by Hanna, a very observant 15 year old and on many levels her voice rings true.  Her descriptions of the camp, of the cruelty inflicted on innocent people are spot on.  When she talks about the lice, the smells, the moldy bread or about how skeleton thin her sister and the other women are becoming, you can clearly see and smell what she is describing.

Despite everything, Hanna'a father had told her to survive at any cost to tell the world what happened to the Jews of Europe and so, she is determined to do what her father wanted.

But when she talks about the danger of stealing scraps of leftover food, or of  living under the pressure of always having to please the commandant, Hanna's fate feels just as capricious or dangerous as her fellow inmates.  For example, when the gardener, a Jew, steps on the grave of the commandant's dog, he is shot in the head for it.  But, when a girl at the commandant's house drops a tray with tea and cakes on it, I thought for sure that when she is removed from the house, she is also killed, but she shows up later, and I have to admit, I was surprised to see her again in the novel.

But, Hanna's growing romance with Karl is very most disturbing and a real flaw in the novel.  I guess I thought Hanna should be thinking more about food than a boy.  She didn't get that much more to eat than her sister, and what she got, she shared with Erika.  Also, at one point, Hanna gets angry at the people, ordinary farmers, who watch her walk to and from the commandant's house every day and do nothing.  I got mad at Karl for being against what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, but who passively sits by and watches it all happen.  I would be curious to know how others feel about this part of an otherwise good novel.  

Yet, despite this criticism, in the end, I thought that Playing for the Commandant is definitely worth reading for its message of survival and hope, but not for its gratuitous romance.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This was an EARC received from NetGalley

Though Playing for the Commandant is a complete work of fiction, Jews actually were often used to play music for the Nazis.  Here is the obituary of Natalie Karp, a famous pianist who played for Amon Goeth's birthday on December 9, 1943.  She and her sister allowed to live because of the beautiful piano playing that night.  Goeth was the cruel commandant of the Kraków-Plaszów Concentrtion Camp in Poland (you may recall Goeth from Schindler's List).




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17. Children in the Holocaust and World War II

Children in the Holocaust: Their Secret Diaries. Laurel Holliday, ed. 1996. 432 pages. [Source: Library]

Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries is an almost must-read in my opinion. It is incredibly compelling and emotional. Memoirs are great. They are. I have loved many autobiographies and biographies. But diaries are a bit unique. They tend to stay in the moment; there is a rawness perhaps in the emotions. They capture specific moments in time. They record the best and worst and everything in between. These diary entries are well worth reading.
These children's diaries are testimonies to the fact that telling the truth about violence is not harmful. In fact, one wonders how much greater harm these boys and girls would have suffered had they not written about the horrific events they were experiencing. Far more dangerous than reading about atrocities, I believe, is the pretense that atrocities do not occur. To turn our eyes away and refuse to see, or to let children see, what prejudice and hatred lead to is truly to warp our collective psyche. It is important for all of us--adults and children alike--to acknowledge the depths to which humankind can sink. The children teach us, by sharing their own direct experience of oppression, that nothing is more valuable than human freedom. This lesson alone is reason enough to read and to encourage children to read, these diaries.
This book gathers together diary entries from twenty-two writers. The countries represented include: Poland, Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania, Russia, Belgium, England, Israel, and Denmark. Seven of the twenty-two writers are from Poland. Some writers survived the war. Others did not. I believe that all of these entries have been previously published in some format, in at least one language. The listed age refers to the writer's age for the first diary entry printed in the book. This book provides excerpts from diaries. None of the diaries, I believe, are reprinted in full. These excerpts represent the diaries as a whole, and provide a bigger picture for understanding the war.
  • Janine Phillips, Poland, 10 years old
  • Ephraim Shtenkler, Poland, 11 years old
  • Dirk Van der Heide, Holland, 12 years old
  • Werner Galnick, Germany, 12 years old
  • Janina Heshele, Poland, 12 years old
  • Helga Weissova-Hoskova, Czechoslovakia, 12 years old
  • Dawid Rubinowicz, Poland, 12 years old
  • Helga Kinsky-Pollack, Austria, 13 years old
  • Eva Heyman, Hungary, 13 years old
  • Tamarah Lazerson, Lithuania, 13 years old
  • Yitskhok Rudashevski, Lithuania, 14 years old
  • Macha Rolnikas, Lithuania, 14 years old
  • Charlotte Veresova, Czechoslovakia, 14 years old
  • Mary Berg (pseudonym), Poland, 15 years old
  • Ina Konstantinova, Russia, 16 years old
  • Moshe Flinker, Belgium, 16 years old
  • Joan Wyndham, England, 16 years old
  • Hannah Senesh, Hungary and Israel, 17 years old
  • Sarah Fishkin, Poland, 17 years old
  • Kim Malthe-Bruun, Denmark, 18 years old
  • Colin Perry, England, 18 years old
  • The Unknown Brother and Sister of Lodz Ghetto, Poland, Unknown Age and 12 years old
I won't lie. This book is difficult to read. Difficult in terms of subject matter. It is an emotional experience. Readers are reading private diary entries. The entries capture the terror and horror of the times. They capture the uncertainty that almost all felt: will I survive? will I survive the day? will I survive the war? will my family? will my friends? will I witness their deaths? will I have ANY food to eat today? tomorrow? how much worse can it get? when will this all be over? will I be alive to see the end of the war? what if the Nazis win? The diaries capture facts and details. But they also capture feelings and reactions.
Shootings have now become very frequent at the ghetto exits. Usually they are perpetrated by some guard who wants to amuse himself. Every day, morning and afternoon, when I go to school, I am not sure whether I will return alive. I have to go past two of the most dangerous German sentry posts..., Mary Berg, February 27, 1942, p. 233
Dr. Janusz Korczak's children's home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried a little bundle in his hand. All of them wore white aprons. They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate. At the end of the procession marched Dr. Korczak, who saw to it that the children did not walk on the sidewalk. Now and then, with fatherly solicitude, he stroked a child on the head or arm, and straightened out the ranks. He wore high boots, with his trousers stuck in them, an alpaca coat, and a navy-blue cap, the so-called Maciejowka cap. He walked with a firm step, and was accompanied by one of the doctors of the children's home, who wore his white smock. This sad procession vanished at the corner of Dzielna and Smocza Streets. They went in the direction of Gesia Street, to the cemetery. At the cemetery all the children were shot. We were also told by our informants that Dr. Korczak was forced to witness the executions, and that he himself was shot afterward. Thus died one of the purest and noblest men who ever lived. He was the pride of the ghetto. His children's home gave us courage, and all of us gladly gave part of our own scanty means to support the model home organized by this great idealist. He devoted all his life, all his creative work as an educator and writer, to the poor children of Warsaw. Even at the last moment he refused to be separated from them. ~ Mary Berg, August, 1942, p. 239
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. The Nazi Hunters

Neal Bascomb at the 2014
Association of Jewish Libraries Conference


In honor of Veteran's Day and to show our appreciation for those who strive to keep us safe, let's hear this interview with author Neal Bascomb about The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi. The young adult book, which was based on Bascomb's adult title Hunting Eichman, won the 2014 Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen Readers Category.

AUDIO: 

Press the play button to listen to the podcast now:

Or click MP3 File

CREDITS:

Produced by: Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel 
Supported in part by: Association of Jewish Libraries 
Theme music: The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band 
Facebook: facebook.com/bookoflifepodcast 
Twitter: @bookoflifepod 

Your feedback is appreciated! Please write to bookoflifepodcast@gmail.com or call our voicemail number at 561-206-2473.


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19. Gifts from the Enemy by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Craig Orback

Gifts from the Enemy is based on Alter Wiener's book From a Name to a Number: A Holocaust Survivor's Autobiography. 

It is many years after the Holocaust and Atler begins his personal story of survival by telling the reader that he was an ordinary person with an extraordinary past.

Alter was only 13 when the Nazis invaded Poland, including his small village of Chrzanów.  Up until the invasion on September 1, 1939, the Wiener family, Papa, Mama, and brother Schmuel and Hirsch had lived a comfortable happy life.  His mother was a generous woman and every Shabbath she made sure there was enough food to share with the homeless and less fortunate.

But soon after the Nazis arrived, Jews no longer had any rights - they could not go to school, the park, to the synagogue, and a curfew was imposed making all Jews prisoners in their own homes.  Before long, the Nazis came for Alter's father, killing him.  A year later, they came for his brother Schmuel.

When Alter was 15, the Nazis came for him in the middle of the night.  He never saw any of his family again. Atler was sent to a prison labor camp, where he and the other prisoners were always cold and hungry, and forced to work long hard hours.

While working in a German factory, a German worker caught his attention and pointed to a box.  Later, Alter went to see what she was pointing at.  Underneath a box was a bread and cheese sandwich.  This went on for 30 day and Atler believes that this woman not only helped to save his life, but taught him the valuable lesson that "there are the kind and the cruel in every group of people."

After the Russian Army liberated the camp Alter was in, he tried to find the woman who had shown him some kindness at a time when kindness towards Jews was forbidden.   He never did discover who she was, but he has never forgotten her.

Trudy Ludwig has taken the adult version of Alter Wiener's story and simplified it for younger readers, yet it never sounds condescending or patronizing.  The book is written from Alter's point of view, and as he recounts his experiences, Ludwig is able to include a lot of historical information in his narrative about the Nazi occupation of Poland and about the horror that was the Holocaust without overwhelming or frightening the reader.

Gifts from the Enemy was illustrated by Craig Orback.  His realistic oil paintings are light in times of freedom, happiness or hope and appropriately dark during the days of Alter's imprisonment by the Nazis.

With its message of hope at the end, Gifts from the Enemy is an excellent choice to begin the difficult talking about the Holocaust with children, especially as a read aloud.  And to help do that, Ludwig has included information about hate, the Holocaust, a vocabulary for what might be unfamiliar words for many kids, as well as discussion questions and activities for young readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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20. The Tattered Prayer Book by Ellen Bari, illustrated by Avi Katz

When young Ruthie finds a tattered prayer book in a box of old photographs marked Germany in her grandmother's house, she gets quite a surprise.  The prayer book in written in Hebrew and German and had apparently been burned.  Even more surprising - her grandmother tells Ruthie that the book came from Germany and it belongs to her father.

When Ruthie asks her dad about it, he tells her that he was born and lived a happy life in Hamburg with his family, and with lots of cousins and friends.  But, when the Nazis took over the government in 1933, all that changed.  Soon, Jews weren't allowed in restaurants, movie theaters, libraries, schools.  Old friends became instant bullies.

Then, in November 1938, Nazis began a night of destruction, Kristallnacht, destroying Jewish business and synagogues, setting them on fire.  When Ruthie's dad saw what was left of his synagogue, he also saw burnt prayer books all over.  He reached for one and hid it in his coat - a reminder of the place where he had once been so happy.

One day, while he and his father were in a shop, Nazis came down the road probably to arrest the men.  Ruthie's Grandpa slipped out the back door, while her dad ran home to tell his mother what happened.  Days later, Grandpa came back home and told his family he had to leave, sailing for America with his son Fred.

Every night, her dad opened his burnt, tattered prayer book and prayed.  Finally, in June 1939, visas arrived for Ruthie's dad, mother and brother Sid.  Other friends and family members were leaving Germany, too, for Argentina and Israel.  Others, sadly, had to remain in Germany.

On board the ship, after the Sabbath candles were lit, Ruthie's dad showed the prayer book to his mother, expecting her to be angry, but she wanted it to be a reminder of the good life they had had in Germany and a source of strength for the future.

Recalling what happened so long ago in his life in Germany, after making such an effort to forget it all, Ruthie's father realizes how important that burnt, tattered prayer book had been to him and how much what it symbolized is an important part of himself.

The burnt prayer book is a symbol of both the happy, good life Ruthie's dad and his family shared before the Nazis came to power, and at the same time, the terrible years that followed.

Often, when we talk about the Holocaust, it is about the mass roundups of Jews, the death camps they were sent to, and the attempt to systematically destroy an entire race of people.  But nothing happens in a vacuum and neither did the Holocaust.  Between the years 1933 and 1938, Jews were subject to all kinds of degrading treatment by Hitler's henchman in the SA and the SS, and by ordinary citizens who turned their backs on friends overnight.

In The Tattered Prayer Book, Ellen Bari has written an informative, but gentle picture book for older readers (age 7+) about those deplorable years in a way that kids will definitely understand.  It is an ideal book for parents who wish to introduce their children about the Holocaust themselves before they learn about it in school.  Teachers, however, will also find it to be an excellent book for teaching the Holocaust, as well.

The illustrations by Avi Katz are done in sepia-tones that are reminiscent of old photographs and burnt paper, again reflecting that balance of good and bad times that the prayer book represents.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher

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21. Liesl's Ocean Rescue by Barbara Krasner, illustrated by Avi Katz

I've read two books about European Jews escaping to Cuba in the late 1930s, and both were works of fiction based on true events.  Passing through Havanna by Felicia Rosshandler is an interesting YA/Adult novel based on the author's experiences.  The Other Half of Life by Kim Ablon Whitney is a  middle grade/YA fictionalize version of the trip 938 Jews made on a ship sailing to Cuba and the US and Canada and not being allowed to enter one of these countries and based on the actual trip the MS St. Louis made in 1939.

Liesl's Ocean Rescue is also a fictionalized version of the fated ship, the St. Louis and based on one girl's true experience of her disappointing trip to safety from the Nazis in Germany.  Liesl's trip began on the night of her father's 56th birthday, November 9, 1938.   While celebrating, the gestapo shows up and arrests her father simply because he was Jewish.  Later that night, more Nazis showed up, but luckily Liesl's mother gets her out of the house in time.  The following day they discover that their house was ransacked and everything is broken and ruin.  The same destruction happened all over Germany, but only to Jewish homes and businesses.

Liesl is sent to the country for safety, but a month later, after her father was released, her parents come to get her.  It is time for the Joseph family to leave Germany.  On May 13, 1939, they board the ship MS St. Louis and head for Cuba.

On board, young Liesl experiences a freedom she has never known before.  She is able to go wherever she wants, to sit wherever she pleases and even go to see the movies that are played on board, all things that Jews were forbidden to do in Nazi Germany.  And Liesl enjoys her trip, exploring the ship, make friends with the crew and playing checkers with other new friends.

But Cuba refuses to let the passengers enter Havana when the ship arrives, so does the US and Canada. Negotiations take place, with the Captain and Mr. Joseph heading a committee, hoping to find a country that would accept the fleeing Jews so they wouldn't have to return to Germany.   In the end, countries are finally found that would accept the passengers.

Barbara Krasner's Liesl's Ocean Rescue is the only book for younger readers that I have found that covers the ill-fated rescue voyage of the Jews on board the MS St. Louis.  It is well written and sticks to Liesl's story, ending just as the passengers find places to go to, but I;m afraid the end is a little too abrupt.  What happens to the Joseph family?  It is included but it is in the Author's Note: the real Liesl and her family first went to London, England, and in 1940, they emigrated to the United States.

I found this to be an excellent introduction to the Holocaust for young readers.  It doesn't cover the Holocaust per se, but the ordeal of being Jewish and trying to get away from the Nazis even before the war started.  Putting it into a story about a very confident, very friendly, and very happy 10 year old I think makes the story all that much more poignant.

Along with and complimenting the story are black and white pencil illustrations by Avi Katz.

Besides her Author's Note, Krasner has also included a Selected Bibliography and other sources for finding out more about the MS St. Louise and her passengers.

Liesl's Ocean Rescue is an ideal picture book for older readers who want to learn more about the Holocaust and have an interest in realistic historical fiction.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the author





You can read an interview with Liesl Joseph Loeb done in 2009 for the Prescott News HERE

Liesl on board the St. Louis
Liesl passed away in 2013 and you can read her obituary in the Jewish Exponent HERE

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22. Holocaust consciousness must not blind us

While nascent talk of the Holocaust was in the air when I was growing up in New York City, we did not learn about it in school, even in lessons about World War II or the waves of immigration to America’s shores. There were no public memorials or museums to the murdered millions, and the genocide of European Jewry was subsumed under talk of “the war.”

My father was a somber man who arrived here from Poland after the war and, like many survivors, kept to himself, trying his best to block out the past. Growing up, my connection to my father’s lost world consisted of names mentioned in hushed tones and photographs retrieved from hidden boxes.

But as I grew older, I watched with great interest, more than a little curiosity, and a good deal of relief as it became more acceptable to talk about “our” tragedy. By the 1980s, lessons about the genocide of European Jewry became de rigueur in high schools through the nation. In the following decade, people could flock to a hulking museum in our nation’s capital that told the story for all who cared to listen.

The Holocaust became a universal moral touchstone that called upon us to defend our common humanity against the capacity for evil. But today, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January, the lesson we Jews seem to draw from our history is that those outside the tribe cannot be trusted.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attack on a kosher food store in Paris, and as anti-Semitism rises in France and elsewhere, these fears seem understandable. I know these kinds of fears well. Even in the relative comfort of his postwar existence, my father had a recurring nightmare that he was being chased by German shepherds.

But when such fears lead to catastrophic thinking, they harden our hearts to the suffering of others and contribute, paradoxically, to a sense of Holocaust fatigue among many Jewish Americans — particularly younger ones.

“I’m sick of the Holocaust as a shorthand for ‘we suffered more than you, so we should get the piece of cake with the rosette on it,’” a 20-something columnist wrote in the Forward. Peter Beinart in The Crisis of Zionism argues that the growing emphasis on the Holocaust in American life beginning in the 1960s and 1970s marked the end of Jewish universalism.

“Liberalism was out,” Beinart wrote. “Tribalism was in.”

Beinart and others are partly right: Holocaust trauma is too readily exploited. But historically, Holocaust commemoration efforts have been more than simply exercises in tribalism. They often emerged from an urge to acknowledge and alleviate human suffering writ large.

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish legal scholar and Holocaust survivor who coined the term “genocide” and fought to have the concept recognized by the United Nations, exemplified this impulse. So did the mobilization of the Holocaust second generation. Descendants of survivors, empowered by the progressive movements of the 1960s and 1970s, coaxed our parents to share their stories. The Holocaust consciousness we helped build was part of a larger search for self-expression and human rights.

Today, many Holocaust commemoration activities reflect this universal spirit as well, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s efforts to promote awareness of genocide in Sudan and elsewhere. Jewish-American donors provided the bulk of the funds for a memorial to the more than two million Cambodians murdered during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, an acknowledgement of a shared tragic history.

These and other efforts to remember the suffering of others should be applauded, but they must be more than window dressing. They should also spur our own collective soul-searching. Committing funds for projects in places where Jews have few political or emotional investments, such as Cambodia or Sudan, is relatively easy. Subjecting our own deeply felt loyalties to Israel to scrutiny is a much more difficult, but no less important, task.

The truth is that at times our privileges may in fact be implicated in the suffering of others in the Palestinian territories, where life is brutal and frequently too short. A sense of hopelessness prevails among both Israelis and Palestinians, fueling acts of desperation and violence in the Middle East and beyond.

A chorus of leaders on both sides is promoting a politics of fear, declaring I cannot be my brother’s keeper when my brother is out to murder me. But on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us honor the memory of the parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, and all of the unknown others we have lost by resisting such talk and redoubling our efforts to seek peace.

A version of this article first appeared on New Jersey Jewish News.

Headline image credit: Ruins of barracks at Birkenau. Photo by Dennis Frank (WeEzE). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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23. Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour: The Whispering Town, by Jennifer Elvgren (Kar-Ben, 2014)


I am honored to welcome to my blog today author Jennifer Elvgren, the author of The Whispering Town, winner of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Older Readers category. The Sydney Taylor awards are given out annually by the Jewish Libraries Association for new books for children and teens that "exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience." The Whispering Town tells the story of an ordinary heroine, a young girl named Anett, who together with others from her Danish village community, help hide a Jewish family until they can escape from the Nazis.  The story is illustrated in graphic novel style by Italian illustrator Fabio Santomauro. Jennifer kindly answered some questions for me as part of the Sydney Taylor Award winners blog tour.  The complete blog tour schedule, which runs from February 8 to the 13th, can be found here.  

Author Jennifer Elvgren
Q: The Danish people's heroic efforts to save "their" Jews are one of the few "feel-good" stories from the Holocaust.  What inspired you to create a picture book on this topic? 
A:  Somewhere around late elementary, early middle school, my grandmother gave me her copy of The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, and my mother gave me a copy of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. From a young age, I pondered the bravery of those hidden and the bravery of those who protected the hidden. I carried this interest in Holocaust literature as I grew and started my writing career as a print journalist. When I began writing solely for elementary children after my second child was born, I wondered if there was a way to tell a Holocaust story to a younger set of readers. Around 2009, I read Ellen Levine’s nonfiction book Darkness over Denmark: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews. One Jewish boy recollected his father trying to find the Gilleleje harbor on a moonless night and villagers stood in doorways giving him directions. As I read this, I could see the storyboard in my mind – Anett and her parents hiding a Jewish family and enlisting the village to whisper them to safety.
 
Q:  Could you comment on the unique challenges of writing a book aimed at young children on the Holocaust?  
 
A:  For the youngest readers, I wanted to portray danger, not horror. I intended this book to be the start of a lifelong discussion of the Holocaust, focusing initially on kindness and bravery. In early drafts of The Whispering Town, I went too far the other way and watered down Anett’s character. I never had her come face-to-face with Nazi soldiers. After a meeting with my critique group, there was consensus that Anett must face the soldiers. By not doing so, she would have been robbed of her greatest chance to be brave. Now I believe that was the best decision for her. Anett was able to dig down deep, think fast on her feet and face her greatest fear.
 
Q:  What kind of research did you do for this story?  Is Anett based on a real girl?  
A: In this story, Anett is a fictional character, and I researched the occupation of Denmark and the Danish Resistance, which smuggled almost all of the Danish Jews out of Denmark.
 
Briefly, on April 9, 1940, at 4:14 a.m. Germany began the invasion of Denmark by land, sea and air. The invasion lasted six hours, which was the shortest operation in WWII. The Danes knew the attack was coming but were denied permission to fight, as the Danish government did not want to provoke the Germans. Denmark cooperated, but did not collaborate. As a result, King Christian X stayed on the throne and continued to live at the palace in Copenhagen. From 1940 to October 1943 resistance to the occupation mostly took the form of bursts of national pride like when King Christian X took his daily ride through the Copenhagen streets to meet throngs of flag-waving Danes, a few scattered acts of sabotage, strikes and a slow down of the workforce.
 
During the summer of 1943 Danes had grown weary of the occupation and their acts of sabotage became more violent including riots in Copenhagen. In August 1943, the Germans declared a State of Emergency and by September, Hitler approved the deportation of Danish Jews to death camps.
 
Danes were horrified. People from all walks of Danish life – clergy, government workers, storeowners, farmers, fisherman, teachers, police and the coast guard – protected Jews. The Danes hid Jews in barns, cellars, hospitals, summerhouses, churches and warehouses. They loaned boats and gave money to hire boats to smuggle Jews out of the country to neutral Sweden. The Danes also protected Jews’ houses and belongings until after the war.
 
Q:  The Whispering Town shows young children the heroism in ordinary people, as opposed to the superheroes that delight so many children.  In this case, the heroes are not Spiderman or Batman, but a small girl, a baker, a librarian, and a farmer.  How did you happen to choose these three professions to represent the Danish people?  (Of course, as a librarian, I am delighted by the choice of a librarian!)  
 
A: In times of crises, and anytime really, food and words bring comfort, healing and love. When my friends are facing illness or sadness, I deliver homemade food and/or books to their doorsteps. With Carl and his mama so frightened in her cellar, it seemed natural for Anett to bring them her favorite food and books, to feed their bodies and souls.
 
Q: As an author, how did you feel about the illustrations Fabio Santomauro drew for your text?  With their graphic novel feel, they are quite different from the illustrations in most of the picture books about the Holocaust.
A: When I saw the first pencil sketch, I was surprised at the graphic novel style. I had expected something more realistic. As I scrolled through the rest of the sketches, it dawned on me that this would feel less frightening to children – more accessible – the goal that I had set to achieve with the words. It was a brilliant pairing on the part of Kar-Ben. When I saw the final art – the muted palette, the pops of red, the facial expressions – it was love at first sight.   
Jennifer, thanks so much for participating in the Sydney Taylor 2015 blog tour! Please check out interviews with other winners throughout this week (see blog tour schedule below).

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2015
Una La Marche, author of Like No Other
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
At Bildungsroman

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2015

Lizzie Skurnick, publisher of Isabel's War by Lila Perl
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
At Pen & Prose

Author Jennifer Elvgren and illustrator Fabio Santomauro, creators ofThe Whispering Town
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At The Fourth Musketeer

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2015

Loic DauvillierMark Lizano and Greg Salsedo, creators of Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At The Interlace Place

Author Jim Aylesworth and illustrator Barbara McClintock, creators ofMy Grandfather's Coat
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
At Sandra Bornstein's Blog

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2015

Author Barbara Krasner and illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley, creators ofGoldie Takes a Stand
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
At Write Kids' Books

Donna Jo Napoli, author of Storm
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
At Jewish Books for Kids

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2015

Donna Gephart, author of Death by Toilet Paper
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At Monkey Poop

Author Jacqueline Jules and illustrator Durga Yael Bernhard, creators of Never Say a Mean Word Again
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
At Ann Koffsky's Blog

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2015

Blog Tour Wrap-Up with All Authors and Illustrators
At The Whole Megillah
 

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24. Women of Valor: Polish Resisters to the Third Reich by Joanne D. Gilbert

When we think of partisans and resisters to the Nazis, most of us don't usually think about women.  After all, it was a hard, dangerous business to fight such a cruel regime.  But, as we learned from Kathryn Atwood's informative book, Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue, many women were willing to risk everything, including their lives, to fight for what they believed to be right.

Now, Joanne D. Gilbert has written a book that tells us about even more brave women and since March is Women's History Month and this year's theme is Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives, it seems a perfect time to showcase Women of Valor.

Between 2012 and 2014, Gilbert interviewed four women who had lived with their families in Poland, but who, through different circumstances, had found their way in the surrounding forests and either joined partisan groups or found other ways of resistance when the Nazis occupied their country.

Manya Barman Auster Feldman had lived a religious, comfortable life with her parents, 3 sisters and 2 brothers in Dombrovitsa in eastern Poland until Hitler invaded it in 1939.  Suddenly, life became harder and harder and eventually all of Dombrovitsa's Jewish families were crowded into a two block ghetto.  When it appeared likely that the ghetto was going to be liquidated, Manya's father decided her, Manya, her older sister and two brothers would try to escape into the forest, leaving behind her mother and two little sisters.  Walking all night, they found the Kovpak partisan headquarters, where they were sent to different battalions.  Manya, still just a teenager, soon learned how to fight, steal, sabotage the Germans efforts, and nurse the sick and wounded.  Her story, as are all the stories included in Woman of Valor, is harrowing and amazing at the same time, and Manya herself credits luck for her many narrow escapes from death while she fought with the partisans.

Faye Brysk Schulman was also living a comfortable, religious life with her family in Lenin, Poland.  Her  older brother had learned photography and had enlisted Faye to help him.  It was her knowledge of photography that saved Faye's life when the ghetto they had been forced to live in was about to be liquidated, it was her job to take the photos that the Nazis demanded she take.  In September 1942, Soviet partisans stormed through Lenin, and warmed the remaining Jews to run.  Faye, still a teenager,  found the partisans, joined the Molotavia Brigade, where she spent the war years fighting, nursing and photographing events whenever she could steal, make or find what she needed.

Even though the rest of her family was Polish,  Lola Leser Lieber Schar Schwartz was born in Hungary/Czechoslovakia.  In 1938, when the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, the Polish passports of her immediate family were no longer acceptable there.  The Lesers, including Lola, quickly fled to Poland and their extended family.  Little did Lola dream that after being continuously on the run from the Germans, hiding in all kinds of weather and places, including under a tree in the forest, it would be her Hungarian/Czechoslovakian birth that would save not just her life, but many others when she received official documents exempting her from the same treatment as the Polish Jews.  Needless to say, these documents sparked a flurry of forging more "official" documents for other Jews in peril.  Later, when her husband Mechel Lieber was arrested, Lola was even brave enough to go the Adolf Eichmann's office to try to convince him that it was a mistake.  Lola was indeed a woman of great courage.

Miriam Miasnik Brysk is the youngest of the women interviewed.  Only 4 years old when the war started, Miriam's family left Warsaw, Poland for Lida, her father's home then under Russian rule.  But when the Germans arrived in Lida in 1941, it didn't take long for persecutions to begin.  The Miasniks were fortunate because Miriam's father was a surgeon and the Nazis needed him.  In 1942, Miriam and her parents escaped the Lida ghetto with the help of a partisan group that decided they needed a doctor more than the Nazis did.  Miriam spent the rest of the war going from place to place with the partisans.  Her hair was cut off and she was dressed like a boy, had not formal education until after the war, but did possess her own gun for a while.  And she helped out wherever she could, even taking apart machine guns, cleaning them and putting them back together.

As each woman tells her story, it feels as though she is speaking to you personally, making this a very readable book and I highly recommend it.  As they wove their stories, each remembered in great detail what their lives were like before and under the Nazi reign of terror and each acted with remarkable courage.  Sadly, they all lost almost all the members of their families, often witnessing their murders.  Glibert doesn't let them stop at the end of the war, but we also learn about their lives after and up to the present.  Interestingly, they all found ways to express their Holocaust experiences though art later in life.

These are only four stories about acts of resistance, however, and, as Gilbert reminds us in Epilogue, most of the women who chose to resist the Nazis perished, taking the details of their courageous deeds with them, reminding us that what we do know about women resisters is really just the tip of the iceberg.  But let all these brave women, known and unknown, be an inspiration to us all in the face of oppression.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Gihon River Press

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25. The Heavens Are Empty

The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod. Avrom Bendavid-Val. 2010. Pegasus. 256 pages. [Source: Library]

The Heavens Are Empty is a compelling nonfiction read. Avrom Bendavid-Val has approached the subject matter with care and attention. This book is about a town--a village--that existed for a little over hundred years, the Jewish town of Trochenbrod.

Trochenbrod did not vanish slowly but surely over decades, it's death was not natural at all. After sharing his personal story, his behind-the-scenes look at his research process, his motivation for wanting--needing--to know more, he presents his findings in four chapters. The first chapter focuses on "the first hundred years." This is a look, a glimpse, at what life was like in Trochenbrod in the nineteenth century and a little beyond. If this book has a "happy" section, this would be it. The second chapter focuses on the decades between the first world war and the start of the second world war. Again, there are no great indicators of what is to come. The third chapter covers the years 1939-1942, readers see Trochenbrod under Soviet rule and under German rule. The fourth chapter is perhaps the most haunting, the most horrific. The fourth chapter focuses on how an entire village was massacred by the Nazis. This chapter includes three incredible accounts of survivor-witnesses.

The Heavens Are Empty is rich in witness accounts. It's a difficult subject to read about, but important in my opinion.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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