________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number 18 . . . . October 13, 1995

The Old Brown Suitcase. A Teenager's Story of War and Peace.

Lillian Boraks-Nemetz.
Brentwood Bay, BC: Ben-Simon Publication,1994. 148pp, paper, $11.95.
ISBN 0-914539-10-8.

Grades 5 - 10 / Ages 10 - 15.
Review by Janie Wilkins.


I am eleven.
It is a sunny November day, but I am cold.
An endless dark line of us moves slowly through a gate in the tall brick wall. People carry on their backs or push in carts all that remains of their life's belongings. They enter the ghetto beneath the cold eyes of German soldiers and Polish police. A cruel silence reigns over us despite the voices, the shuffling of feet, the grinding of wooden carts against the cobblestone street, and the clanging of pots and pans. The faces of the people around us are frightened Some are crying as they walk.
I walk with my parents, my hand is numb from the weight of the old brown suitcase. It contains all I have: one chipped porcelain doll, two books, my ballet costume, and some clothes.
My father carries two large cases, and a knapsack, while Mother holds my sister. Basia is only two years old.
We step through the gate away from the sunlight, into the grey shadow of the ghetto.

image Lillian Boraks-Nemetz makes an impressive debut as an author for children and young adults with the publication of The Old Brown Suitcase. Although this novel is a work of fiction, it is also semi-autobiographical; the author has drawn on experiences and memories from her own childhood during World War II to create a stirring story. This is a novel sure to evoke an emotional response in all who read it.

The Old Brown Suitcase really has two story lines, told in alternating chapters. The narrator is Slava, a fourteen-year-old girl who has just arrived in Montreal with her family. It is 1947 and Slava's family -- the Lenskis -- have emigrated from their beloved Poland to begin life anew in Canada. They have lost almost everything important during the war, including Slava's younger sister, Basia.

Slava must adjust to life in a new country: she needs to learn a new language and adapt to a foreign culture and school system. She must also cope with the memories of her childhood. Slava is a survivor of the Holocaust who has witnessed horrific events during her fourteen years, Through a series of flashbacks, the reader discovers the "other" story and learns about Slava's childhood in Poland before and during the war. Slava's adjustment to life in a new country is eased by several special friends and teachers. Despite the misfortunes and hardships in her life, Slava proves herself to be a creative individual with a strong will to live.

Slava is a realistic character with a fully developed, multi-facetted personality. Readers of all ages will be able to empathize with her as she adjusts to her new life and accepts the events of her old. Teenage readers in particular will identify with Slava's struggle to gain independence and exert her own sense of style and personality.

The writing is straightforward and descriptive. Without being excessively graphic, Boraks-Nemetz gives the reader enough detail to comprehend the horror of the persecutions Jews suffered during World War II. However, the frequent transitions from the story of Slava's present to the flashback chapters covering various periods before and during the war are not always smooth, and sometimes disconcerting. But the use of alternating chapters allows the author to address two very important topics: the difficulties that immigrant children adapting to life in a new country face; and the atrocities of the Holocaust.

The typesetting and layout of the text are appropriate and easy to read. The cover, however, may not appeal to the eye of a young adult reader. Additional colour or different background would have helped keep Junior and Intermediate readers from passing over this book because of its dull cover.

The format and content are ideal for a class novel study. A variety of topics -- the Holocaust; multiculturalism, prejudice, war, and refugees, to name a few -- could be the basis of discussions or thematic studies. The novel has many curricular uses and teacher's guide is available.

Slava's story is one that the current generation needs to hear. The Old Brown Suitcase is a BC Book Prize Winner and it would be an excellent addition for school, public, and personal libraries.


Janie Wilkins is currently on leave from her position as an elementary school teacher in Kingston, Ontario to earn a Masters of Library and Information Science from the University of Western Ontario.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © 1998 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364