________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 12. . . .November 20, 2009


My Canary Yellow Star.

Eva Wiseman.
Toronto, ON: Tundra, 2001.
232 pp., pbk., $9.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-533-5.

Subject Headings:
Holocaust, Juvenile (1939 - 1945) -Hungary - Fiction.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Danya David.

***½ /4



“Thank you, sir! Thank you! You gave us life!” In my joy, I kissed his hand.

“No, no,”’ he cried. “You thank Wallenberg, not me! I work here. Wallenberg, he bring Schutz-Pass here!”

Goldberg patted my hand. He pointed to the star on my blouse. “Take off. Not need…… Schutz-Pass.”’ He walked over to one of the kitchen cabinets and took out a large pair of scissors. “‘Take off,”’ he said again.

I carried the scissors into the bathroom, took off my blouse, and unpicked the stitches. Then I cut the canary yellow material into tiny pieces and flushed them down the toilet. I gazed at myself in the mirror above the sink. The star was gone and the old Marta had reappeared. I felt light, as if I could fly.

Fifteen-year old Marta Weisz watches her beloved grandmother brutally killed by teenaged Arrow Cross soldiers. She activates her internal protective mechanism that switches life into a fantasy movie, but, in an instant, she is transported back to the horrific moment. Bending down, pretending to tie her shoelaces, and risking her life as she does so, Marta secretly lifts her grandmother’s Star of David necklace off the ground, and slips it into her shoe. The sharp points that prick her will embolden her on her journey to stay alive.

     Eva Wiseman’s My Canary Yellow Star depicts Budapest and its Jewish population devastated by Nazi occupation (March 19, 1944 to April 4, 1945). Guiding some of the more fortunate Jews of Hungary, including Marta and her family, and steadily propelling the plot, is the presence of a most humble and heroic individual, Raoul Wallenberg, a non-Jewish Swedish diplomat who risks his life to rescue thousands of Jews during the six months he spent in Hungary during the Holocaust. My Canary Yellow Star is a novel, and Marta is a fictional character, though Raoul Wallenberg is a very real individual. Through his enigmatic diplomatic efforts which involved housing Jews and arranging for thousands to receive protective passports (“Schutz-Passes”), Raoul Wallenberg was responsible for rescuing as many as 100 000 Jews.

     Despite Wallenberg’s efforts, however, Marta and her family must still fight to stay alive. The first signs of ludicrousness surface when Marta is sent home early from school one day. Mr. Kohn, principal of Marta’s school, beseeches his students: “Always remember March 19, 1944 (……) This is the beginning of very cruel times for the Jews of Hungary.” Soon after, Marta’s father, a surgeon renown for his elegance and generosity, is deported to a labour camp. Then, the Jews of Budapest must scramble to find “Yellow Star” housing, housing designated for Jews. Marta, determined to put herself to use for the greater good of her family, finds work with a compassionate gentile seamstress who is committed to help Marta’s family in any way that she can.

     In her new work, Marta becomes the scapegoat for the petty crimes, wrongfully accused of theft by Arrow Cross (the prominent Hungarian Fascist party which closely aligned itself with the Nazis) girls who protest sharing their supplies with a “stinking dirty Jew.” Wiseman skilfully paints portraits of the individuals- Hungarian neighbours and ‘friends’- who betray humanity without hesitation, reporting Jews with whom they had lived side-by-side for years before.

     One of the most resonating parts of the story is the glimpse we get of Marta’s relationship with Peter. Peter is a non-Jew who is wise, benevolent, and independent thinking so much so that soon after the Nazi invasion of Budapest, he is disowned by his family on grounds of his decision to devote himself to fighting with the Jewish resistance- a decision that ultimately costs him his life.

     In addition to the perhaps overly-vivid scene of Marta’s grandmother’s murder, there are numerous episodes and images that imprint themselves on the reader’s mind, including Marta’s cousin Gabor’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony which takes in the terror of hiding, the great efforts the family makes to preserve a tzitzit (Jewish prayer shawl), Marta’s traversing of Budapest’s open battlefield just to find a photographer her friend had once known, so that he might be able to capture images of her that might one day find their way to her beloved Peter. The request rekindles a last spark of life in the photographer as he finds purpose in helping facilitate such a beautiful gesture amidst the unspeakable brutality that has engulfed the world around them. When Marta returns to the photographer to collect the photos, however, nothing remains of him nor his hideaway but the rubble of war.

     In the end, Marta survives, though damaged by bearing witness to the brutal deaths of those closest to her. The book concludes with the Soviet liberation of Budapest. Wiseman then includes concise historical notes at the end, informing the reader of Raoul Wallenberg the man, also making brief mention of the fact of his unresolved, politicized, and disputed death.

     My Canary Yellow Star is an intensely affecting book. It is rivetting to read and powerful for its depiction of segments of the Jewish Hungarian experience during the Holocaust. It is powerful and beautifully written, specifically for its homage to Wallenberg. However, this book is not suitable for young children. Tundra Books, its publisher, suggests a reader age of 8-12- though there are passages and scenes that are difficult and even paralysing for a grown adult.

     A vital read, though for ages 14 and up only.

Highly Recommended.

Danya David is a graduate of UBC's Master of Arts in Children's Literature program.

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

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