CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 29. . . .April 1, 2016
Australian author Goldie Alexander, whose Jewish parents moved to Australia from Poland prior to World War II, has written a gripping historical novel full of details that ring true and structural choices that make dramatic subject matter vivid. The first sentence is arresting: "We knew we were about to be killed. What we didn't understand was why it hadn't happened sooner."
When the novel opens in 1941, the Kaminsky family, including Papa, Mama, Adam, baby Ryzia and Hanna, the 12-year-old first person narrator, are being taken by truck somewhere by German soldiers. They left their upscale home in Warsaw in 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland, and they have been hiding at their servant Elza's family farm. But not all members of the family die at Nazi hands, and those who do, don't die right away. They are being taken to the Warsaw Ghetto, a section of Warsaw surrounded by a heavily guarded cement wall, because Papa is needed to translate for the Jewish Council of Elders which is made up of Jews administering the Ghetto under the shadow of the Nazis.
The once-wealthy Kaminskys rent two rooms in a crowded building and buy "new" secondhand clothes. Their first encounters in the ghetto are disturbing. Papa runs into his former banker, now reduced to selling the family blankets for food. Hanna meets and makes friends with three homeless orphan boys who have become very street-smart.
Then a time shift back to 1939 shows readers what has brought the Kaminskys to their current plight. After the Nazi occupation of Poland, their Warsaw department store was looted, and they were informed that they no longer owned it. Jews were marginalized; for instance, they were forbidden to use public transportation, cinemas and cafes, or attend school. After the children's paternal grandfather disappears, Papa and Mama arrange to hide on Elza's farm 25 kilometers from Warsaw.
The farm section comprises the second quarter of the novel, and these 50 pages provide readers with an uneasy peace between the tense ghetto sections. Papa helps Elza with the farm chores, but the children and Mama have to spend their days in the crowded, unheated upstairs of the farmhouse. Eventually the children help with the poultry and milking and collect wild berries and mushrooms while Mama helps with pickling and jam-making. During the winter, because Elza is afraid that the children's tracks in the snow will be noticed, they have to walk in her boot-prints when they go outdoors. The two older children find the country beautiful and have some happy times before their presence is betrayed. Who turns them in? Perhaps Elza's neighbour, who wants her land, or by the cart-driver who hid them in his cart and brought them to the farm. After farm animals are confiscated by the Nazis, food is scarce, and many people will "sell a secret" for sustenance.
During the farm phase, Papa tries to home-school the children, and it is in this context that the Scarlet Pimpernel discussion quoted at the start of this review arises. There can be no comparison, however, between the French Revolution and the rise of Naziism. It would make more sense to lump together the French ancien regime and the Nazis since both ruled autocratically and oppressively.
While the path of Judaism in France never ran smoothly, it is worth noting that, in 1791, the French National Assembly (dominated by revolutionary parties) passed a decree giving Jews full citizenship, something the monarchy and aristocracy never did.
The point of bringing The Scarlet Pimpernel into the story is to inspire and to foreshadow Hanna's and Adam's later deeds of "pluck and audacity". Yet to equate the Nazis with a movement for "liberty, equality, fraternity" is a muddled misuse of history. Instead, the author could have compared the oppression of the Jews by Hitler's regime to the plight of the Jews under Roman domination which led to a Jewish revolt in 66-73 A.D.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, Hanna, a budding gymnast, stages a tumbling routine on street corners to divert the guards while the gang of street-smart orphans smuggles bags of flour into the ghetto through the sewers. Food is an ongoing problem in the ghetto, but culture is not. Celebrated musicians give concerts, ballets and operetta are staged, and there are art exhibitions and readings. Adam and Anna perform, she doing gymnastics, he playing the violin.
News from outside creeps in: first the German invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941 which brings the Soviet Union into the war on the side of the Allies; then the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor which brings the United States into the war. But these glimmerings of hope are hard to sustain during the harsh winter of 1942. Already subjected to random shootings and clubbings by guards, people succumb to cold, starvation and disease. Mass deportations to Treblinka are going on. Hanna sees friends disappear, and then her own family is shattered, with only herself and Adam surviving. Ryzia, the baby, who dies of disease at age four, is a small heartrending part of the story. Her short life is mostly spent indoors in hiding, and, toward the end, she spends her time leaning against the wall, rocking and sucking her thumb.
The last quarter of the novel is fast-paced. Hanna and Adam decide to follow the lead of one of the street-wise boys and leave the ghetto to join the Jewish underground. In a cellar outside the ghetto, they meet young people, slightly older than they, who belong to Hashomer Hatzair, a youth group that forms part of ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa), a Jewish fighting organization. They meet 23-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz who will soon lead the historic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
This uprising began in April 1943 when German troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its survivors and were met with armed resistance. The fighters knew they were going to lose, but they chose to die fighting rather than as passive victims. They held out for a month. The Germans then burned the ghetto and reduced it to rubble. Escapees from the uprising later founded a kibbutz in Israel.
The uprising doesn't occur within the time-frame of Alexander's novel. She ends with a scene showing Hanna and Adam happy to be part of a group dedicated to a common cause and eager to help by smuggling (possibly weapons into the ghetto, but we are not told.) Although scenes of the uprising would have been dramatic, perhaps Alexander is reluctant to dramatize for young readers the terrible slaughter that took place.
The extensive historical notes at the end provide the awful death statistics brought about by Hitler and his regime. Of the almost one million Jewish children living in Poland in 1939, only about 5,000 survived the war, mostly by hiding. Readers of all ages will hope that Hanna and Adam survive to reunite with their relatives in Paris and help found that kibbutz in Israel. Shaping this subject matter into a story suitable for young readers (one that educates but does not terrify) is a huge challenge, and, for the most part, Goldie Alexander has done a remarkable job.
Ruth Latta is an author who lives in Ottawa, ON. For information about Ruth Latta's books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com
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