Children Read About the Holocaust
The Holocaust remains the focus of many middle school books as writers and readers alike continue to seek an understanding of the horrific event. The questions of why and how and speculations about the nature of evil often seem unanswerable—and yet they must be confronted. As we commemorate this tragedy on Yom Hashoah, which begins this year the evening of April 11, we recommend the following new books and memoirs for readers ages 8 to 14.
Peter in Peril: Courage and Hope in World War Two By Helen Bate (Otter-Barry Books, 48 pp. $18.99)
Peter and his Jewish family survived Nazi brutality in occupied Budapest because of the heroism of Roza, the family’s Catholic housekeeper; the vigilance of his older cousin, Eva; and his parents’ courage and tenacity. These true events are recorded in Helen Bate’s sensitively drawn graphic novel with limited text. Endorsed by Amnesty International, this slender book asserts the right of all children to live free from fear and safe from harm.
Refugee By Alan Gratz (Scholastic Press, 338 pp. $16.99)
Three refugee children—Josef, a Jewish boy trying to escape Nazi Germany on the ill-fated St. Louis in 1938; Isabel, a Cuban girl fleeing her despotic island nation on a flimsy raft in 1994; and Mahmoud, a Muslim boy seeking refuge from war-torn Syria in 2015—are the protagonists of Alan Gratz’s timely novel. Their stories are disparate, with each desperate voyage to freedom unique. Yet they are, in many ways, intrinsically alike. Each child possesses courage in the face of cruelty and hardship. They each encounter a share of treachery and occasional acts of benevolence in their struggles for refuge. Gratz, a master of suspense, skillfully links these three stories together in surprising and touching revelations. Josef, Mahmoud and Isabel will long inhabit the hearts and memories of readers of all ages.
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die By Randall Platt (Sky Pony Press, 304 pp. $16.99)
Determined to survive Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Abra Goldstein is disguised as an Aryan boy and leads a gang of adolescent hoodlums. She cynically proclaims “yesterday…tomorrow mean nothing. Today is everything.” But each day brings more danger and more hatred as the ghetto walls rise, treachery abounds and Polish and Nazi brutality intensifies. Abra marshals her determination and fights for the Jews of Warsaw, joining a Resistance team dedicated to smuggling Jewish children out of the ghetto, in the process saving her own sister. Miraculously, Abra, an unlikely heroine, survives and is reunited with her family after the war. This work of historical fiction has added significance this year because April marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Almost Autumn By Marianne Kaurin. Translated by Rosie Hedger (Arthur A. Levine Books, 288 pp. $17.99)
“Everything starts this autumn,” thinks Jewish teenager Ilse Stern as she waits for the arrival of her first real date, Hermann Rod, a non-Jew, on an October day in 1942 in Oslo. But Hermann’s commitment to the Resistance prevents him from showing up. Soon, Ilse realizes that the German occupation will make 1942 a year of endings rather than beginnings. Jewish families are increasingly fearful, and youths like Hermann live secret lives as they rally to help their Jewish neighbors flee to Sweden. The windows of Jewish shops are broken, and Ilse’s father is arrested “on a morning when all the secrets masquerade as truth as dangerous choices are made.” For Ilse and Hermann, it is a time of love and loss.
Marianne Kaurin’s dramatic and suspenseful novel is an introduction to the little-known story of the Jews of Norway and their courageous protectors. A descendant of Norwegian Resistance fighters, Kaurin wrote Almost Autumn—which was named the Young People’s Book of the Year in a vote by students all over Norway—so that, she says, “our stories of the war are passed on to the next generation.”
Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz By Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Books for Young Readers, 352 pp. $16.99)
Authors Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, father and daughter, recreate Michael’s tragic childhood in this memoir that begins with his birth in the spring of 1940, 10 days after Passover. In unflinching prose, they describe the barbaric German invasion of Zarki, a peaceful Polish village, home to 3,000 Jews and a Jewish library of 6,000 volumes.
Michael’s first years were fraught with hunger, illness, claustrophobic ghetto life and, finally, deportation to Auschwitz, where he became B-1148, the number tattooed “on the soft white underside of his tiny arm.” Liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945, 4-year-old Michael was, perhaps, the youngest survivor of the death camp, probably because, he writes, he was one of “the world’s best hiders.”
Protected by his devoted grandmother in Auschwitz, the two survive and travel back to Zarki, where he is reunited first with his extended family and then with his mother. He learns that his father and brother are dead, the family home seized by hostile Polish neighbors and the sack in which his father had concealed family treasures plundered except for a battered Kiddush cup. He and his mother flee the anti-Semitism of postwar Poland and immigrate to America, where he uses that same Kiddush cup at his bar mitzvah celebration—a small but significant triumph for any member of the
Somewhere There Is Still a Sun: A Memoir of the Holocaust By Michael Gruenbaum and Todd Hasak-Lowy (Aladdin, 384 pp. $17.99 hardcover, $8.99 paperback)
Eight-year-old Misha (now Michael) loves his life in Prague and imagines representing Czechoslovakia in the “Pass People on the Bridge” event at the Olympics, a game of his own creation. Instead, the Nazis invade his beautiful city, enact anti-Semitic measures, arrest and then kill his beloved father. Misha and his sister, Marietta, are deported to Theresienstadt with their mother, but he is soon separated from them and assigned to the Children’s Home for Boys. He joins a group of youngsters known as the Nesharim (eagles, in Hebrew). The boys’ counselor and guardian, 20-year-old Franta, is a heroic figure who forges his young charges into a unified team and helps them survive.
Despite the persistence of hunger, the pervasiveness of fear as transports carry people to Auschwitz and certain death, Gruenbaum’s memories, fluidly and graphically described, are not without tenderness and humor. He recalls pillow fights and soccer games, rehearsals for plays and musical performances, including the now legendary operetta Brundibar. Misha and his sister are saved by their shrewd mother, who leverages her talent for making teddy bears into an agreement with an SS officer who covets her handiwork
for his own children.
The Nesharim spring into action as the war ends, commandeering potatoes that they cook in an extraordinary effort to keep starving Auschwitz survivors alive. Included in the book is a touching photo of the Nesharim—Franta, now white-haired, and Michael, a graduate of MIT—proof that after years of darkness there is still a sun. The book has already been translated into German, Czech and Turkish, with French and Spanish editions coming out at the end of 2018.
Gloria Goldreich’s latest book is The Bridal Chair: A Novel.