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review 2018-04-14 01:29
The Complete Maus (25th Anniversary Ed.) by Art Spiegelman | Holocaust Remembrance Week
The Complete Maus - Art Spiegelman

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).
Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.





Inspired by the Holocaust experience of his own parents, cartoonist Art Spiegelman writes and illustrates this Pulitzer Prize wining story of a grown son, also a cartoonist (yes, this one is in the meta / semi-autobio style) who sits down with his father, Vladek  Spiegelman, to record Vladek's story with the intent to publish it. Perhaps to soften some of the more violent aspects of Vladek's story, the tale is told anthropomorphically-- Nazi soldiers are portrayed as big, burly cats, Jewish prisoners are mice, and one African-American man is illustrated as a black dog. 



Vladek starts with the story of meeting his wife, Anja, and their years together as newlyweds prior to the war. In 1938, Anja develops post-partum depression and is taken to a sanitarium in Czechoslovakia where she experiences, for the first time, full-force anti-Semitism. From there, the war story of Anja and Vladek only gets more painful. Even Anja's millionaire parents couldn't buy her safety. Once captured, Vladek explains that he was able to get some leniency with the Germans because even though his family was Polish, he could speak and write in German, so the Nazis found him useful. 


This special anniversary edition features the entire story, Vols 1 & 2, together in one book. As I mentioned before, the story does dip in and out of meta style storytelling. Towards the middle of the book, there is a kind of mini-comic insert where author Art Spiegelman tells the real life tragic story of his own mother's suicide. This book as a whole is not for the faint of heart. There are illustrations of mice with nooses around their necks, descriptions of children being picked up by their legs and swung into brick walls to stop them from crying / screaming (the noise giving away the location of those in hiding). Near the end of Vol. 2 there is also pretty detailed description of the interiors of the gas chambers. This edition also features one color map (the rest of the book is done in black and white) that shows the full layout of the Auschwitz camp. 




Blended with the Holocaust theme, Spiegelman also brings in a modern day father-son relationship story of a grown man honestly trying to make the effort to finally, hopefully, understand the father who has always slightly confounded him. There are some tense life truths brought to the table during these scenes but it provided a relatable, poignant layer to the whole experience that I came to really appreciate. 


If you're now reading this thinking, "Man, there is no way I could get through anything that dark," Spiegelman might have had such readers in mind because he does offer moments of levity as well. There's the somewhat scary but also creepy-humorous story of Lucia, the woman who went Stage 5 Clinger on Vladek when he became interested in someone else.





Old man Vladek is also dad-funny during his conversations with his son, saying things like "famous like that one guy".... I don't know though, there were a few moments there where old Vladek was coming off as pretty strongly racist himself... so it left me with mixed feelings about him. 


I'm glad I finally took the opportunity to experience this epic graphic novel I've heard so much about over the years. The story is a tough one to take, but important to hear. Truthfully though, I'm not sure it's one I see myself revisiting, at least not any time soon. 

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review 2018-04-13 09:32
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry | Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 12th)
Number the Stars - Lois Lowry

As the German troops begin their campaign to "relocate" all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war. Winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal.





Best friends Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen are living in Denmark in 1943 when the anti-Semitism of WW2 takes hold of their community. Fearing the Germans may capture Ellen, whose family is Jewish, the decision is made for Ellen to move in with Annemarie's family (not Jewish) and pose as one of their daughters.


Inspired by the experiences of her real-life friend Annelise Pratt, Lowry writes Number The Stars in a simple and succint, easy to understand style, but the story here will still pack quite the punch for middle-grade readers, I'm sure. Mixed in with Annemarie and Ellen's quiet story of survival are historical sidenotes that will give readers perspective, such as the story of King Christian X, the Danish Jews smuggled into Sweden, and the importance of a handkerchief. There's also the little bit of heartbreak that is the scene of the Danish Navy blowing up their own naval yard before the Germans can get to it. When Annemarie's family hears the noise, which scares Annemarie's younger sister, Kirsti, the mother just calmly tells her that those are fireworks for Kirsti's 5th birthday. 


This being a WW2 historical fiction novel involving the Holocaust, it's no surprise there is mention of violence and even executions. Still, there is a small cord of hope that runs through even the more sad portions of the story. Being of Danish heritage myself, it was also interesting to see the role the Danes played in this part of history, a story I knew next to nothing about! 

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review 2018-04-13 08:14
The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen | Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 12th)
The Devil's Arithmetic - Jane Yolen,Steve Cieslawski

Hannah dreads going to her family's Passover Seder—she's tired of hearing her relatives talk about the past. But when she opens the front door to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she's transported to a Polish village in the year 1942. Why is she there, and who is this "Chaya" that everyone seems to think she is? Just as she begins to unravel the mystery, Nazi soldiers come to take everyone in the village away. And only Hannah knows the unspeakable horrors that await.





Hannah is twelve, almost thirteen, and by now is very much bored with the tradition of going to her grandmother's house for Passover Seder every year. Every year, someone in the family is chosen to go to the front door and symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah in. This year, Hannah is chosen. She grudgingly drags herself to the door and as soon as she opens it she is immediately thrown back in time to 1942 Poland. 


Everyone Hannah sees seems to recognize her, but she's surprised to hear they keep calling her "Chaya", her Hebrew name in honor of her Aunt Eva's deceased friend. Hannah understandably feels incredibly lost and out of place, which becomes evident to others with her behavior, but they chalk up "Chaya's" sudden strange ways to her having recently lost both her parents to a cholera epidemic that apparently also very nearly killed her. 


Hannah doesn't immediately consider the possibility that she has time-traveled. Rather, she assumes it's a well orchestrated joke her family has carried out... or maybe a dream? It's not until someone uses a phrase Hannah's only ever known her grandfather to use that she starts to suspect the truth of her new reality. When it dawns on her just what this means, she tries to warn others of what their future holds, based on what she's learned so far in her own time period, but no one believes such premonitions of evil could be even remotely possible. Not until it's too late and the wheels of what is to be history are in motion. 


Originally published in 1988, this story now reads dated in certain parts. There's mention of shows like General Hospital and movies like Yentl and Conan The Barbarian (btw -- spoilers in this book for the movie Yentl and the novel Little Women). That said, this story still holds up well when it comes to its themes of family bonds and the importance of educating oneself so as not to have horrible history repeated. Yolen's novel illustrates how a sense of community can develop in even the most hellish conditions, how vital that community becomes in terms of mental and physical survival. A reader can't help but be moved by how these characters cling to hope and faith to keep alive, the stolen moments of laughter when you know death is possibly imminent. 


Hannah's realization of what her journey truly means, the epiphany she has near the end of the story, brought an honest tear to my eye... that final act of selflessness, the understanding she finally had of all her grandmother had endured.


At the end of the book, Yolen writes an afterword entitled "What Is True About This Book" where she breaks down the facts that inspired the story and what portions came directly from her imagination. If you want an enhanced experience of this book, I would recommend the movie adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst. It appears a little low-budget in the beginning, but ends up being a nicely done translation of this work. 

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review 2018-04-13 04:08
Escape In Time by Ronit Lowenstein-Malz | Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 12th)
Escape in Time: Miri's riveting tale of her family's survival during World War II - Ronit Lowenstein-Malz,Laurie McGaw

Nessya’s grandmother, Miri Eneman Malz, has friends, a loving family—and a secret: she is a Holocaust survivor. When twelve-year-old Nessya learns the truth, she wants to know what happened. After decades of silence, Grandma Miri decides it’s time to tell her story. It all begins one terrible day in the spring of 1944, when Germany crosses Hungary’s border and soldiers arrive in Miri’s hometown of Munkács. Suddenly, the Jews are trapped and in danger. Surrounded by war and unimaginable hatred, the family makes a daring escape. But that is only the beginning, and over the course of the year new threats continually confront them. Incredibly, despite numerous close calls, they defy the odds and live. Based upon actual memoirs, this is the story of the Eneman family . . . of their remarkable ingenuity, astonishing luck, boundless courage, and unending love.






POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNINGThis novel does touch upon the topic of suicide. 


Nessya is twelve years old when her Hungarian grandmother, Miri, reluctantly begins to share the darkest details of her Holocaust experience. Miri decides to write it all down, as she feels it will be easier to get the story out that way than if she were to speak the memories aloud.


"I wrote down the story of our family," Grandma said. "It is the story of the survival of two parents and their four daughters. One of the daughters, the youngest, was twelve years old when it all began. That girl is me. The world was at war, so instead of playing and learning, we were busy escaping and hiding. During this time, we quietly celebrated my thirteenth birthday. And while I had nothing to unwrap that year, no ribbons to untie, I received the most beautiful gift I could wish for: Life."



Through Miri's story, the reader is given specific details on how individuals and families were treated within the concentration camps. Such details covered:


> Mandatory curfews within Jewish communities prior to residents being forced to move to the camps; also business licenses of Jewish owners being revoked, removing the business owners' ability to provide for their families. There are descriptions within this book of some families being forced to cut up a dead horse to keep from starving to death themselves.


> Families were driven out of nice, clean communities into cramped, dirty ghettos. Miri's family was living with 4 other families in a one bedroom apartment in one such ghetto! 


> While still residing in their towns, Jewish residents were forced to wear circular yellow patches signifying that they were Jewish. These were the precursors to the yellow stars Jewish people were forced to wear in the camps. 


> Miri describes the children in her village learning how to speak in code from an early age, as well as learning to decifer coded letters from family during the war. In her story, she explains that there was a false sense of security that came with being educated and behaving cooperatively with the Nazi soldiers. You never knew who they were going to turn on. Miri's own father, Apu (aka Naftuli), was considered a doomsday-ish worrywart type with his gloomy prophecies about the Nazis, until his predictions started coming true. 


I was, naturally, distressed by our chance in circumstances. Most of my belongings had been left at home, including my schoolbooks. I was, however, able to bring my geography text and a slim volume of some of Shakespeare's plays. Anyu had told me when she slipped them into my suitcase that with these books I'd always have the world in my hands and poetry in my heart. 


Miri's tale also gives reader an idea of the lengths Jewish citizens had to go to to escape German capture: the complex escape plots; creating fake transportation / documentation papers, relocating and living under new names altogether; families sometimes forced to split up (maybe forever) as a matter of survival. As Nessya reads of the tension, anxiety and uncertainty swirling around her grandmother's fate, the reader feels Nessya's emotions right along with her. The author also works in an important idea at this point: It's easy to judge the past actions of our relatives / ancestors (and possibly how those choices affected later behavior) from the comfort of present day.  Lowenstein-Malz illustrates this nicely with the description of Nessya reading her grandmother's words and feeling utterly heartbroken for her... but Nessya is reading these words sitting outside in the sun with a nice glass of iced tea and a plate of cookies.


This novel has a bit of a slow beginning, and while the book in its entirety is very short (less than 200 pages), there were passages that dragged a bit, sometimes reading more like a textbook than a novel. But the story does pick up and soon enough you are very much in Miri's world getting quite the education on this time period. The storytelling is enhanced by lovely pencil sketch illustrations done by Laurie McGaw. 



Translated from the original Hebrew by Leora Frankel, this novel was first published in Tel Aviv, Israel in 2006 under the title A Miracle of Love. In 2008, it was awarded the Yad Vashem Prize for Children's Holocaust Literature. The English translation provides a handy pronunciation guide for the some of the Hebrew vocabulary and Jewish cities mentioned throughout the novel, but there were a few lines here and there where the English grammar still seemed just slightly off.


FTC Disclaimer:  MB Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2018-04-13 00:54
Is It Night Or Day? by Fern Schumer Chapman | Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 12th)
Is It Night or Day? - Fern Schumer Chapman

1938. Twelve-year old Edith  has lived a protected life in the tiny German town of Stockstadt am Rhein. Now, as brutal acts of anti-Semitism explode in Hitler's Germany, she is about to travel thousands of miles over land and sea to a place that seems as foreign as the moon: Chicago, Illinois. And because her parents can't get permission to leave Germany, she is traveling alone. Haunted by losses, Edith must adjust to life in a country where everyone she meets tries to define her with a single phrase -- German, Jew, enemy alien. And as she struggles to uncover who she really is, the answers arrive from some surprising places. Inspired by the experiences of Fern Schumer Chapman's own mother, one of the 1200 children rescued from the Holocaust by Americans as part of the One Thousand Children project, this dramatic first person story asks the chilling question that all immigrant children who flee alone must answer: What is left when everything is taken away?

~ Hardcover ed. synopsis






POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel does touch upon the topic of suicide. 


Teenage Edith's family has lived in the small town of Stockstadt, Germany (just outside of Frankfurt) for two centuries. Even much of Edith's childhood consisted of a very safe, sheltered existence. But now, in the 1930s, the political climate has changed. Suddenly, the most general outings such as grocery shopping, attending movies, even using the community pool, are all carried out with intense fear. Once closeted anti-Semitic neighbors begin to cut ties with Edith's family. {Similar behavior was being carried out all over the world, actually -- South America, Cuba, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Palestine, just to name a few.}


This rising anti-Semitism brings Edith's family the decision to relocate to the United States. During this period in history, there was a program called Kindertransport that sent Jewish children to England for protection, but so many were seeking help that it quickly became near impossible to get into this program, so the States seemed like the next best option. Edith's parents arrange for her to be taken in with relatives in Chicago, Illinois but then soon find out they themselves are unable to leave Germany, so she's forced to make the trip alone. 


Is It Night Or Day? is told from Edith's first person perspective. The reader travels with her as she moves through the immigrant lines at Ellis Island, the whirlwind sensory experience she has seeing Times Square for the first time, taking in Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, the Empire State Building ---- the works! She finds herself immediately fascinated with all the freedoms of America, particularly within the Jewish neighborhood she's moved into: women are wearing nail polish (deemed sinful under Hitler's reign) and both men and women walk about freely displacing Star of David necklaces around their necks. 



Edith settles in with her Uncle Jakob and Aunt Mildred. There's immediate tension in the house though, as Mildred seems disgusted with anything German-related (umm, has she met her husband?!) Mildred ends up treating Edith more like a house servant than her niece. In fact, not long after Edith moves in, Mildred hands her a long list of areas of the house she expects Edith to clean every day; she's not given a room of her own but forced to sleep on the living room couch; allowed NO extra snacks between meals; virtually no socializing is allowed in the home AND Mildred is pretty emotionally abusive to Edith to boot. Uncle Jakob (Mildred insists he be called "Uncle Jack") works long hours as an accountant so he's largely unaware of the hard time his niece is having trying to co-exist with his wife. 


This being her first experience in her new life in a foreign land, Edith is naturally depressed, but she tries to make the best of her experiences outside the home. Even there, though, life is a constant challenge. She takes in Snow White at the theater, but finds the experience terrifying. She attends her first school dance, develops a crush on a boy, but then feels guilty for feeling joy about something when she thinks of how much her parents back in Germany must be struggling. 


I couldn't enjoy anything. Just like when I had come over on the boat years ago, I wasn't hungry and, when I did eat, nothing had any taste -- even ice cream. Sorrow was always with me. And when I experienced things that had brought me pleasure in the past -- a warm day, a walk, a meal with braided bread, anything that I might have shared with my parents -- I was overwhelmed with grief.


Her experiences in the American school system prove to be some of her biggest challenges in this new life. Because her English is limited, teenage Edith is placed in a class of first graders and from day one forced to say The Pledge of Allegiance. What I thought was odd was the description of how the pledge was done. Never in all my school years, did we ever recite the pledge with our arms straight out?! But the moment proves triggering for Edith, as it looks too close to the Nazi salute:


The children stood facing the flag and lifted their right arms straight out in front of their bodies, palms down, while saying the pledge. Watching them, I gasped, remembering when students in my German classroom started using the Nazi salute, just about the time the neighbors beat up my father. 


But she soon discovers she has a knack for learning language, so she finds herself grasping English very quickly, moving through the grades until she is with her peer grade in just a matter of months. But here again comes the guilt: Does success in her American studies mean she is betraying or disrespecting her German roots? 


Edith struggles to find a balance in her heart, a struggle that seems amplified whenever she tries to set up meetings with her sister, Betty. Betty had come to the States some time before Edith and was placed with a foster family about an hour away from where Edith is living now. Though it might not seem such a distance, it takes about a month after Edith's arrival in the country for the sisters to find opportunity to meet up. Though happy for the reunion, Edith is taken aback at just how much Betty seems to have embraced her life in America. Much like Mildred, Betty prefers to distance herself from anything German now, even advising Edith to stop speaking in German altogether as soon as possible. Once again, that torn feeling. She sees the benefits of "toning down" her German-ness here, but she also wants to honor her parents who have sacrificed so much to provide her with a safer life situation. 


This novel also provides a bit of a side story on the historical fiction front. At one point, Edith receives a letter from a boy she met and befriended on the boat to America. He writes that he was placed in an orphanage in Alabama, and from his town has witnessed first hand the result of Jim Crow laws, likening the signs he sees to the "No Jews" signs they'd both seen posted elsewhere. The education on racism continues when Edith first discovers a love for the game of baseball. When invited to attend her first stadium game to see the White Sox, she is so taken with the excitement of the environment! That is, until she hears men in the seats in front of her hurling racial slurs at Jewish Detroit Tigers power-hitter Hank Greenberg


Instead of trying to make friends, I started going to the library; it was the only place where I wasn't the poor refugee girl or the Kraut or, even worse, the Jew. I could just be me and lose myself in books. And there, I got the first thing that could belong only to me: a library card.... What was really important though, was that I felt safe there. The characters in my books didn't tease me, hurt me, reject or abandon me. They were much more reliable than real people, and not even Aunt Mildred could take them away. 


Inspired by the true story of her own mother, author / journalist Fern Schumer Chapman writes one moving tale of one of the lesser known aspects of this heartbreaking era in history. Chapman writes in her afterword that her mother (also named Edith) was one of the children taken into the One Thousand Children Project. While relaying a dramatic but continually interesting story regarding an important historical snapshot, Chapman's writing style itself has a natural, comfortable flow to it that sets the reader up for a touching, empathy-inducing reading experience all around. I highly recommend educators try this one as a teaching tool for easing middle-grade history students into such a heart-wrenching history lesson. 

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