Red-haired, freckle-faced, green-eyed Markus worries about things that bother many middle-school boys: When will my body fill out? When will my voice lower? When will I grow body hair? He wants puberty to hurry up and do its job so he can hang with the cool kids. He doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about his grandmother's experiences during the Holocaust. But when three of the A-listers ask him to work with them on their social studies Holocaust project, he sees his chance. He knows they want him on their team because of his ailing grandmother, who has a tattoo on her arm from her time in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. He reluctantly decides to talk to her. When Markus asks her about her time in Auschwitz, she violently refuses to discuss it. Her over-the-top reaction shocks Markus, and he's torn between his loyalty to her and the peer pressure at school. No matter what, though, he doesn't want to miss his chance to improve his social status. When a classmate announces that his project will prove that the Holocaust never happened, Markus pictures his old, sick grandmother in the nursing home, and he vows to disprove the student’s claim. A voice from the past accuses his grandmother of crimes during the Holocaust, and Markus’s world quickly spirals out of control. Then, because of Markus's well-intentioned effort to find someone who knew his grandmother during the war, a stranger who knew her in Auschwitz surfaces with shocking and mysterious secrets, and Markus has to come to an entirely new understanding of what the truth actually is. Suddenly, the Holocaust is not just a chapter in his history book...it's his life.
To date, thirteen year old Markus has never had a strong interest in hearing his Oma's (grandmother) stories regarding her Holocaust experiences. She's never gone into much detail about that time in her life anyway, tending to hesitate or change the subject whenever the topic is broached. But when three of the most popular kids in school ask him to team up with them on their Holocaust project, Markus is suddenly looking at Oma in a new light! Being a newly minted teenager, Markus has been having a tough time on the puberty front. Already battling through years of ridicule for being a ginger, now he's got the fun of voice cracking on top of that. But if he gets in with the popular kids, his school rep might have a chance at being saved.
He runs into a problem though: when Markus approaches her to start what he believes will be a series of in-depth sit-down conversations, his grandmother is now tight-lipped. In fact, Markus is shocked at her downright violent response when he puts forth a question about Auschwitz.
Some days later, when Markus informs Oma that one of his classmates is planning on doing a denier stance (arguing that it never happened) on the Holocaust, she decides it's time to face these skeptics once and for all and share her story. Additionally, Markus finds an online support group for Holocaust survivors and gets the idea that he might be able to track someone down who knew Oma (Sarah Goldberg) during that time, offering additional support & credence to the details of her account.
Things get progressively more and more sticky the more time Markus spends on the online support group. His inquiries get a hit and culminate in the arrival of a mystery man who shows up at the nursing home where Sarah lives, claiming he definitely remembers her from Auschwitz. This progresses into the US Justice Department getting wind of this meeting and sending federal agents out to investigate. Now the agents are suspicious that Sarah is hiding some incriminating truths about her past. Because there is no statute of limitations on war crimes, these are serious allegations indeed. Soon enough, the media gets involved, which then leads to protestors parking themselves outside the nursing home, picketing and yelling that their good town is harboring war criminals!
It is at this point in the story that the reader, through the actions being described to them, is asked to ponder on the dangers of history repeating itself, the potential ruination that can come to a person's life if you put more faith in what you HEAR versus what you KNOW to be true. These scenes also offer strong social commentary on the power of media in general, a topic that is all too relevant in todays' world! Think about it, how much spin is put on the news stories being presented to you? What facts are conveniently left out to further one side's agenda? What's the possibly irreparable damage someone's life might suffer as a result of this selective presentation of facts?
After awhile, Oma Sarah has just had enough. All of a sudden she takes on this mood of "Fine, you want to know the story, HERE IT IS" and just lays everything out there. Getting her number tattoo. How her face became permanent scarred on one side. Why all the secrets and shadiness around her story.... the last 50 pages or so of this book felt just chock full of twists and turns and revelations!
There may be readers that don't agree with or aren't satisfied with the truth of Oma's story, the decisions she made that helped her to survive. Still, her story brings forth an important message that all readers will benefit to take in. It's presented with a Holocaust theme, but the reader can connect with it a number of different ways... and that's the topic of how we personally identify ourselves (or what we identify with) and the complexity of that. The lifelong journey behind it. Oma explains to readers that an identification number is just that --- a number --- it does NOT define your soul's identity. You are an individual, full of unique dreams, goals, interests, loves... not a number forced upon you with the calculated intent to make you feel blurred, lost in a crowd, easily forgettable. As one line in the book says, "It's what we DO with our lives that gives us identity."
I saw some similarities in theme and feel between this book and The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, mostly through the involvement of a teen getting to know their Holocaust-surviving grandmother on a much deeper level. Though both novels might incorporated similar themes and settings, they are each unique in their storytelling presentation.
I struggled some with connecting with Markus, particularly with the way he treated his "uncool" friends -- a gay guy and a black girl. I was definitely taken aback with his comment about his female friend, "I defended her and her stout behind all these years."... whoa, wait, so did he think he was doing them a FAVOR, being a friend to "the gay guy and the token black girl"... what was that about?! Speaking of the kids in this book, I was a little disappointed with the dialogue in general. The story is supposed to take place in a modern day school setting for the most part, but the choice of wording for the school kids had them sounding more like some 1970s kids movie rather than today's world. Outside of the school setting though, Markus and his mother had a very sweet, lighthearted mother-son banter between them that was fun to read.
A note to parents and educators: though this is marketed to the middle-grade and YA reader, there is healthy dose of profanity throughout the book, so you may want to do a discretionary read-through if you have concerns about such things.
FTC Disclaimer: Reading Addiction Book Tours kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.
* I highly recommend checking out the documentary Prisoner Number A26188: Henia Bryer (Holocaust Survivor Documentary) by Timeline World History Documentaries, currently free to watch on Youtube. Tragic story but the film is SO well done!
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!
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.
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 WARNING: This 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.