Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In My Hands

Opdyke, Irene Gut. 1999. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.

I did not ask myself, Should I do this? But, How will I do this? Every step of my childhood had brought me to this crossroad; I must take the right path, or I would no longer be myself. You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis, all at once. One's first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence. Now I was making plans to... (142-143)

In My Hands is nonfiction--a memoir--and it's a powerful one. Full of descriptive images you might wish you'd never seen. But it's an important work, a necessary one. Our narrator, Irene Gut, was a Polish girl--a young woman training to be a nurse when the war burst into her life. The conflict between Germany and Russia stripping her of her childhood in more ways than one. Her account of what happened during the war years are powerful and haunting. But there is nothing over-the-top either. It's straightforward, spare, even.

This is her description of the purging of the Poland of Jews (I believe we're speaking of the ghettos.)
The gates were dragged open, and the Jewish prisoners were forced out through a gauntlet, while the guards beat at them with their rifle butts. An old man, tottering with a cane, was not fast enough, and a guard shot him on the spot. In vain, women tried to protect their small children from blows, men tried to shield their old fathers. But every time someone stumbled and fell under the beatings, shots rang out. The street was paved with bodies, and still the Jews were forced to march out over them.
We watched this from our windows in a paralysis of horror. We could do nothing but watch. We could not even pull back from the glass to keep hidden. An old rabbi carrying the Torah stopped to help a young woman with a shrieking toddler, and all three were shot. A graybeard in a faded uniform of the Polish army from the last war limped past the guards, and he, too, was not fast enough. The sun shone down on all of them, and the dust settled in pools of blood.
By this time, the four of us were crying uncontrollably. Helen was on her knees, sobbing in her mother's arms. Janina turned her face away. But I watched, flattening myself against the window. As I pressed against the glass, I saw an officer make a flinging movement with his arm, and something rose up into the sky like a fat bird. With his other hand he aimed his pistol, and the bird plummeted to the ground beside its screaming mother, and the officer shot the mother, too. But it was not a bird. It was not a bird. It was not a bird.

This is how she sums it up, "We did not speak of what we had seen. At the time, to speak of it seemed worse than sacrilege: We had witnessed a thing so terrible that it acquired a dreadful holiness. It was a miracle of evil. It was not possible to say with words what we had witnessed, and so we kept it safely guarded until the time we could bring it out, and show it to others, and say, "Behold. This is the worst thing man can do."" (118)

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review: Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key
by Tatiana De Rosnay

Genre: WWII/Holocaust

Synopsis from bn.com:

Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

Once again, I've read a historical novel about a subject of which I have no knowledge. But, the cool part is the present day character is a journalist researching the event, so that problem was solved. I did know that France was occupied by Germany, and I had the vague understanding that Jews were rounded up in France during this time, but I had never heard of this particular incident.

The structure of this book was interesting. The book could really be split into parts, which the author doesn't formally do. But the first part alternates between Sarah's story and Julia's story---past and present, first-hand and second-hand. Sarah's first-hand story was really the most compelling (and heartbreaking) part of the book and I was bored at first with Julia. But, later I grew to understand her better, especially after making the right choice (which I won't describe here, suffice to say I agreed with her decision and was relieved when she made it). The second part of the book deals with the present generations and how they cope with the new found knowledge of Sarah's ordeal. Julia becomes obsessed with uncovering what happened to Sarah and revealing that knowledge to Sarah's family. I wasn't sure how I felt about Julia revealing Sarah's history, but in the end, it is better to know the truth.

A quick note about the typography: Sarah's chapters were set in a oldshool-type font whereas Julia's had a more modern feel. At first I was thought there was something wrong with the book, but when I realized the purpose, I thought it was an interesting idea. I love it when publishers/authors/printers play around design.

I read this book in two days, and I would have read it in one if hadn't had to go to work. I absolutely loved it. Eventually, I want to read some more about the Vel' d'Hiv roundup and the occupation. The few Holocaust books I have read or heard about don't focus on this aspect of the war.

Rating: 5 out of 5. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Yellow Star

by Jennifer Roy
ages 9-12

This is not a happy book. Then again, what book about the Holocaust is a happy book? Granted, this one has a happy ending -- it's a story based on the life of the author's aunt, and she survived -- but getting there is harsh, depressing, and painful. Which means that Roy did an incredible job depicting the life and circumstances of her aunt Syvia's childhood.

I'm trying to figure out a way to sum up the book without giving a mini-history lesson. For those who don't know their World War II history, this story of one of the 800 survivors -- only 12 of which were children -- of the Lodz, Poland ghetto is not a fun one to read. Written in verse, I think to mimic the spare conditions of Syvia's life, Roy captures the faith and family togetherness in the face of pure hopelessness quite well. There were parts that made me cringe -- the Nazis deported all the children at one point, tearing them from their family; it was only through the courage and resorcefulness of Syvia's father (and herself) that she managed to survive that time -- and others that made me cry. I am amazed at Syvia, and at the luck -- miracles? providence? chance? -- that she had during her life. There were so many (more than 270,000 people lived in the ghetto at one time) that didn't get her chance.

I'm not sure I can separate a critique of the book (can I say that in this instance I felt the verse was good, but unnecessary?) from the life. It's a good book -- not a great one -- with a worthy story. And a story worth reading. Which makes the book worth reading, too.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hanukkah by Roni Schotter

Schotter, Roni. 1990. (Rereleased in October 2008). Hanukkah! Illustrated by Marylin Hafner.

This is a simple but joyful introduction to Hanukkah. It begins simply,

"In darkest December
Night steals in early
And whisks away the light.

But warm inside,
Mama, Papa, and Grandma Rose
Light the sun that is the menorah.

While Nora and Dan,
Ruthie and Sam
Sing a song that is a prayer."

That will give you some hint what the text is like. This one has won the National Jewish Book Award. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Seaside Bookworm

My list is as follows:
Who By Fire By Diana Spechler
Zookeeper's Wife By Diane Ackerman
Hurry Down Sunshine By Michael Greenberg
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I may add a few more. I already read one by Michael Greenberg Hurry Down Sunshine.
You can read it at my blog at Jewish Rantings.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Callista's List

Here's my tentative list, subject to change.

1. The Illuminated Soul by Aryeh Lev Stollman
2. Hanna's Suitcase by Karen Levine
3. Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy
4. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

3M's List

I'm participating again! This is a start to my list, though I do reserve the right to change it:
  • Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar
  • Petropolis by Anya Ulinich
  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  • What Happened to Anna K by Irina Reyn
  • Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis