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© Bella Stander

book reviews

"Illuminating the Darkness:
Tales of Rescue, Courage and Resilience For and About Young People"
Chicago Tribune
April 2, 2000

by Bella Stander

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins at sundown May 1, but the thoughts of Jews everywhere turn to the Holocaust during the celebrations of Purim and Passover, the spring holidays that commemorate the Jews' deliverance from their oppressors.

An Oral History of Young Holocaust Survivors
by Milton J. Nieuwsma
(Holiday House)

When the story of Esther is told at Purim, the Persian Prime Minister Haman, who plotted to have all the Jews killed, is often compared to Hitler. And as Tova Friedman recalls in the heart-rending Kinderlager: An Oral History of Young Holocaust Survivors, on Purim all the children in her displaced-persons camp after the war destroyed caricatures of Hitler along with effigies of Haman.

Just 6 years old when the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, Friedman is the youngest person to survive the concentration camp where 1.5 million people died. Her slightly older friends Frieda Tenenbaum and Rachel Hyams, who were rescued with her, likewise recount their experiences in horrifying detail.

Kinderlager is an important piece of Holocaust literature. Despite its child-friendly format and relatively upbeat conclusion, however, its contents (especially a gory photo of Friedman's slain aunt) are for only the thickest-skinned of adults, young or not.

Fireflies in the Dark:
The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin
by Susan Goldman Rubin
(Holiday House)

The many colorful pictures--most by young concentration-camp inmates--and simple yet eloquent text make this book far more appropriate for younger readers. The truths that Susan Goldman Rubin conveys are unpleasant, yet she adroitly conveys the facts of the Holocaust without sensationalizing them or neutralizing their sting.

This is the inspiring story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a Bauhaus-trained art teacher who brought art supplies rather than extra food or clothing with her when she and all the Jews in her Czech town were sent to the Terezin concentration camp by the Nazis in 1942.

At Terezin (called Theresienstadt by the Germans), until her death two years later, she helped terrorized children forget their troubles, if only temporarily, by engaging them in art projects.

In the book's concluding two-page spread, in large type that accompanies a list of some of Dicker-Brandeis' students and portraits of others with their art and poetry, Rubin writes, "Of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin, only 100 survived. But their artwork and writings live on as testimony to their lives and spirits."

Indeed they do.

A Special Fate:
Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust
by Alison Leslie Gold

Though evidently designed for a slightly older audience, A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust is told for the most part in blander and even more simplistic language than Fireflies in the Dark (though there are disturbing descriptions of mass murder). Nevertheless, this account of the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who, against the orders of his government, in 1940 hand-wrote travel visas for 6,000 desperate Jews, is affecting.

At times it's difficult to keep track of chronology, as Alison Leslie Gold erratically switches back and forth between Sugihara and some of the Jews whose lives he was instrumental in saving.

Despite its narrative shortcomings, however, this book offers a shining example of how, even under adverse circumstances, one person with courage, honor and compassion can make a great difference in the world.

Torn Thread
by Anne Isaacs

Packing as much emotional wallop as Kinderlager yet softened through the filter of fiction, Torn Thread is based on the wartime experiences of Eva Buchbinder, author Anne Isaacs' mother-in-law.

The Jewish ghetto in the Polish town of Bedzin is still relatively intact in June 1943, when, to keep her from being transported to nearby Auschwitz and certain death, 12-year-old Eva's father arranges for her to join her older sister, Rachel, in Parschnitz, a German labor camp in Czechoslovakia. There 2,000 half-starved girls and young women are crowded into a barracks and force-marched six days a week to work long hours in a textile factory alongside well-fed local Czech girls.

Rachel's health, already delicate, deteriorates, and Eva wangles extra food for the two of them by bartering garments she has knitted out of factory scraps. But as the war gets worse for the Germans, there is less and less food to be had, and finally none altogether when the Nazi captors flee ahead of the advancing Soviet army.

By the time Parschnitz is liberated in May 1945, Rachel, like many of the camp's survivors, is near death from typhus, and Eva, now 14, is greeted by a soldier as "Grandmother."

A harrowing tale, yet one that bears lyrical witness to the power of love and faith, and the resilience of the human spirit.

© 2000 Bella Stander

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