One dark night young Elsa wakes and wanders down the hallway to find her grandmother, Dounia, awake and crying. Douina begins to tell Elsa the story of why she is crying, a story that she has not shared with anyone else in a very long time. It is 1942 and Elsa is a young Jewish girl in Paris, enjoying life and friends and being with her family. When everything changes. She has to wear a star on all of her clothes and she and her family are constantly afraid of the German soldiers in town. The Nazis have come. And one dark night Douina’s parents hide her as the soldiers have come for her and her parents are taken to the camps. It is the night that Douina learns of a powerful hatred that exists and of the hope and compassion of strangers to help fight it off. It is the night that Douina’s life change for ever.
This story…this story is unlike anything else that you’ve ever read before. And I know many people are going, “But we’ve read so many survival stories. And yes they’re moving but another one?” And to that I say, this one is different. This one is told from a child’s perspective. Not only that it’s told from the perspective of a child that was able to be hidden away from the concentration camps, but still suffered from so much of the hate that is in our world. But touched by hope and compassion of strangers as well. This is one of those stories that is appropriate for all ages, as a way to help explain hatred that still persists today, so that we may learn one day how to overcome it. It is a story that will help explain why parts of a family suddenly vanished forever and why many made moves to new countries. It is a story that has the ability to change lives.
The Holocaust is one of those events that none of us ever like talking about, but one that we all need to understand. And we’re often faced with the question of how do we tell young people about it? How do we explain the hatred of someone because they weren’t the right religion? And the answer is, read this book with them. Dounia is our guide in this book and she helps her young granddaughter understand that while there was hatred, and mistrust in the world, that there were good people willing to risk everything to help a stranger. People that were willing to die to keep others safe. And while it is heartbreaking, it is encouraging as well to see the good mixed in with the bad.
I find it difficult to describe the artwork in this story, because it is so like and unlike anything that I have seen before. The illustrations have a sketchy type quality to them that hints at a bustling energy and life, similar to what we see in the Peanuts comic strip. All of the characters also have oversize heads on smaller bodies, again similar to early Peanuts. And yet…and yet we get a real sense of the age of each character, the lines on their faces, the way the shift their bodies and move, and more importantly we can see their essence bared for the world to see. In just a few short lines we know who the good and bad people are, that can either give us pain or hope. The artist chose a more subdued color palette (and rightly so) to go with this story, with darker blues, greens, and browns where the world almost feels washed out to capture the sadness of the tale that we’re hearing.
This is a story that you’ll want to read with a box of tissues next to you. And it’s one that you’ll want to pass on to others to read as well. It’s meant to be shared, so that we remember a horrific time in our world, and the bravery of the young and old that survived it. Before I wrap up, I’m going to share a quote. One that is not from the story, but fits the bravery of what we see. It is a quote from a an Austrian sergeant, who was conscripted into the German army during World War II. This sergeant, this man, went out of his way to save Jewish people, the people he was charged with killing. His name was Anton Schmid. For his efforts the Nazis killed him. But he left parting words that resonate with me and capture some of the characters that we see in this story:
“I only acted as a human being and desired doing harm to no one. Everybody must die some day. One can die as an executioner or as a helper. I want to die as a helper.”
I give the book 5 out of 5 stars and it will be one of my top books to recommend for the upcoming year.
ARC provided by Gina at FirstSecond