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Bending Toward the Sun:  A Mother and Daughter Memoir by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie with Rita Lurie is different from the other Holocaust memoirs I’ve read in that it delves deep into how the horrific things the survivors endured can be passed across generations in the form of guilt, fear, and anxiety.  It is the kind of book that stays with you days after you’ve turned the last page.  I’m still trying to put my thoughts about it into words, and I’m not sure I can do the book justice.

The book is broken into three parts, with the first part told by Rita Lurie and covering the years 1937 to 1960.  Rita details the two years (1942-1944) that she and her family spent in the attic of a farmhouse in Poland hiding from the Nazis.  She was just five years old when her family went into hiding, and there were about a dozen people in the cramped attic — her parents, her older sister, her younger brother, her aunt, numerous uncles, and a few cousins.  It’s hard to explain how much this part of the book affected me.  Can you imagine being 5 years old and not allowed to talk, other than an occasional whisper?  Can you imagine not being allowed to go outside and play or never seeing the outside world (except through a crack in the wall) for two whole years?  Can you imagine surviving only on tiny scraps of food, watching first your brother and then your mother die, and eventually emerging from the attic unable to walk but being forced to move through a field with soldiers fighting on either side of you?  No, I bet you can’t, but I’m sure you can imagine the many tears I cried while reading Rita’s story.  She brings you into the attic with them, and you can feel the tension, the fear, the hunger, and the pain.

Although Rita survives, the subsequent years are hard for her — living with a stepmother who doesn’t want to actually be a mother to Rita and her sister but who has her own issues as a survivor of a concentration camp; moving around frequently; and dealing with illnesses resulting from her stay in the attic.  Rita lost her mother, never had a carefree childhood, carried the memories of the attic with her all the time, and lost the close relationship she had enjoyed with her father, so it’s not surprising that she experienced bouts of depression.

The second part of the book is Leslie’s story, spanning the years 1960 to 1997.  Leslie talks about being an overachieving child of a Holocaust survivor, how she clung to her family and worried about not finding her way back home if they were separated, how she constantly worried about dying, and the weight she felt on her shoulders as she lived for herself, her mother, and her grandmother.  She goes into great detail about traveling to Poland in 1987 with her sister and cousins to visit her mother’s home, the attic where her mother stayed for 2 years during WWII, and the wife of the farmer who gave them shelter.

In the third part of the book, covering the years 1997 to 2008, Leslie talks about the journey she and her mother took in writing her mother’s Holocaust story and the impact it has had on the family.  She also talks about how the anxieties and fear she and her mother experience have emerged in her young daughter and the depression that came over her mother after the book was finished.

Bending Toward the Sun is an emotional, well-written book about survival and family.  Leslie and Rita write in such a way that you feel like you’re sitting across from them, and they’re talking to you.  They bare their hearts and souls in the book, and you learn a lot about their lives, their careers, and their husbands and families so that by the time you finish reading, it feels like the Luries are old friends.  At the beginning of the book is a helpful family tree, and there are numerous pictures of the family within the pages, which help you better connect to the story.  (And I couldn’t help but think every time I saw a picture of Rita that after all she’d been through, she looked/looks fantastic!  She appears to be very elegant and sophisticated, not to mention photogenic.  But I digress.)  Honestly, when I finished reading the book, I longed for the ability to reach into the pages and hug them.

I can’t recommend this book enough, and you’re all in for a treat!  I’ve been given permission to include the prologue to Bending Toward the Sun.  (I’m sorry this is such a long post, but trust me, it’s totally worth it!)

Prologue
by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie
Author of Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir

“Mommy, I was afraid that you died.”

“I didn’t die. Sleeping. I was sleeping.” Holding my cell phone, I propped myself up on the pillow and regained my bearings. I was in an elegant hotel room in Washington, D.C. Judging from the burning sensation in my eyes, I had not been asleep for long.

“I was so worried when you didn’t answer the phone.” My daughter’s small voice trembled.

“I answered the phone, honey. We’re talking.”

“Not until the fourth ring.”

Her sadness and the demands I knew were soon to follow sent blood rushing to my temples. “Mikaela, I’m fine.”

“I can’t stay here, Mommy.”

I took a deep breath and thought fast. My voice softened. “I just dropped you off a few hours ago. We talked about the fact that the first night might be an adjustment. What did you do this evening?”

“Nothing. I didn’t eat. I just cried.”

She was in Bethesda, about twenty minutes away. “Honey, it was a big honor to be chosen for this leadership conference. You were so excited about going, you have a good friend there, you’ll learn all about government, and — ”

“Mommy, please! Take me home! I’m only eleven years old, and I’m not ready for this. Please.”

“Mikaela, you are ready. You’ll be so proud of yourself for sticking it out. What do you want to bet you’ll love it there by the end of the five days?”

She was sobbing now. “I won’t. I hate it! I don’t even feel like myself here. I’m hiding in the bathroom so I don’t wake up my roommates, worrying that you’re going to die!”

“I’m not going to die. Not for fifty more years at least.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

I was afraid she would say that. “You’re right, I don’t. But I eat healthy foods, I exercise, I wear sunscreen, and I don’t drink and drive, so I should live for a very long time, right?”

“Can you at least come over here to give me a hug goodnight?”

It’s a trap. She’ll never let me leave without her. If I had just flown out of town this afternoon, we would not be having this negotiation. “It won’t help, sweetie. You’ll just miss me more if you see me.” By now my head was aching.

“I won’t. I swear.”

I was not surprised by her determination, but I held firm. “No.”

“You just don’t understand,” she said angrily.

“Yes, I do.” I did understand. She was in pain, a kind with which I was all too familiar, and I could alleviate her anxiety just by jumping into a taxi. But it would be a mistake. Even though she had always been apprehensive about being away from me, she had made significant strides as of late. She’d been nervous about a recent two-night class trip to northern California, but had gone anyway and had ended up having a great time. I was certain that this new adventure would also surprise her, and provide further evidence that she could survive without me. After all, she was a survivor. She came by that honestly.

I grew up in 1960s suburban Los Angeles, part of a family who was living the American Dream. My parents raised my siblings and me in a friendly, safe, and well-kept community. Every home on the block and every kid looked more or less the same, with a smattering of ethnic diversity to break the monotony. I loved sports, especially baseball, made friends easily enough, and was a good student. My family ate dinner together nearly every night and took occasional vacations, just like the other families we knew.

Yet some things were different in our family. My mother believed that I could be president of the United States, but she hoped I could make the leap to high office directly from my cozy bedroom, where she knew I was safe. My mother didn’t like me to smile at strangers, play outside after dusk, visit friends whose parents weren’t nurturing enough, and most importantly, be far away from her. While I bristled at these restrictions, I lived by them. I knew that my mother’s fears were birthed by tragedy. She carried wounds whose power I could never comprehend.

I think of my mother as a modern-day Anne Frank. Both my mother and Anne Frank spent two years in hiding during the Holocaust, while the Nazis searched for them. Both were forced to live in an attic with their families, which was highly unusual. Jewish children were rarely able to hide with their families during the Holocaust, and typically, hidden Jews spent only a short time in any one place. My mother and Anne Frank both were kept alive, in large part, because of the courage and kindness of gentile friends. In my mother’s case, a Polish farmer and his wife sheltered a bewildered five-year-old girl and fourteen members of her family, including an infant.

There were many similarities between my mother and Anne Frank. But my mother was the only one fortunate enough to survive. For decades, readers have wondered what Anne Frank might have become, had she survived. My mother’s coming-of-age story may provide some indirect insight, as well as a glimpse of the long-term impact of the Holocaust on the children who were directly affected by it.

I’ve begun this book with my mother’s story. Her memories from early childhood are unusually detailed, although surely idealized at times. I’ve taken some creative liberties in reconstructing dialogue, but always with an eye toward accurately reflecting the spirit of the conversations my mother recalled, and the manner in which she remembered family members speaking to one another. In addition to relying solely on the memory of my mother, I was also able to interview six other relatives who hid with her in the attic.

I will never forget the evening my mother and I spent in the living room of my mother’s first cousin Sally. Four women, all in their sixties, who had hidden together in an attic as young children, a half century earlier, were sharing recollections. Given how rare it was for children to survive the Holocaust, such a family reunion was highly unusual. And then there was my mother’s eighty-six-year old uncle, Max. He had never wanted to share his memories, but that evening, he found himself leading the discussion.

Where most Holocaust narratives conclude, this one gathers momentum. Some of my mother’s most unsettling recollections stemmed from the period right after Germany surrendered to Allied forces during World War II. My mother’s story illuminates the fallout of the Holocaust as her family wandered throughout Europe for five heartbreaking years before coming to America. Her spirit, deep faith, and endurance against all odds provide powerful — and inspiring — evidence of the resilience of the human spirit.

In the second and third parts of this book, my mother’s story becomes our joint account, narrated in my voice, and eventually includes my daughter, Mikaela. The stories of three generations merge in these pages, just as our hopes and dreams have so often in my life. Although my mother’s and my experiences bear virtually no similarity, it is in the overlapping shadows that we find common ground. My mother’s traumas became my nightmares. Not a day went by in balmy Los Angeles that I didn’t feel lashed by what she suffered through in Poland during the war. On the other hand, my mother’s hopes and aspirations also sowed the seeds for my ambition and my achievements.

Over countless breakfasts as a child I asked my mother the same questions about her past — the few that I knew to ask. What was it like to wake up that morning and see tanks outside your house? What did you eat inside the attic? Did you have meals with your mommy and daddy when you were hiding? If the answers could ever make sense to me, I believed, my world would finally feel safe. After traveling back to Poland to meet the family who hid my mother, to sit in the attic where her childhood disappeared like an ice cube on a feverish brow, and then spending nearly a decade writing this book, I finally began to understand where my mother came from and how her experiences transformed her. I had to research further, however, to see just how the trauma of my mother’s past had been transmitted to me, and then to my children.

My husband and I had always encouraged our children to be adventurous. I worked vigilantly to prevent my fears from interfering with the messages I communicated to them. Even my daughter, who was more tentative than my son and stepson about separating from me, had always cheerfully rebounded as soon as we were reunited. I was surprised, therefore, when her anxiety did not diminish after she returned home from her leadership trip to Washington, D.C.

There was something particularly resilient about the strain of fear Mikaela seemed to have inherited. I came to see that while scientists had found a way to prevent the virulent AIDS virus from passing, in utero, from mother to daughter, no such barrier had yet been discovered to prevent the effects of trauma from being transmitted across generations. I learned that as a result of trauma passing from one generation to the next, it was not unusual to find children of Holocaust survivors, or the “Second Generation,” as we came to be known, weighed down by feelings of loss, guilt, and anxiety, and trapped in a dynamic of mutual devotion and overprotection between parent and child. And clearly the fallout extended to a third generation. Like me, Mikaela, too, seemed to be trapped in the vortex of a tragedy that had taken place a half century before she was born.

As for exactly how such trauma might be transferred from one generation to the next, researchers have proposed a variety of theories. Psychoanalytic approaches suggest that emotions that couldn’t be consciously dealt with by Holocaust survivors themselves have been passed down to their children. Sociological theories focus on the connection between a survivor’s beliefs and fears and their child-rearing practices. Other researchers have looked to the family unit as a whole to ascertain the impact of the Holocaust survivors’ experience on their children. They found, for example, that in tightly knit survivor families, attempts by children to establish boundaries are often viewed as a threat to the family’s unity.

Finally, other researchers have proposed that memories of fear can actually be carried across generations through biochemistry. Children of Holocaust survivors have been found to have lower than average levels of the stress hormone cortisol, just like their traumatized parents. They also are more likely than average to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder when exposed to a traumatic event, and more likely to view a non-life-threatening event, such as illness or separation from a loved one, as traumatic. This approach helps explain why children growing up in the same household but with different combinations of genes could be affected so differently by a parent’s trauma — why I was more fearful of leaving home than my sister, why my daughter was more fearful of separation than my son. These various theories regarding the intergenerational transmission of posttraumatic stress left me hopeful that we might find new ways to lessen its most harmful effects.

For my mother, at seventy years old, completing this book was bittersweet. Just after she had stoically finished taking me through her life, barely flinching at the most intimate, disturbing details, she plunged into a deep depression. I was left wondering if this project had been a mistake. Thankfully, my mother recovered, and her optimism and hunger for adventure returned. She reminded me that her primary motivation for creating this memoir had never been to help her cope. This book was intended to help others better understand the Holocaust and its impact, and hopefully to also shed light on the potential complications resulting from other tragedies taking place today, around the world. This book was written with the hope that children and grandchildren of trauma survivors — as well as others facing their own challenges — might find inspiration in my mother’s courageous story.

Last summer, I agreed to teach a course on the Holocaust at my son Gabriel’s high school. One of the teachers at the school, a friend who had grown up in Sri Lanka, came to our house for dinner before the semester began. Between margaritas and slices of homemade pizza, he casually asked me, in his perfect Oxford-bred English accent, if I knew the Latin root of the word holocaust. “Some of my students will be in your course, and they’ll quiz you on this right off the bat,” he explained.

I searched my memory. In the past decade I had read scores of books and viewed countless documentaries on the Holocaust. I knew dates of Allied bombings, numbers of victims at each camp, and the names of heroes, villains, and those in between. I was certain I had come across the origins of the word along the way, but it escaped me. If I confessed ignorance, my erudite Sri Lankan friend, who had left behind a successful investment banking career, would be convinced that his Oxford education was superior to my American one. For the sake of the team, I took a guess. I deduced that holo sounded like whole, and that caust had to do with destruction.

“Something like total destruction?” I asked.

“Close.”

Yes, I thought.

“But not quite.” He told me that holocaust, in Latin, means “burned offerings.” It stems from the Greek words holo (which as I had guessed did mean “whole”) and caust(“burned”). In ancient times, the priests of the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem would offer animal sacrifices to God. Holocaustum, in biblical Latin, referred to those offerings to God that were burned in their entirety at the altar, leaving no meat for consumption. Centuries later in the United States, the crematoria of Auschwitz brought the word holocaustto mind. It became synonymous with the destruction of European Jews by the Germans.

Thinking about that ancient definition, I realized it was not an entirely accurate description of what took place during World War II. The fire of hate that the Nazis lit did not consume everything. The earth was scorched, but from the blackened ground new seeds sprouted. Their genes had been affected by the intensity of the heat, but grow they did, and thrive they would, as my mother would put it, “bending toward the sun.” This book is for those whose hopes have been dashed, or burned beyond recognition. It is for those who may have been born too late to witness the most traumatic event they would ever experience. And it is for those who are interested in exploring the blurry lines between good and evil, hope and despair, and mothers and daughters. It is evidence that despite the depth of pain and horror we may experience, the will of the human spirit is irrepressible, and the blessing of life, of a new day in the sun, will ultimately prevail.

The above is an excerpt from the book Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, author of Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Bending Toward the Sun from FSB Associates for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Oprah called Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust story the “Greatest love story ever told.”  I remember reading about Herman and Roma Rosenblat on CNN.  I read that Herman was in a concentration camp during World War II, and while imprisoned, he met a young girl outside the fence who would throw apples to him.  These apples helped him survive.  Later, after the war and his immigration to the U.S., Herman went on a blind date and learned that Roma was the young woman with the apples.  They later married.  What a wonderful, heart-warming story, I thought…except it wasn’t true.  Well, Herman’s story of surviving the Holocaust was true, but the story of the girl with the apple was not.

Penelope Holt’s new book, The Apple:  Based on the Herman Rosenblat Holocaust Love Story, is an attempt to tell Herman’s story, from the beginning of WWII to the lie about the apple and the publisher canceling his memoir as a result.  The chapters alternate between Herman’s Holocaust story and the present, in which he deals with the fallout of the hoax.

Herman was 10 years old when Germany invaded Poland, and his family was forced to live in the Wolborz ghetto.  Herman had to deal with a lot at such a young age; his father succumbed to typhus while in the ghetto, his mother was sent to a concentration camp, and he and his three brothers moved from the Piotrkow ghetto to the Buchenwald, Schlieben, and Theresienstadt concentration camps.  The Nazis forced him to perform back-breaking labor, and the scene in which he was forced to clean excrement from the “death train” turned my stomach.  I was broken-hearted when I read about his separation from his mother.  He was sorted into a group of men, workers who would not be shipped off to die, but not knowing what was happening, Herman ran toward his mother to stay with her.  To ensure Herman wouldn’t share her fate, she told him that she didn’t love him and didn’t want him near her.  Can you imagine having to tell your child that and that it would be the last thing you ever said to him?  It brings tears to my eyes thinking about it again. After Herman’s lie about the apple was revealed, he received a lot of hate mail and even people close to him were angry and disappointed.  In Holt’s version, Herman claims he wanted the story to be true, that he wanted to provide some hope and give his story some meaning.  But in the author’s note, Holt says no one agrees about why Herman embellished his story.

Holt took a chance with The Apple, and her efforts to shed some light on the issue have generated much controversy, from Holocaust deniers to people who believe the hoax casts a shadow on legitimate survivor stories.  I think the book really shines in its telling of Herman’s survival of the camps — the horror, the pain, the awful reality of the Holocaust come through.  I don’t think we should allow the lie of the apple to lessen the importance of his story.  As for my thoughts on the story of the apple…well, this is where my assessment of the book becomes complicated.

Rosenblat was wrong to lie, but it’s not my place nor anyone else’s to judge him.  Personally, I believe he should have told the truth from the start, and he could have reached a lot of people with a story of hope, courage, and survival had he marketed his book as a novel based on a true story.  However, if Rosenblat so much wanted the story of the apple to be true that it became true in his mind, maybe it was a coping mechanism.  He’d seen so many horrors in his life that he needed something positive to help him deal with his past.  It’s easy to point fingers and call him a liar, but no one truly knows the psychological scars he carries with him.  It’s easy for me to read books about the Holocaust and agree it was horrendous and terrible, but I never had to live through it.  Rosenblat did.  There’s nothing that can be said or done to take away the disappointment and the sadness caused by the lie, but we can acknowledge it and move on.

The Apple was an interesting book.  I never was bored while reading it, though I was touched more by the story of Herman during the war than by the chapters dealing with the aftermath of the apple.  However, I wonder why Holt decided to tell Herman’s story as a novel instead of a biography and why certain parts (not sure which ones) are fictionalized.  **Holt e-mailed to clarify that though the advance readers copy I received stated that it was a novel, The Apple went to press as creative nonfiction.  The plan was to write a novel, but it was relabeled since it did not deviate much from Herman’s authentic Holocaust story.** I think it is important to note that Holt does not portray Rosenblat as a saint or someone who should be pitied.  I think it was her intent to show the horrors the Nazis inflicted upon the Jews and how it might affect — but not justify — someone’s actions down the road.  It’s about balancing the lie itself and the reasons why it was told in the first place.

**I recently posted on War Through the Generations about a giveaway of The Apple, and the post generated much discussion from people (none of whom are participants in the WWII reading challenge) opposed to the book and Rosenblat himself.  There was a lot of name calling and derogatory statements, and we were forced to delete offensive comments and eventually close the comments altogether.  I hope that doesn’t happen here.  I don’t expect everyone to agree, and negative comments are expected in situations such as this.  However, I hope we can have a respectful discussion of the book.  Consider yourself warned that any derogatory or offensive comments will be deleted as soon as I notice them.**

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Apple from York House Press for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The name fell like a sword slicing through her soul. Anna whimpered and slumped in her chair — then lost control.

She jumped to her feet, and the metal chair clattered to the floor. She ripped the folder out of the stunned officer’s hand and swatted him in the face with it. “You g*****n sick bastard,” Anna screamed. “Go to hell! Go to hell and be damned!” She flung the folder across the room and sank to her knees sobbing.

Hauptsturmfuhrer Koenig stared at her for a minute, not saying a word. Then he picked up the folder, retrieved his hat and gloves and left the room.

(from Night of Flames, page 253)

Night of Flames is a novel set primarily in Poland and Belgium that spans much of World War II. It opens in Warsaw in 1939 at the start of the war, with Anna Kopernik waking up to German bombs. Douglas W. Jacobson begins the story in the midst of the action and never lets up. From the very beginning, Anna is fighting for her life. After her father, a college professor, is taken to a death camp, she fears his ties to a budding resistance group make her a prime target of the Gestapo and SS, so she attempts to make her way out of Poland with her close friend, Irene, and her young son, Justyn, both of whom are Jewish.

Meanwhile, Jan Kopernik, Anna’s husband, is serving as an officer in the Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade. He sees his fair share of battles as the Germans invade and occupy Poland, and he narrowly escapes death on several occasions. Eventually, he makes his way to Britain and goes on several undercover missions to Poland and Belgium and forges ties with the resistance. Neither Jan nor Anna know where the other is, and as the war creeps on, they have no idea whether the other is even alive.

Night of Flames is a well-written, well-researched novel, and Jacobson’s passion for the subject matter shines through. The plot is very detailed, with chapters shifting from Anna’s experiences as a civilian dabbling in resistance work to Jan’s experiences as a military officer and undercover agent. Jacobson also focuses on several members of the Belgian resistance and their attempts to derail the German war effort.

Jacobson doesn’t delve deep into the characters, and readers don’t get to fully know Anna or Jan, but it’s important to note that the characters are never seen outside the context of war. Still, I grew attached to the characters, mainly their passion and their selflessness. I’m partial to strong female characters, so naturally, I liked Anna. It takes a one feisty lady to scream at and smack a creepy SS officer!

In many parts, particularly the resistance missions, Night of Flames reminded me of one of my favorite television shows, Hogan’s Heroes (well, minus the POWs, anyway), but of course, it went deeper to show the stresses and weariness of war. Jacobson does a great job showing how ordinary people can become heroes in times of distress, and without going into graphic detail, he shows just how horrific war can be for both soldiers and civilians. Night of Flames ranks among the best World War II novels I’ve read thus far, and I had to slow myself down to savor the story and make it last. I highly recommend this book, and I think even readers who are not WWII history buffs can appreciate it as a story of courage, survival, and enduring love.

Douglas W. Jacobson visited War Through the Generations in January to discuss the Comet Line, a real-life resistance organization that transported Allied soldiers out of Belgium. In Night of Flames, Anna goes on missions for the Comet Line. Click on these links to read Jacobson’s essay: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Night of Flames from McBooks Press for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Emilie Christine “Christa” Schroeder (1908-1984) was one of Adolf Hitler’s secretaries from 1933, when he became Germany’s chancellor, to 1945, the end of World War II. She was an accomplished stenotypist, even winning awards for her shorthand abilities. She became a secretary for the NSDAP (Nazi party) in 1930, officially joining the party to keep her job.

He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary marks the first time that Schroeder’s notes have been published in English. The book was first published in German (Er war mein Chef) in 1985, not long after her death. Schroeder asked Anton Joachimsthaler in 1982 to publish her notes. Joachimsthaler, a technical and historical writer, was an acquaintance of Schroeder’s with whom she felt she could discuss her experiences, given that when they met, he was writing a book about a broad-gauge railway planned by Hitler. He complied with Schroeder’s wishes to publish the book posthumously and included clarifications of certain events, as well as footnotes to provide more detailed information about people named in her notes.

Schroeder claimed to have had little interest in politics and to have known nothing about the Holocaust, and she provided few details about war strategies or Nazi policies. I found this hard to believe, given that she was so close to Hitler, having worked at the Reich Chancellery until 1939, traveled to various Führer headquarters during the war, and resided in Hitler’s bunker in the Reich Chancellery until ordered to leave on April 20, 1945. (She hadn’t even planned on leaving, trading whiskey for a cyanide capsule instead.)

However, in the introduction to He Was My Chief, historian Roger Moorhouse says Schroeder was responsible primarily for typing up speeches and daily correspondence that would not contain sensitive information. Also, Schroeder was so close to Hitler and his inner circle that she was isolated from the “real world” and unable to view the events of the war objectively. In fact, Schroeder’s memoirs have a bitter tone to them, mainly when she mentions this isolation, how she had to be ready at a moment’s notice to travel, and how she couldn’t get time off to have a “real” life.

Much of her notes detail the teas, dinners, and other events she attended as Hitler’s guest and recount her travels and extended stays in Führer headquarters. She provided details about Hitler’s personality, his mannerisms, his mood swings, his iron will, his food and conversation preferences. These passages are written in a gossipy tone, which made it hard to put the book down. I kept thinking to myself that it was a good thing she waited until Hitler was dead to say some of these things, and the quotes she attributed to Hitler show that he truly believed what he said…and he had some serious psychological issues.

Hitler’s nose was very large and fairly pointed. I do not know whether his teeth were ever very attractive, but by 1945 they were yellow and he had bad breath. He should have grown a beard to cover his mouth. (page 49)

Despite the effort Hitler made to surprise people with his rich trove of knowledge, and to show them his superiority, he made sure he never let them know the sources of this knowledge. He was expert at convincing his listeners that everything he said was the result of his own deliberations and critical thinking. …One day Hitler launched into a philosophical dissertation on one of his favourite themes. To my astonishment I realised that he was reciting a page from Schopenhauer which I had just finished reading myself. Hitler, taken a little aback, threw me a glance and then explained in fatherly tones: ‘Do not forget, my child, that all knowledge comes from others and that every person only contributes a minute piece to the whole.’ (page 54)

In the staircase room, we asked Hitler once, ‘Why have you never married?’ He replied:

I would not have made a good father and I would consider it irresponsible to have founded a family if I had not been able to devote myself sufficiently to the wife. Moreover I do not want children of my own. I find that the descendants of a genius mostly have it very difficult in the world. One expects them to have the same ability as their famous forebear and do not forgive them for being average. Apart from that they mostly turn out cretins. (page 132)

Schroeder was never apologetic, and she was quick to separate fact from fiction — especially when it came to the women in Hitler’s life. She devoted chapters to Eva Braun, the woman Hitler married just before their double suicide, and Geli Raubal, the half-niece whom he loved and whose suicide devastated him. Schroeder also covered in great detail Hitler’s medical problems, his household at the Berghof, and the final days in Hitler’s bunker as the Allies closed in.

While He Was My Chief is fascinating for the inside look at Hitler as a person, rather than as a dictator, it also was interesting to learn more about Schroeder herself, particularly why she would remain loyal to him until the end. Schroeder, even decades after the war, never seemed to regret her involvement, however little it might have been. Seeing Hitler through the eyes of someone who worked with him, respected him, and challenged him does not alter the common perception of him as a madman but provides a fuller picture of one of history’s most notorious mass murderers.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of He Was My Chief at Book Expo America 2009, and I later purchased a hardcover copy. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“When I go, you must try to bury me beside him,” Nadezhda says.

Marina nods. It would be pointless to argue that neither of them is going to die. Already they move through their days like ghosts, one foot in front of the other, thin as vapor.

No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared. What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death: death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.

(from The Madonnas of Leningrad, page 161)

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a heart-wrenching novel by Debra Dean that takes readers on a journey from the Soviet Union in 1941 to Seattle in the present. Marina worked in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad during World War II, and as the Germans closed in, she and the other museum workers packed up all the paintings and other works of art and shipped them to safety. Empty frames hung on the walls in hopes that the war would end soon, and things would return to normal.

Marina and the uncle and aunt who took her in as a child lived in the museum’s cellar during the siege, and as she worried about her fiancé, Dmitri, who was fighting in the People’s Army, she and the hundreds of others packed in the cellar spent the winter months slowly freezing and starving to death. With the help of Anya, an older museum worker, Marina created a “memory palace” to survive the cold, the grief, and the hunger. She walked from room to room, taking in the empty frames and imprinting in her mind each detail of every painting that hung before the siege.

In the present, Marina is an elderly woman losing her most recent memories to Alzheimer’s. The book takes place over the span of a few days, with her daughter, Helen, arriving to accompany her and Dmitri to their granddaughter’s wedding. Marina’s experiences in Leningrad are shown to readers when she drifts back to the past — something that happens frequently. The memories of the siege are fresh in her mind, and the “memory palace” she used to weather the war helps her deal with her worsening condition.

While most of the book focuses on Marina, readers get a glimpse of Helen’s mid-life struggles to fulfill her dream of being an artist and her realization that she doesn’t really know much about her parents. Dean also shows Dmitri’s strong love for Marina and the sadness he feels as she slips away from him.

…The bond that had first brought them together as children existed whether they spoke of it or not, the bond of survivors. Here in America, a relentlessly foolish and optimistic country, what they knew drew them closer together. She was his country and he hers. They were inseparable.

Until now. She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves. (page 119)

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a moving story of love and war, memory and grief, family and survival. Once I started reading, it was impossible to put the book down, and I read all 231 pages in a little more than a day. When I turned the last page, I was emotionally drained yet wished my time with these characters wasn’t over. Dean’s writing is beautiful, and I felt so close to the characters. Although the characters are shown only in two fixed points in time, they are well developed and realistic, and I couldn’t help but love them. Dean’s descriptions of the various paintings are so vivid I could see them in my mind, and she made the hardships of the museum cellar come alive so I could feel the hunger and despair. The shift from present to past through Marina’s worsening Alzheimer’s was seamless, and Dean’s real-life experiences with the disease shine through. (In the acknowledgments, she says her grandparents’ “lifelong love affair and their journey with Alzheimer’s” inspired her.)

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a complex, multi-layered story, and I highly recommend it, even to readers who normally shy away from stories involving war. It is so much more than a war story, and while it’s really sad and a little hopeful, it’s worth the emotional roller coaster ride.

Disclosure:  I borrowed The Madonnas of Leningrad from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli is a young adult novel set in Europe during World War II that focuses on Roberto, a young boy from a small village in Venice, Italy, who is captured by the Germans at a cinema in Mestre. One minute, Roberto, his older brother Sergio, and his friends Memo and Samuele are hoping to enjoy an American western, and the next minute, they’re being carted by train to a work camp far away from home and fighting for their lives.

Roberto is separated from Sergio and Memo, but luckily he and Samuele manage to stay together. Since the round up, Samuele has been going by the name Enzo to hide the fact that he is a Jew.

“They can’t kill someone just for being Jewish.”

“Listen to yourself.” Enzo’s voice grew hoarse. “Your insomnia — my nightmares — they don’t come from nowhere. They killed the boys on the train just for wanting to go home. They killed that boy at the first work camp just for fainting.”

…Roberto shook his head now. He wouldn’t believe Enzo’s words. He couldn’t. “My father brings home the newspaper every day. There was nothing in them about killing healthy Jews.”

“Some news doesn’t get printed.”

“But something like that, people would know. People would talk about it.”

“Jews talk about it.” Enzo rubbed his nose and looked away. “It hasn’t been going on all that long. It started in the spring. Death camps. They’re in Poland, I think.” The words came out with a slow deliberateness. Totally matter of fact, as though they weren’t the worst words in the world. “Jews are moved from the work camps to the death camps. There’s a work camp near Munich.” Enzo looked back at Roberto. “When our train pulled up to the Munich station, I figured I’d die there.” Enzo’s voice held the same tone it had when he came out of the water yesterday — the tone that was so terrible. The tone of resignation. (pages 60-61)

Roberto is an innocent young boy, but he learns right away the importance of quick thinking. He helps Enzo hide the fact that he is Jewish, and he shares his meager food rations with Enzo when one of the other boys discovers Enzo’s secret. When he and the other boys are forced to build a holding pen for Polish Jews, Roberto slips food through the fence to a young girl and her little sister, and he learns to steal clothes and shoes from the dead — including dead German soldiers — to keep warm during the brutal winter months. But his strength and maturity are put to the ultimate test in the Ukraine, when he escapes from a work camp and attempts to make his way back to Venice.

Stones in Water is a heartbreaking story of innocence lost to the brutality of war. Roberto’s eyes are opened wide to the true horrors of war, and he must rely on strength he never knew he had when he is on the run alone. I found myself tearing up when reading about the cold nights in the work camps, with Enzo telling Roberto stories from the Old Testament to put him to sleep. My heart broke for the characters not shown in the book, particularly Roberto’s parents, who must have been crushed to learn of their sons’ capture and agonized over whether they would ever be reunited.

The book is geared toward 8- to 12-year-old readers, with the war shown through young eyes. Roberto learns about the death camps from his friend, and his thoughts are those of a young boy, which will help young readers put themselves in Roberto’s shoes. There are scenes in which children are beaten, even murdered, at the hands of the Germans, and while these scenes are not overly graphic, I would recommend this book only for mature readers in the intended age group. In my opinion, this is more of a “grown up” children’s book about the war than Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, in that more details are provided about the evils of war without overwhelming children with intense, graphic scenes of violence. Napoli gets the point across in as gentle a manner as possible while staying true to the darkness and harshness of the events depicted.

Stones in Water is a fast, engaging read, and I flew through the 209 pages in a day. It was interesting to see in the acknowledgments that the story is based “loosely (very, very loosely) on experiences of Guido Fullin during World War II.” I wish Napoli would have said what parts of the story were true and what parts were fiction, as I always find that fascinating, but the story was exciting nonetheless. However, I was a bit disappointed with the ending. It wasn’t a bad ending — there is a bit of hope after all, and Roberto shows much growth in character — but instead of hinting toward a new story, I wish Napoli would have resolved some of the loose ends. Still, Stones in Water is a worthwhile read, and readers both young and old can learn something from Roberto’s story.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of Stones in Water. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War written by the writers of Mass Observation and edited by the late Sandra Koa Wing is different from other WWII books I’ve read in that it is comprised of diary entries from real people living in England during the war. Mass Observation was established by Tom Harrisson in Dec. 1936 to get a feel for the thoughts and opinions of the British people, which he believed were not accurately portrayed in the London newspapers. Mass Observation participants wrote diary entries, completed questionnaires, and provided artifacts over a period of several years. Some participants contributed longer than others, including the most prolific diarist Nella Last. (I’m currently reading Nella Last’s Peace, so look for that review in the near future.)

Our Longest Days aims to show the thoughts of the average British citizen during WWII, but it’s important to note, as Sandra Koa Wing does in the introduction, that Mass Observation writers were not a representative sample. While they came from different backgrounds and regions of England, they mainly were middle-class, educated, and more left than right with regard to their political beliefs. They also knew their diary entries were being read, which likely played a role in what they wrote and how they wrote it.

The book is divided by year, beginning with a passage letting readers know what was happening on the various war fronts at the time, and passages from each month of the year are included. The first diary entries are dated Sept. 3, 1939, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war against Germany, and the last entry is dated Sept. 2, 1945. Each diarist is given an introduction of a few words, indicating their age at the time of their first entry, their location, and their occupation.

Our Longest Days was a bit dry at times, but readers must remember that the book is non-fiction, and these weren’t professional writers. I think the book does a great job of illustrating the frustrations and fears associated with bombing raids and possible invasion by the Germans, the every day struggles associated with rationing, and the impact of the war on holiday gift-giving, dating, and work. One might think it was easy for people to give up things in favor of the war effort, and while several of the diarists were in the military, many were ordinary folk not on the front. They were expected to go about their daily routines as before and were constantly hit with challenges associated with meal preparation, public transit, etc. It was bound to take a toll on them.

Here are some passages that stood out to me while I was reading :

Dec. 27, 1939: About five minutes later we heard more aeroplanes and Jenny rushed out and said she saw three Spitfires chasing over after the other aeroplane going very fast. A few minutes later the first plane went dashing back and the three others went over again, and Mother and Jenny rushed out in the garden and then rushed back declaring they could hear gunfire. The dog barked and jumped about and I was still eating my dinner and refused to get up and Mother announced that if there was anything to be seen she wasn’t going to miss it. She said we might as well be killed while we were excited as anytime. (Muriel Green, 18-year-old garage assistant, Norfolk; page 21)

Sept. 3, 1941: Two years ago, we are reminded by press and BBC, war was declared. For two years I have been lucky, living so happily here. But the time is coming when I shall have to make sacrifices, like everyone else. There seems no hope of the war ending for years. The future appears dreary and incalculable. I cannot expect anyone to understand what it will mean to me to give up my indolent cottage life. The problem of what to do with the cats, for instance, seems appalling. They have become individuals whom I love, who love and trust me. If the worst happens and I am pushed into uniform (don’t WANT to be pushed into uniform), no one will want to feed and care for three cats for me. (Maggie Joy Blunt, 30-year-old architectural writer, Slough; pages 94-95)

Aug. 8, 1945: I wonder whether the discovery of the atomic bomb has meant the end of civilisation. It is appalling to think that it might be so, that power has been discovered that if leased to a set of lunatics could end all our forefathers had built up. It is a terrifying thought because human nature has brought previous wars. They don’t just happen by natural means, but are brought on by men and if they have brought on others unless human nature changes rapidly there might be fools who would bring another about, even if it would end everything. On the other hand, this new devastating weapon might have the reaction of keeping down war if it is controlled by men of peace. Another war would be too abominable for even the vilest of men to contemplate. (Muriel Green; page 263)

Because I am not familiar with all the details of the war, I was happy to see the book included footnotes, and I flipped back and forth while reading so I wouldn’t miss anything. There were some references to money and political elections that went over my head, as I’m not well versed in 1940s British currency and politics, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.

I felt like I got to know the diarists over the course of the book, especially those who wrote for much of the war. My only complaint is not the fault of the editors. I was hoping to find out what happened to the diarists after the war, but I later learned that some of the diaries were incomplete, little was known about the individual diarists, and in most cases, their names were changed. I was disappointed, but I understand that things are bound to get lost over a period of more than six decades.

Our Longest Days is a history of WWII from the point of view of the average Joe, and I highly recommend it for readers who, like me, are drawn to books about the war. I also think it’s worth a try for those looking for something a little more interesting than a textbook or general overview of the war.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Our Longest Days from Meryl Zegarek Public Relations Inc. for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Before picking up The Spies of Warsaw, I had never read a spy novel. My interest in World War II literature drew me to Alan Furst’s latest novel, and after flipping through to the last pages and noticing that most of his novels involve espionage and either the Nazis or the Soviet secret police, I was hoping The Spies of Warsaw would be good because I wanted to check out his other books. I wasn’t disappointed.

The book opens in Warsaw in 1937. Hitler is in control of Germany, but World War II has not yet begun. Furst begins by painting a picture of a secret agent, Edvard Uhl, a married ironworks engineer from Breslau whose affair with “Countess Sczelenska” leads to his involvement in espionage. Uhl, whose identity as an agent is discovered early on in the book, is not a major character, but he introduces readers to Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a veteran of the Great War and the military attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw. Mercier used Uhl to get information on the tanks being built by the Germans, but when the Nazi police gets wind of Uhl’s activities, Mercier must risk his own life to gather information about the Nazis’ plans for war.

Mercier at the numerous dinners and other social events he must attend for his job, suffering through them though he’d rather be elsewhere. It is at these events that readers learn of important political maneuverings and get a taste of Polish high society before the war. While the scenes in which Mercier is under cover are exciting, The Spies of Warsaw is not all politics and war. Mercier falls in love with a League of Nations lawyer, Anna, so there’s some sex and romance thrown in, too.

Furst is a talented writer, and his use of description brilliantly sets the scene. Here’s a passage from the beginning of the book where Mercier is shown to readers:

Turning slowly in the shower, Mercier was tall – a little over six feet, with just the faintest suggestion of a slouch, an apology for height – and lean; well muscled in the legs and shoulders and well scarred all over. On the outside of his right knee, a patch of read, welted skin – some shrapnel still in there, they told him – and sometimes, on damp, cold days, he walked with a stick. On the left side of his chest, a three-inch white furrow; on the back of his left calf, a burn scar; running along the inside of his right wrist, a poorly sutured tear made by barbed wire; and, on his back, just below his left shoulder blade, the puckered wound of a sniper’s bullet. From the last, he should not have recovered, but he had, which left him better off than most of the class of 1912 at the Saint-Cyr military academy, who rested beneath white crosses in the fields of northeast France. (page 15)

Here’s another passage that shows Furst’s expertise at building tension and writing action:

…Suddenly, from somewhere to the right of the tower, a light went on, its beam probing the darkness, sweeping past them, then returning. By then, they were both flat on the ground. From the direction of the light, a shout, “Halt!” Then, in German, “Stand up!”

Mercier and Marek looked at each other. In Marek’s hands, a Radom automatic, aimed toward the voice, and the light, which now went out. Stand up? Mercier thought. Surrender? A sheepish admission of who they were? Phone calls to the French embassy in Berlin? As Marek watched, Mercier drew the pistol from his pocket and braced it in the crook of his elbow. The light went on again, moving as its bearer came toward them. It was Marek who fired first, but Mercier was only an instant behind him, aiming at the light, the pistol bucking twice in his hand. Then he rolled – fast – away from Marek, away from the location of the shots. Out in the darkness, the light went off, a voice said, “Ach,” then swore, and a responding volley snapped the air above his head. Something stung the side of his face, and, when he tried to aim again, the afterimages of the muzzle flares, orange lights, floated before his eyes. He ran a hand over the skin below his temple and peered at it; no blood, just dirt. (page 70)

I must admit that my lack of spy and military knowledge made it hard for me to understand some of the goings on in The Spies of Warsaw on the first read. I found myself re-reading certain paragraphs until I felt I had things straight, but that’s okay because the novel is one to be read slowly and savored – despite the fact that Furst had me on the edge of my seat, wanting to turn the pages quickly to find out what happens.

If you think The Spies of Warsaw sounds like an exciting read, you’re in luck! I have one copy to give away. All you have to do is leave a comment (hopefully saying more than just “enter me”). Be sure to include your e-mail address if it’s not in your profile. I must have a way to contact you if you win.  For extra entries, you can blog about the giveaway, post it in your sidebar, mention it on Twitter, and let me know the link and/or tell me the name of the best spy novel you’ve read so far.  The giveaway is open internationally and will end on Sunday, August 9, 2009, at 11:59 EST.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Spies of Warsaw from Random House for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Anyone who thinks the Nazi party’s rise to power in the 1930s and the Holocaust could never happen again should grab a copy of The Wave: The Classroom Experiment That Went Too Far by Todd Strasser, the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for Children’s/Young Adult literature in 1981. The Wave is based on the true story of Ron Jones, who conducted an experiment in his Palo Alto, Calif., high school history class in the late 1960s when students asked how the German people could claim to have known little or nothing about the mass extermination of the Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

Strasser’s fictionalized telling of the experiment centers on history teacher Ben Ross and student/school newspaper editor Laurie Saunders. Mr. Ross seems to be a hands-on, show-don’t-tell kind of teacher, and he thinks the experiment will get his students involved in the class discussion about the Holocaust. He decides to create a movement called The Wave, whose motto is “Strength Through Discipline, Strength Through Community, Strength Through Action.” Surprisingly, the students obey Mr. Ross’s orders, and the movement catches on.

“Now that we understand Discipline and Community,” he told the class, “Action is our next lesson. Ultimately, discipline and community are meaningless without action. Discipline gives you the right to action. A disciplined group with a goal can take action to achieve it. Class, do you believe in The Wave?”

There was a split-second hesitation, and then the class rose in unison and answered in what seemed like a single voice. “Mr. Ross, yes!”

Mr. Ross nodded. “Then you must take action! Never be afraid to act on what you believe. As The Wave you must act together like a well-oiled machine. Through hard work and allegiance to each other, you will learn faster and accompish more. But only if you support one another, and only if you work together and obey the rules, can you ensure the success of The Wave.” (pages 59-60)

While Laurie is the main character of the book, readers are introduced to several other students, who basically symbolize the nerds, the jocks, and the losers. The Wave becomes popular because all the students feel like equals and don’t have to worry about trying to fit into a certain clique. The movement grows so large it encompasses the entire school, and there are membership cards, arm bands, and rallies. It becomes more than Mr. Ross ever imagined, and even he is caught up in all the excitement. Laurie is worried that the movement is going too far, and when students start being bullied to join The Wave, she realizes it must stop. But how?

At just 138 pages, I finished The Wave in one sitting. I was on the edge of my seat wondering how it would all play out. There wasn’t much time for major character development, but Mr. Ross, Laurie, and her boyfriend, David, are fairly well developed. You can see a transformation in the other characters, but you’re not really given a chance to get to know them outside of their interactions with Laurie and in class. However, it’s not really necessary to get to know all the characters to understand the implications of the experiment.

It’s hard to believe The Wave is based on a true story. It’s not clear how much of the book is fact, and I don’t think it matters. But it’s important to understand that not everyone who supported Hitler was as crazy as he was. I’m not talking about the high-ranking SS officers (Himmler, Goering, Goebbels–I believe they and the others in Hitler’s inner circle were just as disturbed as he was). I’m talking about the average citizen. Some of them were swept up in the excitement of the parades and rallies and Hitler’s animated speeches about improving Germany’s post-World War I economy. Others were too afraid to publicly oppose the Nazis. My maternal grandmother, for instance, lived in Germany during the war, and she told me many years ago before she died that they had to listen to Hitler’s speeches on the radio. If they didn’t listen to him, or they criticized what he said, someone could report them to the Gestapo. I’m not making excuses for these people, but The Wave shows, albeit on a much smaller scale, how easy it is for such movements to get out of hand, how easy it is for people to be manipulated.

The Wave gives you a lot to ponder, and it’s one of those books that sticks with you long after you finish reading. The book shows step by step how Mr. Ross begins and perpetuates the movement, but I leave those details for you to discover on your own. The Wave is shocking, and it makes you take a closer look at your own beliefs. How strong are you to stand up for what is right, even if it means being ostracized or worse?

[The Wave was released as a movie in Germany last year. The setting was changed from the U.S. to Germany, and the experiment emerges from a discussion about whether modern Germany would allow a dictatorship.]

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of The Wave. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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T4 by Ann Clare LeZotte tells the story of Paula Becker, a young German girl born deaf, in the form of free verse poems. She learns to cope with her lack of hearing and creates her own sign language. Her mother was exposed to the German measles during her pregnancy, but Paula didn’t lose her hearing completely until she was about a year old. Still, she manages to enjoy her life and her surroundings.

But in 1939, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis roll out Action T4, or Tiergartenstrasse 4, named after its Berlin headquarters. The program calls for the killing of the mentally ill and disabled because they are deemed unfit to live and don’t fit Hitler’s vision of a “perfect” race. Paula quickly understands that the Nazi party hates her and wants her dead. Though she doesn’t want to leave her family, she values her life and understands that saving herself means going into hiding. Her journey begins when Father Josef takes her from her home, and the people she meets along the way, especially the disheveled Poor Kurt, shape who she becomes after the war.

T4 is intended for middle grade readers, and The Girl and I easily finished the 105 pages of free verse in about 30 minutes. But we spent more time discussing the book and the fact that T4 was a real euthanasia program instituted during World War II, then pulled in 1941 when Germany was busy with the Russian campaign. We talked about how Paula must’ve felt to realize that her own country wanted her dead, how her parents must have felt about letting her go, and how horrible it is to understand that the Nazis killed many mentally ill and disabled people during the war.

The book doesn’t provide any graphic details of the killings, but it clearly spells out how terrible the situation was. The simple verse is easy for children to understand, and I think it’s a good book for parents to start a dialogue with their children about discrimination and the need to embrace all people, even if they are different from others.

Here’s what The Girl (age 8) had to say:

T4 is a book about World War II. It’s about a girl who is deaf. Hitler was killing people who were blind, deaf, or had other disabilities. The girl has to hide so she won’t be killed. She has to be taken away from her family to hide. I liked the book because it tells a good story, and it’s in poem form. People should read this book because they’ll learn something.

Disclosure:  We borrowed T4 from the library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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