Sunday, July 31, 2016

Your Hit Parade #6: Thanks for Dropping In, Mr Hess

I had to chuckle to myself when I was reading These Dark Wings by John Owen Theobald and the protagonist Anna Cooper, 12, runs into a fellow named Rudolf Hess on the grounds of the Tower of London during WWII.  He was a prisoner in the Tower for a few days and I don’t know if he would have been allowed to walk around the grounds or not, but it was very well guarded, so perhaps he could.  But who is Rudolf Hess and why was he in the Tower, in the first place?

Rudolf Hess was an old and loyal friend of Adolf Hitler’s and an original member of the Nazi Party, joining in 1920.  After the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, Germany, in which the Nazis attempted to take over the Bavarian government, both Hitler and Hess were sent to jail.  It was while in prison that Hitler began Mein Kampf.  Hitler ranted and Hess wrote it all down.

Naturally, when  Hitler seized control of Germany in 1933, he rewarded his old pal Hess by making him the Deputy Führer, the third most powerful position in Nazi Germany, placing him right behind Hitler and Hermann Göring.

So it was a little surprising when Hess took it into his head to climb aboard a German Messerschmitt plane belonging to the Luftwaffe all by himself on the night of May 10, 1941 and fly to Scotland.  The weather was bad as Hess neared Scotland and he was forced to parachute out of his plane.  Both Hess and the plane crash landed in farmer David McLean's field.  Hess had hoped to meet with the Duke of Hamilton for the purpose of instituting peace talks, but instead, he soon found himself in a farmhouse kitchen having a cup of tea with the farmer’s wife before being arrested.  Hess’s problem was that no one in Germany or Great Britain knew anything about his so-called peace mission and in fact, to this day, it is still wondered at.
Rudolf Hess and Farmer David McLean
Having never met with the Duke of Hamilton, Hess was taken into custody and yes, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered him to be taken to the Tower of London.  He was only there for a short time, but Hess has the distinction of being the very last state prisoner ever held in the Tower.  He was later transferred to a fortified mansion in Surrey until after the war, when he was sent back to Germany.  There, he was tried as a war criminal in Nuremberg, receiving a life sentence.  He was sent to Spandau Prison, where he remained until his death in 1987 at age 93.  

It didn’t take long for Hess’s arrival in Scotland to become fodder for British humor, after all, the British were fascinated with Hess’s flight into enemy territory.  And Arthur Askey, a well-known actor/comedian and a popular personality on BBC radio during the war, was just the person to capture the whole Hess incident with his perfect comedic timing.  In a song written by Harold Pucell, Askey recorded a tune originally called "It's Really Nice to See You, Mr. Hess" but later changed to "Thanks for Dropping In, Mr. Hess" for His Master’s Voice on their bargain BD label, just in time for the record company’s July 1941 releases.  Unfortunately, the British War Office wasn’t quite as amused as everyone else and demanded that the song be banned, afraid that it might be detrimental to morale of those serving in the Armed Forces.

So, it wasn’t until after the war that that “Thanks for Dropping in, Mr. Hess” surfaced again, in various collections of wartime songs.  I discovered it when I was putting together a playlist of humorous songs that were popular during WWII (and there were a lot).  I have never found sheet music for it, nor have I found the lyrics anywhere.  I copied the lyrics down while listening to the song to share with you (so if I'm wrong about any, please let me knew):

Welcome, little stranger, falling from the sky
Falling like the raindrops or the dew.   
Are you out of danger? do you realize 
Just what sort of welcome’s waiting you?

Well, thanks for dropping in, Mr. Hess,
We’ve told your friends to note your new address.
They’ve heard you got her safety in Berlin and in Rome,
So put away your parachute and make yourself at home.

Thanks for dropping in, Mr. Hess,
Forgive the small announcement in the press.
Had you told us you were coming and informed us where you’d land,
We would certainly had a big reception nicely planned
With a  carpet  and some streamers and Jack Hylton and his band.*
Thanks for dropping in, thanks for popping in, what nice surprise, Mr. Hess.

Nice and unexpected, just the way we like,
Strolling in as friendly as can be.
Soon we’ll have  ol’ Adolf, jumping off his bike, calling in to have a cup of tea.
Thanks for dropping in, Mr. Hess,
We trust you haven’t left behind a mess.
Perhaps you thought that someone there had taken you for a ride, 
Perhaps you thought it safer here than on the other side.

Thanks for dropping in, Mr. Hess,
Don’t tell us why you came, we’d like to guess.
Perhaps you’ve such a lot to tell us that you thought we’d like to know,
Perhaps you heard that bonny Scotland was a charming place to go.
Perhaps you even thought George Black might sign you up to do a show.**
Thanks for dropping in, thanks for popping in, what a nice surprise, Mr Hess.

* Jack Hylton was a popular band leader
**George Black was a popular theatrical agent  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

These Dark Wings (Book 1 of the Ravenmaster Trilogy) by John Owen Theobald

It's October 1940 and Anna Cooper's journalist mother has just been killed when a bomb hit the bus she was riding on.  Now, Anna, 12, whose father drowned when she was 5, is sent to live with her Uncle Henry, a man she has never met.  Uncle Henry is a Warder at the Tower of London, called "Ravenmaster" by its residents because it is his job to take care of the Tower's ravens.  England has just begun the fight of its life against Hitler's Luftwaffe and according to legend, there must always be six ravens at the Tower of London.  If any of the ravens fly away or get lost, the monarchy will fall and Britain with it.

Uncle Henry begins teaching Anna how to take care of the ravens, a job she doesn't much care for at first, but then, living in a freezing cold chamber in the Bloody Chamber isn't exactly where Anna wants to be either.  But even as Anna begins plotting her escape from the Tower, so she can get on a ship to Canada where her best friend Flo was evacuated to, and stay with her for the duration, the first raven disappears.

Shortly after, Anna notices Warder Oakes, a man who gives her the creeps, secretly meeting a man at Traitors' Gate, an area usually filled with water, but dry at the moment.  Could he be meeting a German spy? Is it possible Oakes is planning to kill Churchill when he comes to visit the Tower?  Anna becomes more desperate to escape to Canada than ever.

But when her first attempt is unsuccessful, she realizes she needs an accomplice, someone who really knows their way around and she meets just the person she needs at the Tower school.  Like Anna, Timothy Squire is not well liked by their schoolmates, but they are a perfect match for each other. And Timothy can and does get her out of the Tower for excursions, but when Anna discovers why he leaves so often, she isn't sure about being friends anymore.

As the nightly bombing by the Luftwaffe continues and increases, more ravens begins to disappear and Anna determines to stay and to solve the mystery of what is happening to the birds.  But is it a sinister plot to destroy Britain's morale and make it easier for the Germans to invade Britain and is that why Hitler's Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess is at the Tower?

I can honestly say that I didn't know what to expect when I requested These Dark Wings from NetGalley.  I knew it was a WWII story, but didn't really read the blurb describing it.  I thought the dark wings referred to in the title were the wings of the Luftwaffe, so I was actually somewhat pleasantly surprised when I realized the setting was the Tower of London.  The Tower is one of my favorite places to visit in London, and thanks to a British father, I already knew about the legend of the ravens, begun in the time of Charles II.

But for readers who don't know about the legend, and for whom the Tower may not be familiar, not to worry.  There is a map and anything you need to know is explained within the story, so that young (or old) readers learn about things right along with Anna, a perfect protagonist for this tale.  She is a bit naive, and a desperately lonely character, always hungry and cold due to rationing, not unusual circumstances during the Blitz.  And Timothy Squire is the perfect foil for her.  Both characters are so realistically portrayed, though Uncle Henry, a few of the Tower's other resident's, with the exception of Oakes, remain less then fully realized, but for me, that didn't matter much.  On the other hand, through Anna's observations, the different personalities of the ravens does successfully come through.

The novel is written chronically, beginning on Friday, 4 October 1940 and ending on Monday, 1 September 1941, with a real cliffhanger.  The plot, the mysterious disappearance of the ravens, does get a little bogged down in all the information needed to set the stage for the novel, for instance, the layout of the Tower, the bombing of the docks and surrounding area, rationing, etc, but I assume that will not be so necessary in the next two books.

I very much enjoyed These Dark Wings and will probably read the next two installments of Anna's Tower of London adventures, assuming the author keeps her there or at least connected to it.  After all, the Tower of London, with its bloody history, is such a wonderfully dark and grim location for a wartime story.

Do read These Dark Wings if you are looking for something different in the area of WWII middle grade novels.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Brave Like My Brother by Marc Tyler Nobleman

Told in a series of letters written to his younger brother Charlie in Cleveland, Joe relates as much as he can about what life in the army is like after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The letters begin in June 1942 and run through August 1944, detailing the brother's trials and triumphs.  At first, both brothers are dealing with bullies who are making their already difficult live more difficult.  But Joe is also dealing with uncomfortable conditions in England where he is training for the D-Day invasion.

Most of the letters are from Joe to Charlie and cover things like spending Thanksgiving with an English family who, he is sure, have used all their rations to make a dinner for him.  Or the constant rain and mud and the problems with Matt, an arrogant bully.  Of course, there is the stray dog who adopts these GIs, and catching a German spy that gets them in trouble instead of the praise they expected.

Along the way, Joe makes references to what Charlie has written about things at home and there is a lot of talk about Superman and what makes a hero.  Superman, you may remember, was created by two friends living in Cleveland, namely Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Like all epistolary novels, the reader is asked to fill in a lot of blanks, but by the end of the book, young readers will really understand what does make a person a hero but begging the question - which brother is the hero or are they both?  Definitely, something to think about.

This is a good book for younger readers interested in WWII (and I am always surprised to discover how many of them there are), and is especially good for classroom use.  There are lots of interesting references that could lead to some wonderful discussions and classroom activities.  Of course, it would be a nice book for kids to read on their own, as well.   The language is simple, there are no difficult concepts that could confuse young readers and no wartime violence that might upset some sensitive kids.

One thing that did bother me was the part where Joe writes to Charlie about a secret mission he was on with his nemesis, Matt. They were assigned to drive an army vehicle to another base and not stop or look at the tarp-covered cargo they were carrying.  Well, as it happens that's when they caught that German spy, and needed to use the tarp so they could walk in torrential rain to the base, leaving the vehicle behind.  To his surprise, Charlie realizes that the cargo is an inflatable jeep, to be used to fool the enemy during the D-Day invasion. Inflatables were indeed used and part of what was called the Ghost Army, but I seriously doubt that Charlie would be writing home about it, given all the previous mention of censors reading letters. The information in that letter would never have made it to Cleveland.

But the Ghost Army is pretty interesting, so I could actually overlook this questionable section of the novel in order to introduce the topic to kids.  After all, what could be more intriguing to young readers than the idea of a ghost army.  I posted a link to this article in The Atlantic about the Ghost Army, but I'll include it again HERE, too.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

It's 1936, and 7 year-old Pierrot Fischer, a sweet, kind boy, has just become an orphan.  His beloved but abusive German-born father had left his wife and son a few years earlier, and later died when he was hit by an oncoming train.  Pierrot's mother, through loving and devoted to her son, developed tuberculosis and has just passed away.  Pierrot is staying with his a long-time best friend, Anshel Bronstein and his mother, but he is soon sent to live in an orphanage, and from there, he is sent to live with his Aunt Beatrix in Bavaria.

Arriving at the small German village of Berchtesgaden, Pierrot soon finds himself living in a large mountainside home, the Berghof, where his aunt is housekeeper.  His aunt immediately changes his name to Pieter to sound more German, after all, her employer is the leader of Germany and the Nazi party, Adolf Hitler, and it wouldn't due for her nephew to appear too French.

Pieter is a smart young boy and very observant of what is going on around him.  Little by little, he is taken in by the uniforms, the shiny jackboots, and the power that Nazis from the Hitler Youth to Hitler himself all seem to wield. Soon, Hitler takes Pieter under his wings when he is at the Berghof, even giving him an honorary Deutsches Jungvolk uniform to wear, despite he is too young to officially join the Hitler Youth, much to the distress of his aunt.

And so, Pieter, a boy who has been the target of bullies in the past, is quickly taken in by the power and charisma of what he sees around him and it doesn't take long for him to start ordering the servants at the Berghof around, including his aunt. Smug in his favored position, he grows to be an arrogant, cold, calculating teen, and while he wears a Hitler Youth uniform every day now, he has never officially joined that group and never participates in any of their activities - Pieter doesn't even know other members.  He is allowed to attend the local school, where he meets Katarina.  He is clearly infatuated with her, but she lets him know in no uncertain terms how she feels about the Nazis.

When he discovers a plot to poison Hitler, Pieter's loyalty to him is tested as it leads to betrayal and death in ways that leave him cold, and the reader in shock.  But as heartless as Pieter becomes, because of his isolated life, he seems to retain some naiveté.  For instance, while taking notes in a meeting of Hitler and the architects of the death camps, he doesn't understand why no water will come out of the shower heads, and he doesn't seen to know who Leni Riefenstahl is at a party at the Berghof even though she was so closely allied to Hitler back then.

Pieter's transformation from a kind, loving, caring young boy to a ruthless young man by the end of the war would leave no possibility for redemption given some of the things he has done.  But then, one must ask themselves, given his age at the beginning of his indoctrination, just how complicit, how guilty is he, and is some form of redemption even still a possibility for him?

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a dark, well-written, well-plotted story told in the third person from Pieter's point of view.  It is a solid work of historical fiction, that allows Pieter to encounter a lot of the people that Hitler surrounded himself with, even though he wasn't at the Berghof all that frequently.  One interesting note is a nod to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas- Bruno and his parents, Elsa and Ralf, make a brief appearance in this novel at the train station when Pieter is traveling from France to Germany, and where Ralf's incredible level of cruelty is directed at Pieter, and later at the Berghof, Ralf is present at the discussion of building the death camps (you will remember, Ralf was the commandant at an Auschwitz-like camp in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas).  

While The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is kind of an improbable story, it is an interesting study in how easily a child can be corrupted by power, of how a bullied young boy can become a bully himself under the right circumstances.  Boyne makes clear that the moment of transformation for Pieter began on the train to his aunt, when a Hitler Youth demanded and ate all of his sandwiches - the message was clear - that uniform was power.  But when Hitler showed up, Pieter realized he was the source of the uniform's power.

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is not without a few problems that bothered me.  Pierrot has a good knowledge of novels by Alexandre Dumas, namely The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers, books I thought a little advanced for a 7 year-old boy.  At the orphanage, he is given a copy of Emil and die Detectives by Erich Kästner.  He later finds a copy in Hitler's library, but there is no indication that it is Pieter's copy.   Later, at a birthday party for Eva Braun, Hitler's companion, Pieter gives her a copy of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.  Both of these books were burned and banned in 1933 and it is unlikely they would be available.  Small points, I know, but it's important to understand Hitler's grip on Germany.

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is ideal for readers interested in WWII, and sadly, still very relevant in today's world.  Combine this novel with Boyne's earlier works, Stay Where You Are & Then Leave (WWI - Pieter's father was in the war and suffering from PTSD), and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas for an interesting trilogy.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth

I know I've done a number of nonfiction books about Irena Sendler or fiction in which she played a part.  It seems to me that while they all tell the basic story of how Irena entered the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII to help the Jewish children there, they all add new information about this remarkable woman.  Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto is not exception, and is filled with information for the older picture book readers.

After the merciless bombing of Warsaw by the German Luftwaffe in 1939, Irena, then a deeply religious young Catholic social worker, did her best to help the wounded and needy.  Because of bombings all over Poland, Warsaw began to see an increase in refugees arriving and needing help. Unfortunately, the Germans also arrived, occupying what remained of Warsaw.  Concerned, Irena joined the Polish resistance movement.  With a crew made up of her girlfriends, Irena helped care for the Jews in Warsaw, targets of the Nazi occupiers, providing food and false documents so they could get help.

In 1940, as the Germans rounded up more and more Jews, forcing them to live in increasingly cramped quarters behind the brick and barbed wire wall they were forced to build and that formed the Warsaw Ghetto, conditions quickly deteriorated. Capitalizing on the Nazi's fear of epidemics, Irena and her friends dressed as a nurses and entered the ghetto.  Inside, people, including children, were begging for food, sleeping in doorways and dying in the streets.

In 1942, the Nazis began to round up Jews for deportation to Treblinka, a death camp.  Irena realized it was time to do something about saving the Jewish children in the ghetto.  But how?

Using the code name "Sister Jolanta,"  Irena joined an underground organization, code named Zegota, As part of this group, Irena, along with trusted friends, commanded the Department of Help for Jewish Children.  But the group knew that good intentions wouldn't rescue children, that each rescue had to be minutely planned and carried out down to the smallest detail.  And one by one, Irena and her helpers managed to convince the parents of almost 400 Jewish babies and children to allow her to smuggle them out of the ghetto and to places of safety - with no guarantees.

Irena kept meticulous records of who the children were and where they were sent.  Amazingly, after she was captured and tortured by the Nazis, Irena never gave anything away.  And just before her execution, the resistance, with some costly inside help, managed to rescue her.  Sadly, her days of working for the resistance were over, as she also had to go into hiding, in a safe house she at used for Jewish children in the Warsaw Zoo.  The list of the children's real identities were buried in a glass jar under a tree in a friend's and survived the war and was turned over to the Jewish Committee.    

Each time I read a nonfiction work by Susan Goldman Rubin, I am amazed at how much information she is able to include without overwhelming the reader with too many facts and dates, but giving them just what they need to understand the events she is writing about.  And Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, a picture book for older readers, is not exception.

Written in a very readable documentary style, readers will feel the tension and danger these brave people in the Polish resistance faced every day, the indecision of parents asked to trust Irena with the lives of their children, and the confusion of some of the older kids.  What seems like the unimaginable, becomes real in this well-done, well-researched book, perhaps because Rubin included the words not only of Irena Sendler, but also of some of the babies or children who survived.  I think that's what gives this a sense of reality that some of accounts of Irena Sendler lack.

Those were such dark days and the oil-painted illustrations by Bill Farnsworth reflect them perfectly. Farnsworth's illustrations force the reader to look more closely at what is going on and when you do, you realize how well he has captured the danger and tension of those terrible days.

Be sure to read the Afterword for more information about Irena Sendler's life after WWII, when the Communist Government of Poland suppressed any knowledge of what she had done.  There is also lots of good back matter for anyone who wants to explore her amazingly courageous work further.

The publisher, Holiday House, has made available a very useful Educator's Guide that you can download HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Skating with the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer

Skating with the Statue of Liberty continues the story of Gustave Becker begun in Black Radishes.  Gustave, now 12, and his family, along with his cousin Jean-Paul and his mother, all French Jews who have finally gotten American visas to leave Nazi-occupied Europe and sail to America.  It's January 1942, and the ship the family is sailing must dock in Baltimore to avoid the Nazi U-boats patrolling the waters around New York City.  Gustave is disappointed that the Statue of Liberty won't be his first view of America, but arriving in the US is his first taste of freedom since before WWII began.

However, life isn't all that easy for the Becker family in NYC.  After staying with kind relatives, they find a small, affordable one room apartment with a shared bathroom on West 91st Street in Manhattan.  His father must settle for a low-paying job a as janitor in a department store, and his mother ends up sewing decorations onto hats.   Gustave begins school at Joan of Arc Junior High school, hoping the name is fortuitous for him in his new school, home and country.

School issn't too bad for Gustave, who already knows a little English, with except for his homeroom teacher, Mrs. McAdams, who believes that raising her voice at him will make Gustave understand her better.  And she also decides that his name is too foreign and begins to call him Gus.  He does have one African American student in his class, September Rose, but he doesn't understand why she keeps her distance.  Eventually they do become friends, and face some nasty physical and verbal incidents because of it.

Gustave's English improves quickly, and he even gets an after-school job delivering laundry.  He and his cousin Jean-Paul, who now lives with his mother at a relative's home in the Bronx, join a French boy scout troop run by a French priest and a French rabbi, the same rabbi who has begum preparing the two cousins for their Bar Mitzvahs. And through his friendship with September Rose, Gustave learns about the Double V campaign in which her older brother Alan and his friends are involved.

But Gustave also worries about his friend Marcel in hiding back in France.  Luckily, he is able to write to his friend Nicole in Saint-Georges, France, whose father is in the French Resistance, so there is always hope that there will be good news about Marcel.

I had very mixed feelings about this novel.  There is no real conflict in it, really.  It is mostly about Gustave's assimilation into American life.  And while that is very interesting and realistic, it isn't very exciting.  In fact, the whole issue around the Double V campaign, including the demonstration staged by Alan and his friends outside a department store in Harlem that refuses to hire African Americans is actually the most exciting part of the book and, I think, it should have been a story in its own right.

On the other hand, and perhaps because my dad was an immigrant, I personally liked reading about Gustave's life in America, perhaps because it is inspired on the author's father's real experiences after arriving in this country.  For sure, America isn't portrayed perfect and even Gustave faces incidents of racism and anti-Semitism, but for the most part, he does make friends and has a nice support system in his family, Boy Scouts and school.  I certainly appreciate his mixed feelings about which country to give his loyalty to and how that is resolved.  

Themes of friendship, family, refugees, racism, hate, and acceptance make this historical fiction novel as relevant in today's world as in 1942.  It is a quiet, almost gentle novel that will give young readers a real appreciation of what their family may have lived through coming to a new, unfamiliar country, finding a place in it and giving back as productive members of society.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Did the Statue of Liberty really skate in this book?  Of course not, but you'll have to read to the end to find out where the title comes from.

Gustave lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just as Meyer's father did.  His school, Joan of Arc Junior High School on West 93rd Street, is referred to in the book as a "skyscraper school" which only means that it was built up not out because of rising property values.  But it is also a real school, now landmarked and on the NY Art Deco Registry.  As you can see, it is an unusual school:

Gustave also spends a lot of time at the Joan of Arc statue in Riverside Park, at the end of West 93rd Street.  It is also a famous landmark and you can read all about it at one of my favorite blogs, Daytonian in Manhattan (he has better photos)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Remembering Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel 1928-2016
I was so sad to hear of the passing of Elie Wiesel on Saturday, July 2, 2016 in Manhattan.  After surviving the Holocaust, Wiesel became a witness for all those who did not survive, including his most of own family.  He went on to write books and give lectures and, in 1986, he won the Noble Peace Prize that year.

Wiesel is probably most well known for his book Night.  To me, it is the book that best defines the life of Elie Wiesel and the man he became after the Holocaust, a humanitarian who spoke out against injustice, indifference, hatred, bigotry and all of the world's genocides, including those in Bosnia, Rwanda and Dafur.

You can read Elie Wiesel's obituary in the NY Times HERE 

In his honor, I am posting my review of Night, originally posted on January 6, 2012:

"I believe that anyone who lived through an experience is duty bound to bear witness to it."
                                                                              From Elie Wiesel: First Person Singular

In Night, Elie Wiesel bears witness to his experience of the Holocaust. Living what they thought was a safe existence in Sighet, Romania (Transylvania), the Wiesel family, like all the Orthodox Jewish families there, could not believe the reports of mass murder that came back to them from an eyewitness who had managed to escape the Nazis. 

Then the spring of 1944 arrived in Sighet, and so did the German soldiers, billeting themselves among the residents there. At first, these Nazis were polite and considerate, and people still weren’t worried because radio reports said that the Russian Army was pushing westward, in their direction.

But, on the Seventh Night of Passover that year, everything changed. Jews were ordered to remain in their homes for three days, valuable were to be handed over and a yellow star was to be worn. Two ghettos were created, a small one where people stayed temporarily before being transported to camps, and a large one for longer stays. With each egregious act, the Jews of Sighet convinced themselves that it couldn’t get worse, but it did. The Wiesel family was among the last in Sighet to be transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau when the ghetto was finally liquidated. 

They were put into cattle cars with 80 people in each and slowly traveled for days until they finally reached Auschwitz in Poland. There, during the selection process, Elie and his father were separated from his mother and youngest sister, Tzipora. He never saw them again. Elie and his father remained in Auschwitz for three weeks, before being sent to Buna, also called Auschwitz III. There, the inmates were put to work, most of them doing factory work for the German war effort. 

Elie and his father remained there until January 1945, when all the inmates were forced on a death walk to a concentration camp in Germany, as the Red Army was only hours away from Buno. Elie ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp until April 11, 1945 when the camp was liberated.

Map of Auschwitz - areas in orange are the three areas
where Elie Wiesel and his father were held at different times.
Night is a book that answers Theodore Adorno’s question – how do you make poetry (art) after Auschwitz? In other words, how do you describe the indescribable? 

Elie Wiesel did this in simply declarative sentences, using straightforward vocabulary.  And yet, he produces a picture of horrors that are almost impossible to imagine. For this reason, I think it is a benchmark for Holocaust memoir, along with Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man

I have always thought the title of the book, Night, came from this passage:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times curses and seven times sealed. (pg 34)

And it does, but it also refers to a biblical passage - Genesis 1:5 defining a day as starting at nightfall (which is why Jewish holidays always start at sundown):
"God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day."
In this respect, even though the book describes the inhuman treatment of Jews by Nazis, Night also carries the message of hope in its title - there will always be a tomorrow.

I had read Night when I was in high school, but when Oprah Winfrey picked it for her Book Club Selection in January 2006, I reread this new and better translation, which, incidently, was done by Marion Wiesel, Mr. Wiesel’s wife. Thanks to Oprah, Night was read by 2,021,000 readers, many of whom might never have read it otherwise, according to a report in the Huffington Post It was the 3rd most popular book throughout her book club history. 

Interestingly enough, although Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, to date, Nighthas never been given any individual honors.

This book is recommended for readers age 14 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library

Friday, July 1, 2016

Blitzed by Robert Swindells

This post was originally posted in 2012, but something odd happened on Blogger and it had to be reposted.

It is 2002 and Georgie Wetherall loves two things - knowing all about England in World War II and creeping. Creeping?  That is when you “streak across a row of back gardens, over fences, through hedges, across veg patches...without getting caught or recognized.” (pg13)  And he especially likes leaving Miss Coverley’s garden is shambles.  Georgie knows she doesn’t like him - she's always watching him.  So when he has to repair her fence post as punishment for his last creeping adventure, Georgie discoveres she watches him - it seems he reminds her of someone, but who?

All this is forgotten, however, when Georgie’s class goes on a trip to Eden Camp, a former POW camp turned into a WW 2 museum of 29 huts each dedicated to one aspect of the war.  Hut 5 is a realistic replica of a bombed street in London during the Blitz.  The sounds and smells add to the realistic atmosphere - but wait, it is perhaps a little too realistic.  In fact, Georgie suddenly finds himself transported back to wartime London.

Finding himself faced with the real deal, cold, hungry, lost and scared, Georgie wanders around until he finds a friendly searchlight crew who give him something to eat.  After living through a night of bombing in a public shelter, Georgie notices four kids emerging from a bombed out pub.  He and the kids start talking and they tell him he can stay with them as long as Ma approves.  Ma turns out to be a 14 year-old girl who watches over orphaned kids in the pub's basement.

Ma has a job in a second hand shop owned by what she believes to be is a Jewish refugee from Germany called Rags.  But when Georgie discovers a radio transmitter locked in one of the shops upstairs rooms, the kids begin to suspect that maybe Rags isn't who they think he is.  And they decide to find out exactly what he is up to with that radio transmitter.  Trouble is, Rags begins to suspect Ma of snooping in his stuff and decides to find out what she is up to.  So, Georgie, along with Ma and the other orphans, is on a wartime adventure he never dreamt possible.

I liked this coming of age time travel story.  It is told in the first person, and the author maintains the voice of a 12 year-old boy throughout, giving it an authentic quality - quick, witty, full of colloquialisms from 2002 that are questioned by the folks from 1940.  I also found Georgie's reaction to his predicament refreshing.  In most time travel stories, kids end up in a different time and place and seem to assimilate so easily.  But for Georgie, it isn't just a jolly adventure.  He worries throughout about not getting home, not seeing his parents again.  As wartime London loses its romanticized aura and becomes reality, it causes Georgie to experience real reactions like throwing up more than once and even wetting himself at one point.

But it is also a story of survival, complete with a cast of orphan characters right out of Charles Dicken's London, who become Georgie's family away from family, helping him adjust and carry on. And most importantly, helping him see the reality of war.

Blitzed is a fast paced but wonderful book.  The chapters are only a few pages long, but the events are exciting, making it an ideal book for a reluctant readers and certainly one that would appeal to boys as well as girls.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

You can hear Robert Swindells speaking about Blitzed here.  It is on YouTube but the embed function is disengaged.

And there really is an Eden Camp in Yorkshire, so if you happen to be in England and would have an interest in visiting (you might want to go to Yorkshire anyway, it is a wonderful place to see.)  Information about visiting can be found here