Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust by Allan Zullo and Mara Bovsun

Leo then said to Walter, "So tell me, Valti, how did you survive?"

"I just knew I would live, Papa," Walter replied.  "I wouldn't let the Nazis turn me into something less than human -- because I am somebody."  (from Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust, page 124)

Eight Holocaust survivors were interviewed by Allan Zullo and Mara Bovsun for Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust, a non-fiction book that aims to show middle-grade readers the resilience of the human spirit, how the will to live is strong enough to survive the many horrors inflicted upon Jews and others by the Nazis during World War II.

The book opens with Luncia Gamzer's story (she's the little girl on the cover), a heartbreaking tale of an 8-year-old girl whose father smuggles her out of the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, so she can live with a family friend.  The woman who takes her in puts her life and the lives of her husband and daughters on the line, as anyone caught hiding a Jew would be severely punished, if not killed.  Luncia can no longer go outside or stand in front of a window for fear she'll be seen.  All she can do is sit quietly in a secluded section of the living room, and when someone comes knocking on the door, she must hide under the bed and hope the family dog doesn't give her away.  After a few close calls, the family decides Luncia must go, but the woman doesn't know where to send her.  In the meantime, Luncia must hide in a trunk, curled up in a ball and breathing through holes that allow a little air to get inside.

Other stories featured in the book are just as sad and terrifying:  a boy whose family tries to escape Germany on the S.S. St. Louis, but along with hundreds of other Jews, they are denied entry into Cuba and the United States and are taken in by European countries that eventually would be occupied by the Nazis; a boy who escapes a train headed for Auschwitz and becomes a partisan; a boy who fears for his life after losing his bread on a death march from Auschwitz back into Germany; and a young girl whose family hides in a cramped attic for two year during the war.  (I wondered why the last girl's story sounded so familiar and learned she is the cousin of Rita Lurie; I reviewed the memoir Lurie wrote with her daughter, Bending Toward the Sun, last year.)

Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust is a heavy book, one that stays with you for days after finishing it.  My heart broke for these children, for their lost families, their lost innocence.  It's probably best to read one story here and there, rather than read them all at once like I did.  I applaud Zullo and Bovsun for presenting the facts to young readers (ages 9-12) without sugar-coating them.  They don't provide a graphic account of events, but they don't hesitate to say, for instance, that a Jew was shot and killed by the Nazis for something as senseless as not being able to quickly produce the pass that will allow him out of the ghetto to work.

Despite the honest, heart-wrenching account of the horrors these children witnessed in concentration camps, in hiding, or on the run with the resistance, Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust is hopeful.  They are survivors, after all, and Zullo and Bovsun emphasize that they had the strength and smarts necessary to stay alive in the most horrendous conditions imaginable.  They sum it up perfectly in the Author's Note:
It's hard to imagine that anyone, especially children, could bear so much suffering.

Yet this book is also a celebration of the human spirit -- the will to overcome unspeakable horrors, the will to triumph over evil, the will to live.  In fact, the people in these stories all shared a common trait -- they believed in their hearts that they would live even when so many others around them were dying.  Not only did these children, survive, they also grew up, got married, and enjoyed happy, fulfilling lives.
Written in story form, rather than an interview format, the book will greatly affect both children and adults alike.  At the end of each story, the authors let readers know how the children fared after the war and what they were doing with their lives at the time the book was published in 2004.

The Girl hasn't had a chance to read this book yet, but you can bet that I passed the it onto her.  At 9 years old, she's about the same age as the children featured in the book.  But while she whines about having to do her homework before having fun and wonders what books, toys, etc., she should request for her birthday, the children in Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust no longer had toys or even proper food and clothes.  I think we all could learn something from these stories and the strength and courage of these children.

Disclosure: I purchased my copy of Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust.

© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.


Natasha @ Maw Books said...

I'm so glad to see you review this book. I just read it last month but haven't had a chance to review it yet. You did a great job on the review.

Veens said...

Wow... this book sounds so powerful. The stories that you mention are so scary though. I can't imagine such little ones enduring so much in those times.

I am going to get this one if i can here.

Suko said...

Anna, this sounds like an important book, one that I could also share with my daughter. Thanks for your review.

Blodeuedd said...

A good book to give her. Important and powerful

Staci said...

Thank you for such a great review...I must add this one to my collection at my middle school!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

WOW...this book sounds excellent; thanks Anna.

bermudaonion said...

I got chills as I read your review. The book sounds fantastic. I can't wait to see how The Girl reacts to it.

Trisha said...

Just the title alone makes me feel pain. I've read quite a few Holocaust books but never one from the perspective of children. This sounds like a powerful, but sad book.

Dana said...

Books about the Holocaust are always heartbreaking, and I can imagine that this one would be doubly so because of it's focus on children.

Alyce said...

I could see how this would be too heavy to read all at once. It sounds like it is another important piece of the Holocaust story that needs to be told though.

bookmagic said...

Sounds very heavy, I don't think I could read it.

Serena said...

This book sounds fantastic. I'm glad that they tell you what happened to the kids. Is this the one you got from the library sale?

I'd like to read this when The Girl is finished.

I also noticed you got your copyright information in the post...way to go!

Darlene said...

Great review Anna. I know that this would be a very difficult book to read but one I know I'd like to read.

Bonnie said...

I am drawn to reading books about the holocaust both fiction and nonfiction. I'm definitely going to add this to my wishlist. It does sound heartbreaking and powerful. I'm not sure that all children in this age group could handle the content. I think that girls are more mature than boys so they may be able to digest it more easily. My son is eleven and I'm not sure that he could handle the content.

Isabel said...

This is one book that I need to find.

I hope that they found some peace later in life.

Anna said...

Natasha: Thanks! I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Veens: I hope you can get your hands on a copy. Given that my daughter is the age of some of the children in the book, parts of it were very hard to read.

Suko: I hope you get a chance to read it with your daughter. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Blodeuedd: I couldn't agree more. I only hope she'll read it at some point.

Staci: You'll have to let me know what the kids think of it!

Diane: You're welcome! Hope you decide to read it.

bermudaonion: Whenever she reads it, I'll have to get her to write down her thoughts so I can share them here.

Trisha: All Holocaust books are hard to read, but it's even more heartbreaking when you're reading about children.

Dana: So true.

Alyce: I couldn't agree more.

bookmagic: It's definitely not for everyone.

Serena: Yup, it's from the library sale.

Darlene: I hope you get to read it; I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Bonnie: It really does depend on the child's maturity level.

Isabel: I hope you get your hands on a copy. I also hope they found moments of peace to help them through.