Tuesday, May 25, 2021

When the World Was Ours and the Boy from Buchenwald

Kessler, Liz. When the World Was Ours
May 18th 2021 by Aladdin
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus 

It's a great 10th birthday for Leo Grunberg in 1936 when his photographer father takes him and his friends Max and Elsa to Vienna's Riesenrad Ferris wheel. A chance encounter with an English couple, the Stewarts, leads the father to invite them back to the family's apartment for Leo's birthday sachertorte. The three friends cherish this day, and a picture the father took of them, as the world around them heads slowly and inexorably into Hitler's evil grasp. Elsa's family can see that things are bad, and head to Prague in 1938. Max's father, an ill-tempered man who is frequently out of work, gets a position with the SS. He has never been in favor of Max having Jewish friends, but starts to push Max further into participation with the Hitler Youth. Leo's family hangs on for a bit, but when the father is attacked in the town square, they make plans to leave. When the father is imprisoned, it is up to Leo and his mother to contact the Stewarts, whose address they have thanks to a note they sent, and to see if the family will sponsor them to come to England. They manage to get a visa and settle in to life with the Stewarts. At the same time, Prague is overtaken by the Germans, and Elsa's family is forced out of their apartment into the Ghetto, and eventually put on trains to the camps. Eventually ending up at Auschwitz, Elsa sees Mr. Grunberg, who tells her to claim to be 17. She survives, but a chance turn of events puts her back in contact with Max and ends in tragedy. Will Leo ever find out the fate of his father or his friends? This story is loosely based on events in the lives of Kessler's ancestors. 
Strengths: Starting this book with a happy day of celebration really made me feel even more invested in the three main characters, and the very different paths each had to travel was fascinating, given their common starting point. Each made perfect sense, and echoed the experiences of many at that time. Elsa's family thought they would be safe, but ended up experiencing the worst of the camps. Max's family managed to stay on Hitler's good side, which they thought would keep them safe. Leo's family were lucky enough, as was Kessler's, to know someone who could sponsor them and get them to relative safety in England. The lengths to which they each went to hold on to the picture of that day, and the memories, was especially touching. This might be one of my favorite Holocaust novels, right after Moskin's 1972 I Am Rosemarie
Weaknesses: I almost wish that Max's father hadn't been quite so evil. It was good to see Max, who meant well, get sucked into the Nazi philosophies. 
What I really think: This reminded me a bit of the PBS series World on Fire, which was hard to watch. Despite a warning about violence at the beginning of this, it wasn't any more detailed than most middle grade books about the Holocuast. Definitely purchasing for our WWII/ Holocaust unit. I loved that this showed what life was like before Hitler's rise to power, and ended up after the war. I've read many, many Holocaust books, but this one made me cry. 

Waisman, Robbie and McClelland, Susan. Boy from Buchenwald
May 11th 2021 by Bloomsbury Children's Books
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Romek Wajsman lived in Poland with his family before WWII, but his parents, brothers, and sisters were split up when the Nazis started rounding up Jews. Romek worked at a munitions factory stamping artillery shells when he was just 11. Eventually, he ended up in Buchenwald with many other boys. When the camps were freed, the boys were put under the protection of the French, and brought to the Ecouis complex in 1945, where they got much needed care. Not only were many of the boys gravely ill and malnourished, but the staff understood that there were traumatized by their experiences. At first, it was though that they shouldn't talk about what happened, but eventually the wisdom of processing their grief and trauma prevailed. Romek was determined to make it back to his home in Poland, since that thought carried him through the war. He had friends from the camp who went separate ways, and eventually Romek is told that his home is no longer there, and that Jews who have tried to return have been occasionally killed. Eventually, his sister is found, and he finds a variety of mentors, including Jean and Jane, who want to adopt him and send him to high school and college. He declined, deciding to train as an electrical engineer and eventually immigrate to Canada. For years, he did not talk about his experiences, but started to work with organizations in the 1980s to educate people about the Holocaust. Now in his 90s, Romek, now Robbie, decided to work with a coauthor to tell his story.

This is a little told but much needed follow up to Holocaust experiences. Few books follow what happened to survivors after the war; Moskin's I am Rosemarie touches on it briefly, and Matas' After the War and Skrypuch's Stolen girl both address different aspects, but this is much more information than I have read about the aftermath. There is plenty of information about Waisman's experiences during the war, told in flashbacks. My only complaint is that a linear recounting would have been a bit easier to follow, but I can see why the flashbacks were used. 

Since the author was the age of many young readers when he was in the camps, this is a particularly interesting account. There can't be too many more Holocaust survivors who remember enough to tell compelling stories; even Waisman says that for many years, he suppressed details of his experiences. It's understandable why there aren't as many accounts of what happened after survivors got out of the camps, and it's good to see this description of how one boy was able to overcome the trauma of the war with the help of the extended Jewish and French community. 

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