Review: If, By Miracle

by Michael Kutz
The Azrieli Foundation, 2013

 

ifbymiracleToday, most people who lived through World War Two belong to the generation of grandparents or great-grandparents. The legacy of the war — and particularly of the Holocaust — seems somehow diminished as we lose the witnesses to this terrible period. For this reason, If, By Miracle is an important book: it captures the first-hand story of extraordinary survival.

Michael Kutz was ten years old when he escaped from the Einsatzgruppen, a killing unit that gathered the Jews of his town and led them to the forest to be shot en masse. Every other member of his family was murdered (with the exception of his father, who had been mobilized by the Red Army and died in battle). A few months later, Michael joined a resistance group and spent the next two years fighting the Nazis and their collaborators in eastern Poland. When the war finally ended, he was shunted from place to place, trying to find any living relatives and hoping to be selected for life in the new state of Israel. Michael eventually ended up in Canada, where he lived an astonishing adult life of service to others, including advocacy, fund-raising, and leadership.

Despite its significance, this is not a book for every teen reader. If, By Miracle is a straightforward memoir, written at an advanced level; it is a serious book that demands attentive, thoughtful reading. It includes an extensive glossary, which I found very helpful; a context-setting introduction; maps of Europe prior to and during the war; and a section of photographs of Michael Kutz, often featuring people mentioned in the text. This book is an excellent, vital resource, but only some young-adult readers will be able to navigate the style and presentation.

Michael Kutz is clearly a phenomenal individual and should be recognized for both his work with the resistance during the war and his work on behalf of the Jewish community since coming to Canada. We must not forget the Holocaust, and individual stories of survival are critical to gaining a fuller understanding of this horrifying crime. If, By Miracle should be in school libraries and public libraries across Canada, not only for teen readers but for everyone.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, February 2015.

 

Review: Rescuing the Children

by Deborah Hodge
Tundra Books, 2014

rescuecoverRescuing the Children: The Story of the Kindertransport explains the history of the Kindertransport, a short-lived effort to move Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied areas at the onset of World War Two. The text succeeds at recognizing and celebrating that nearly ten thousand children escaped persecution and that many lived accomplished lives despite being ripped from their families and subsequently discovering the many horrors of the Holocaust.

This is an important, sensitive book for young readers. World War Two ended more than seventy years ago, and the name Adolf Hitler is not nearly as frightening today as it was to my generation. Rescuing the Children presents the history of this aspect of the war clearly, without being unnecessarily dramatic or graphic. It provides some context for understanding the rise of the Nazis and the persecution of the Jews. More importantly, it makes the abstract concept of the long-ago Kinder real by introducing eight specific children, complete with photographs and stories told in their own words.

Although this is a book for elementary-school–aged children, there is an afterword intended for adult readers to guide younger readers. The Holocaust is a difficult event to explain to anyone, especially young readers encountering it through the eyes of other children, and the resource list is a welcome, helpful addition to the text.

I was really struck by this book. It’s small and colourful, yet its subject hit me hard. My only quibble with the book is the treatment of the art. There are powerful images included here that, for various reasons, are sometimes quite small in their presentation. Readers can pursue these images separately if they wish, however. The overall range of images is impressive, and the design is thoughtful and balanced.

I recommend this book for school and public libraries and for classroom purchase. It provides age-appropriate resources for readers and could support a variety of learning activities. It may be an appropriate volume in some home libraries as well. Librarians, teachers, and parents will need to be prepared to answer the difficult, and perhaps unanswerable, question, How did this happen? I hope a new generation of readers will be moved by this text to renew our human promise that something like the Holocaust must never happen again.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on October 20, 2012.

 

Review: Every Man Dies Alone

by Hans Fallada
Melville House, 2009

EveryManDiesAloneEvery Man Dies Alone is disturbing, engrossing, and powerful. Based on the real experiences of a married couple’s resistance to the Nazis, it is an insightful story of love, standing up for one’s beliefs, and the atrocities committed by power that is fed by fear.

Enno and Anna Quangel are middle-aged, working-class Berliners whose son is killed in France. Together they launch a private war against the Führer, dropping anonymous postcards around Berlin in an attempt to expose the Nazis as insane bullies and destructive liars. As their campaign advances, their lives entwine with dozens of other Berliners’ in unimaginable ways, some compassionate, some desperate, some despicable. Their commitment to resistance is tested again and again, but Anna and Otto demonstrate how vital to human being are integrity, honour, kindness, and courage.

The novel evokes consistent tension in the reader; it also speaks with immediacy and an almost ultra-real level of detail. The action is relentless, unflinching. Readers may find the novel reminiscent of Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers (1987) in its entwining of various plots and of Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River (1994) in its look at the daily lives of Germans under Nazism, but it is stylistically distinct. The author uses some interesting technique in tense shifting to bring the reader into the moment of the action, and the diction is exquisitely managed to enrich character, setting, and situation (kudos to the translator!).

This is a long novel — some 500 pages — but it moves extremely quickly and kept me consistently wanting to know what would happen next. The footnotes and afterword are nice touches. I was not familiar with some of the more obscure elements of Germany society under the Nazis, and greatly appreciated learning more about the author, Hans Fallada, whose work is new to me. This is a masterful novel, and learning that Fallada wrote it a matter of weeks makes it even more impressive.

Anyone interested in the Second World War, social justice, or the psychology of fear should enjoy this novel, as should anyone who simply wants a compelling read. It is extremely well written and will leave a reader with much on which to reflect.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 12, 2009.