*Starred Review* Reviewed with Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed
.Holocaust survivor stories for teens run the risk of being either too brutal or too sentimental. These two novels avoid sensationalizing the violence because, in each case, the protagonist is a child too young to understand what's going on, which distances the horror. In both books the child is saved, but there's no radiant uplift about rescuers. Yes, some heroes do hide the children and help them, but as John Auerbach shows in his adult autobiographical story collection, The Owl and Other Stories
[BKL S 15 03], which centers on escaping the Warsaw ghetto, luck and wild coincidence were a large part of what enabled a few to live.
Part survival adventure, part Holocaust history, these novels tell their story through the eyes of a Polish orphan on the run from the Nazis. Orlev is a Holocaust survivor, and his award-winning novels about being a child in the Warsaw ghetto, including The Man from the Other Side (1991), are widely read. This new story is not based on his own experience, but it does come from real life--the experience of an illiterate ghetto survivor who escaped into the Polish countryside, stealing, foraging, begging, working. The boy is nurtured by some and hated by many. He hides his circumcision and invents a Catholic identity; he forgets his real name, his family, and the street where he lived. In one unforgettable incident, he loses his right arm because a Polish doctor refuses to operate on a Jew. He survives, immigrating to Israel, where Orlev hears him tell his story. The narrative is simple and spare, factual about everything from hunting with a slingshot to making a fire with a piece of glass, and it's always true to the viewpoint of a boy who thinks he is "about nine."
In contrast, Spinelli's narrative is manic, fast, and scattered, authentically capturing the perspective of a young child who doesn't know if he's a Jew or a Gypsy; he has never known family or community. He lives by stealing; his name may be Stopthief. Unlike Orlev's protagonist, this boy lives in the ghetto, where the daily atrocities he witnesses-- hanging bodies, massacres, shootings, roundups, transports--are the only reality he knows. His matter-of-fact account distances the brutality without sensationalizing or lessening the truth. He first finds shelter with a gang of street kids, where one fierce older boy protects him, invents an identity for him, and teaches him survival skills. Later he lives with a Jewish family. The history is true, so although Spinelli's narrator is young, the brutal realism in the story makes this a book for older children. Both novels end with what seems to be a contrived escape, though in Orlev's story, the ending is true. Add these stirring titles to the Holocaust curriculum; the youth of the protagonists allows them to ask questions and get answers that will help readers learn the history. Hazel Rochman
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"Mesmorizing and memorable." Kirkus Reviews, Starred
"The narrative is simple and spare, factual about everything from hunting with a slingshot to making a fire with a piece of glass, and it's always true to the viewpoint of a boy who thinks he's 'about nine.'" Booklist, ALA, Starred Review
"...the story is totally engrossing as it vividly describes the hardships faced by so many youngsters during the war. Orlev has once again successfully used historical fiction to illustrate the Holocaust experience." School Library Journal
"Part of the strength of Orlev's writing rests with its spareness...in this novel of heartbreaking resilience." Horn Book
"This is one of the better examples of Holocaust fiction in depicting the vagaries of human nature as villainous and heroic acts emerge unexpectedly, even casually, from a shifting wartime population threatened with catastrophe." The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Orlev...devotes this memorable novel to the extraordinary true story of an orphaned Jewish boy's experiences in Poland during the war." Publishers Weekly