Book Review: World War II through teenagers’ eyes

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

How do you introduce a child to the horrors of the Holocaust? Usually books for grade-school-aged children tone down Nazi atrocities because those readers may be too young to assimilate what occurred. Novels for teenagers, on the other hand, often offer graphic details about life during World War II for Jews who were forced into concentration camps or lived in hiding. While the three novels in this review are aimed at young adults, my hope is that their parents will read and discuss them with their children in order to help them understand the feelings that may arise from these works – works that I found to be heart-rendering and emotionally upsetting at times. Fortunately, all three novels also offer glimpses of acts of kindness and caring that occurred during those dark and difficult times.
“What the Night Sings”
One way to protect a child after the Nazis invaded your country was to pretend that you weren’t Jewish. That was true for Gerta Rausch, the narrator of “What the Night Sings” by Vesper Stamper (Alfred A. Knopf), who didn’t know she was Jewish until someone betrayed her and her father to the Nazis. Before that, the 14-year-old Gerta spent most of her days in their apartment practicing her viola with her father and her singing with her non-Jewish stepmother in preparation for her debut concert. That life came to an abrupt end when the two Jews were arrested and taken to a concentration camp.
The novel begins, though, after Gerta has spent two years in the camp. Liberation is only a few days away. Although ill at first, Gerta begins to recover and is befriended by another teenager, Levi Goldszmit. Both teens have no living family and are forced to think about their future – a future for which they are completely unprepared. Gerta and Levi understand the world they once lived in no longer exists, but their time in the camp robbed them of the practical knowledge they need to make a future. For example, they can’t even imagine how to do the simplest of things: deciding where to live and how to support themselves. Levi finds solace through prayer and Jewish rituals. Gerta, though, has no knowledge of Judaism; she can barely remember her Jewish mother. The only thing that has meaning is music, but, although she loves singing, she fears the war has robbed her of her voice.
“What the Night Sings” tells not only of Gerta’s life in the camp, but the precious time before her dreams were crushed by reality. The novel contains black and beige drawings – some realistic and some impressionistic – that complement the text. The novel is extremely well done and starkly portrays the hatred of Jews that existed before and after the war.
“The Librarian of Auschwitz”
The most ambitious and complex novel of the three is Antonio Iturbe’s “The Librarian of Auschwitz” (Godwin Books/Henry Holt and Company), which takes place in the family camp section of Auschwitz. The camp is seen through the eyes of several characters and features the real-life Edita (Dita) Aderlova, Fredy Hirsch and Josef Mengele. Its main focus, though, is on young Dita, who was moved with her parents to the Terezin Ghetto and then to Auschwitz. Fortunately for Dita, she and her parents are placed in the family camp – one set up so the Nazis will be able to show the Red Cross how well they are treating people. Fredy has organized a school for the younger children with the permission of the Nazis and has asked Dita to be the school librarian. Since owning reading material is forbidden and punishable by death, Dita risks her life to care for and hide the few books available. The school also features what she calls living books – teachers who tell stories that help the children forget their surroundings. 
All the characters – except for Mengele – feel three-dimensional as they look for ways to survive and remain human during inhumane times. Some find themselves surprised by love; others turn against their neighbors for an extra crust of bread. The horror they live through – entering a gas chamber to empty it of dead bodies, the sorrow of watching someone you love being transported to another camp to die, and the daily cruelty and brutality – are made far more explicit in this work than in the others. The psychological traumas – the risk of giving up and allowing yourself to die – are made clear as Dita tries to maintain her sanity and find a reason to live.
“The Librarian of Auschwitz” felt overpowering at times simply because it is so graphic. It shows the role luck played in survival, although it also acknowledges the strength that kept others from succumbing to illness and starvation. The novel feels too intense for tweens, and parents might want to read it first before offering it to their teenagers. However, the work also shows the courage and hope that allowed the real-life Dita to live long enough to tell her story – a story worth celebrating.
“My Real Name is Hanna”
Not all who survived the Holocaust did so as prisoners in concentration camps. Some families managed to successfully hide from the Nazis. In “My Real Name is Hanna” by Tara Lynn Masih (Mandel Vilar Press), Hanna lives with her parents in a small village in Ukraine that’s occupied by the Soviet Union. When Germany invades the country, the Nazi threat seems far away because their village is so small and unimportant. However, it isn’t long before Hanna’s parents realize that it is not safe to stay in their home. With the help of friends, several Jewish families hide in cabins in the forest. When those no longer prove safe, the groups move to a series of connected underground caves.
Hanna, who is 13 when the novel opens, narrates the story, which is loosely based on the Stermer family that survived the war in similar caves. While the characters don’t face the horrors of concentration camp life, the lack of food, light and medicine becomes a real challenge. There is also the fear of discovery, not only by the Nazis, but those living in nearby villages who would gladly accept a reward from the Germans for betraying any Jews in their midst. However, there are also heroes: friends who risk their lives to help their Jewish neighbors and warn them when danger is near. This bittersweet story of survival and loss shows how, in the midst of danger and betrayal, the bonds of family and friends can sustain life.