Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Not only a Jewish tragedy, but also a human tragedy - Simon Wiesenthal

Saving Rafael - Leslie Wilson
The final part of my MA involved writing a 20,000 word dissertation on any topic relating to children's literature. I chose to study The Portrayal of the Holocaust in Books Written for Children.
For 18 months I read all manner of books about the topic. Some were factual, some were fiction, some were written very soon after the war, some were written recently, unsurprisingly, some were better than others. What I did notice is how few were written from the view point of non-Jewish Germans, the only readily available books I found were by Hans Peter Richter.

Since finishing my dissertation the only Holocaust novel for children that I've read is Then by Morris Gleitzman, which was the truly incredible sequel to Once. I find it hard to believe that Gleitzman is a contemporary author who was not actually alive during the period he writes about, his books do not feel heavily researched, they just feel real - almost like autobiography.

Last week I was browsing in the library when Saving Rafael caught my eye. Not only did the cover really appeal but it was told from an Aryan German's point of view - finally I felt ready to read a new book about World War 2. The premise outlined on the back made me certain that this was the next book I had to read:
There was a vehicle pulling up outside. I heard the booted feet running up the stair, then the hammering on the apartment door and the shouting.
'Open up! Gestapo!'

You're fifteen years old. You're in love. Only this is Nazi-ruled Berlin and he's a Jew, so it's against the law to love him. There are spies everywhere. And they're taking the Jews away from Berlin.
To the gas chambers.

From page 1 I was hooked. the book starts with jenny working as a slave labourer on a farm, and then jumps back in time to explain how she ended up in a concentration camp labelled as a degenerate, Jew-loving prostitute.

The story unfolds gently and lovingly with jenny, Karl and Rafael growing up together in Berlin. Jenny and Karl have an English mother and a Quaker father and so are already outsiders in Nazi Germany even before being friends with a Jewish family, like Raf's, becomes illegal. An idea of the trouble ahead occurs early when both fathers are arrested on Kristallnacht but the families decide that friendship is more important to them than anything else.

The outbreak of War causes more rifts in the friendship as Raf and his mother are 'relocated' from their apartment and Karl and his father are called in to the army. Passive resistance keeps Jenny and her mother sane as well as in touch with Rafael and his mother.

I became so totally involved in this story that I did something that I haven't done for years.
I read the last two chapters of the book to see how it was going to end, I just couldn't bear investing so much emotion in the book without knowing the outcome. I didn't mind if it was a happy or sad ending, I just had to know because I couldn't handle the suspense.

Incredibly this action didn't ruin the rest of the book for me. In fact I think that it made me read the book more slowly and carefully so that I could see exactly how Leslie Wilson got to the ending, and how the characters developed without racing just through just to see the end.

It says something about the quality of the book that reading the end out of sequence didn't spoil the book at all, and it has become one of my top books of the year. It is certainly one of the best modern Holocaust books that I've read - and I've read a few. Like Gleitzman's books this one felt like it was about real people and not fictitious ones.

I was surprised how much I liked this book as I struggled with Wilson's earlier book Last Train from Kummersdorf. Although published by a children's publisher this book shouldn't be overlooked by adults, it is incredibly moving and it certainly made me hope that I could have been so brave in such circumstances.

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