Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Holocaust Memorial Day 2021


After the War by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)

Borrowed as a physical copy from Norfolk Libraries

The regular reader (hi Upstartwren!) will remember that this book made it in to my top reads of last year, however due to the topic of the book I thought I'd save my review for January, and Holocaust Memorial Day.

This fiction book retells a true story about the Holocaust that until recently wasn't well known in the UK:

Summer 1945. The Second World War is finally over and Yossi, Leo and Mordecai are among three hundred children who arrive in the English Lake District. Having survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, they’ve finally reached a place of safety and peace, where they can hopefully begin to recover.

But Yossi is haunted by thoughts of his missing father and disturbed by terrible nightmares. As he waits desperately for news from home, he fears that Mordecai and Leo – the closest thing to family he has left – will move on without him. Will life by the beautiful Lake Windermere be enough to bring hope back into all their lives?

What is so special about this book (beyond the incredible true story) is the way that Palmer has written it, Barrington Stoke produce books that are designed to be accessible to reluctant or dyslexic readers and to fit into this brief I think Palmer has pulled off an incredible feat.

The story doesn't soft soap the war, the Holocaust or the aftermath of the war in anyway, but the way that it is written means that it isn't overwhelming. The chapters are short and broken up with the incredible illustrations of Violet Tobacco and this had a bigger far impact on me (as neither dyslexic nor reluctant) than many of the other books on the topic I've read.

The story isn't couched in allegory, these are real boys who've experienced one of the worst events of the 20th Century and we learn all about this without euphemism or needing to know the history to understand what has happened to them. For me the starkest illustration of this is when Yossi is describing his family's arrival at Auschwitz. It is not left with Yossi and his father being separated from the rest of the family and never seeing them again. Palmer explains what happens, and how parents made the decisions they had to, there's no way that it can be misread or made 'nicer' by obscuring the events in vague language or with a need for prior knowledge. 

(As an aside the book that really left me confused as a young reader was The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang (trans. Crampton) which ended in a communal shower after a train journey across Europe. I know that the first time I read this I didn't understand why they were so happy/surprised when water came out of the shower heads.)

While the book is written in an accessible way, the subject is so well handled that a reluctant high school reader wouldn't feel like they were being given a book for a younger age group, and for the younger readers the length and style makes it a good story to back up other learning.

My first MA dissertation was about the Holocaust as portrayed in children's book and I wish that this book had been around at that time as it would have made a great contrast to some of the books I looked at.

Tom Palmer has a great website full of resources to support this book, including information about the real children who arrived in the Lake District from the concentration camps during the summer of 1945.

(Conversations I've had with Tom Palmer on Twitter have let me know that his next book is going to be set on HMS Belfast during WW2 - a book that I will have a special interest in as my paternal grandfather served on her, sadly not during the period Tom is writing about but I still can't wait to read more about life on the ship)

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