Hazel Rochman (Booklist, April 1, 1996 (Vol. 92, No. 15))
This is a multi-book review. See also the title Four Perfect Pebbles. There has been a flood of books about the Holocaust recently, partly because of the fiftieth anniversary remembrances of the end of World War II and the liberation of the death camps. The opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has aroused national interest, and so has the requirement in many states that the Holocaust be taught as part of the curriculum. As survivors are getting older, many who have been silent now feel compelled to tell their stories. The books are not all good. Every survivor is not a writer. Oral histories need editing and retelling, as in Steven Spielberg's superb new documentary film Survivors of the Holocaust. Yet, just when it seems we have so much material that there can't possibly be anything more to say, new stories come along that tell what happened with a personal intensity, with particulars, that makes us know what the overwhelming statistics mean for people like us. For older high-school readers, there are unsparing survivor accounts, such as Carl Friedman's Nightfather (1994). But what about middle-graders not yet ready for adult books? One genre is the escape story, which combines the excitement of adventure with the grim truth of what the survivors have escaped from. Two fine new books draw on authentic personal accounts of survivors who move back and forth between memory and a haunted present. As in accounts of slavery and the Underground Railroad, we are always conscious of the millions who did not get away. Matas' docunovel is about young Jews trying to reach Palestine after the war. The story is told in the present tense by 15-year-old Ruth, who returns, alone, from Buchenwald in 1945. In the first scene she tries to go back to her home in Poland, but she is chased off by the people who have taken her house. She joins an underground organization and helps lead a group of children with false documents on a dangerous journey across Europe and then on a boat that tries to evade the British blockade of Palestine. Woven into the action are stark vignettes of what Ruth is trying to forget and of what the children tell her--of ghettos, roundups, transports, camps, massacre. A teenage boy crawled out alive from a mass grave; an eight-year-old cared for his infant brother in the forest; Ruth last saw her mother and sister marched off to the gas chamber in Auschwitz, where "a red glow from the furnaces covered everything." The young people remember, and they argue about God, about Zionism, about guilt. It's unrealistic that Ruth and even the young children should be so articulate about their feelings ("I'm sick of this numbness, but I know it's too dangerous to wake up" ). And as Ruth begins to allow herself to feel again, there's not only adventure but also romance with a brave, good, perfect young leader. However, the historical incidents are true, and Matas has retold them and shaped them into a tightly edited drama far from the rambling and repetition of authentic oral history. The climactic scene in which Ruth finds the brother she feared was dead--hears his voice, then finds him on the deck of the ship, and touches his face while the hushed crowd watches--is something you want to read over and over again; it is a miracle. Perl weaves the history of the Holocaust with a survivor's personal memories of what happened to her family. The writing is direct and devastating, with no rhetoric or sensationalizing. The truth is in what's said and in what's left out. On the night of the Nazi rampage of Krystallnacht, the Gestapo came for Marion Blumenthal's father: "Get dressed and come with us," they told him. He returned home from prison 11 days later; "not that evening, nor at any future time did he speak of what his life in Buchenwald had been like." Marion (and also her mother) tells of how the family escaped from Germany to Holland, where they spent four years in the deportation camp of Westerbork. Then they were sent back to Germany to Bergen-Belsen, where the crematoriums could no longer keep up with the body count, and the dead were strewn around or burned in open pits. Finally, the Blumenthals were crowded onto a "death train" that wound its way across Germany. Marion's father died of typhus soon after the war. The rest of the family finally got their visas to the U.S., and the last part of the book is about Marion's teenage years in the Midwest. The personal facts bring it home: at age 10 at the time of liberation, Marion weighed 35 pounds; at 13 after three years of frenzied eating, she had put on 100 pounds. The several black-and-white photos include personal family pictures as well as views of the camps and the Hitler youth. Of course, one book can't do it all. Connect these titles with other Holocaust accounts (such as Boas' We Are Witnesses, 1995, based on the diaries of five teenagers who did not survive) and also with books about racism in the past and today. Category: Middle Readers. 1996, Simon & Schuster, $16. Gr. 5-9. Starred Review.
Betsy Hearne (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April 1996 (Vol. 49, No. 8))
The author of several other novels set during World War II, Matas casts this docudrama into the form of a story related by Ruth Mendenberg, a fifteen-year-old survivor of the Ostroviec ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and post-war Polish anti-Semitic pogroms. Italicized flashbacks give us a glimpse of her horrific memories as she joins a Zionist group that makes its way across dangerous borders, with the goal of illegal entry into Israel. Although their ship is attacked by the British and Ruth is taken to a refugee camp in Cyprus along with her companions, she does find one of her brothers (nearly eighty members of her family are dead) and escapes with her boyfriend to the promised land. The action is fast paced and the history well researched, but too much information has been loaded onto the dialogue and first-person narrative. In addition to having an unbelievably broad perspective on the European/Middle Eastern political panorama ("Betar is aligned with the Irgun in Palestine, a militant group which launches attacks on the British to try to help them decide to leave Palestine"), Ruth has a self-conscious flippancy ("Of course, I can't swim, they don't give lessons in concentration camps") that seems to belong more to a 1990s suburban middle-schooler than to a 1940s victim of the Holocaust. What's realized well is not the traumatic experiences themselves-which seem almost generically packed into stories within a story here-but the day-to-day anxiety of loners trying to connect with each other; despite the expository tone, Matas' re-creation of life on the run acquires some authentic urgency. Ad--Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area. Reviewed from galleys (c) Copyright 1996, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 1996, Simon, [128p], $16.00. Grades 6-9.