11 October 2009

31 & 32: Two Holocaust narratives

The author who compiled these diaries states that this is the first book of this type from this time period. She introduces the diaries with a rather difficult statement:

Perhaps it is so painful to think about the impact of the war on children - particularly their mass executions - that we have not wanted to read about it, even when that has meant refusing to hear from the children themselves. Maybe it was as much as we could bear to designate Anne Frank the representative child of the Holocaust and to think, then, only of her when we thought about children in World War II. But, in some ways, Anne Frank was not representative of children in the war and the Holocaust. Because she was in hiding, she did not experience life in the streets, the ghettos, the concentration camps, as it was lived by millions of children throughout Europe. (p.xiv)

The diaries, written by children from age 10 to age 18, are arranged chronologically by the age of the child youngest to oldest. The countries represented are Poland, Holland, German, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Lithuania, Russia, Belgium, Englan, Hungary, Israel, and Denmark. The children wrote these diaries from many different locations and situations. Many wrote from the time they moved from their loving homes to a ghetto or a hiding spot. One young boy hid in a cupboard for five year, while another lived and died much like Anne Frank. Many of the children died at the hands of the Nazis in concentration camps, with only these written words somehow surviving to tell their stories. Others survived and published their stories so the world would know.

Selected by the School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults 1995, this book is a phenomenal resource for those interested in Holocaust history. Because it covers such a wide range of experiences, I think it could be used in middle and high school as a teaching aid with individual children, or small groups, reading the passage and providing their own expression of the child's experience. Some may argue that middle school age children are too young to read these diaries. The author addresses that beautifully:

To turn our eyes away and refuse to see, or to let children see, what prejudice and hatred lead to is truly to warp our collective psyche...The children teach us, by sharing their own direct experience of oppression, that nothing is more valuable than human freedom. This lesson alone is reason enough to read, and to encourage children to read, these diaries. (p. xx)

TITLE: Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries
AUTHOR: Laurel Holliday
PAGES: 401
TYPE: compilation of Holocaust diaries
RECOMMEND: Excellent book

The second book that I read containing Holocaust narratives Anthology of Holocaust Literature edited by Jacob Glatstein, Israel Knox, and Samuel Margoshes is probably for the young adult or adult student of the Holocaust. Many of these writing have never been translated to English or published in the English language. Therefore, for many of us, this would be the first time to read these personal experiences. The book is arranged by topic: Occupations, Actions, Selections; Life in the Ghettos; Children; Concentration and Death Camps; Resistance; and The Non-Jews. It is possible to read the experiences of multiple people who found themselves in each situation. While some author's names may be familiar, such as Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, and Primo Levi, other authors' names are representative of the people who did not live and shared the same past during the War.

In the Introduction, the editors provide the reader with many definitions of anthology and the various reasons why they have collected these specific Holocaust writings. For me, the most important reason is as follows:
There are many faces to courage, and the will to hope, to maintain the simple dignity of daily existence on a human and humane level, to forge the chain of cultural and spiritual continuity from generation to generation, to cherish children by handing on to them the legacy of their people - to do all of this in the midst of peril and deprivation and omnipresent enmity, is a species of fortitude that borders on the sublime. (p. xx)

To be so strong in faith and hope - to continue in the face of darkness. This is what I tried to glean from each person's personal journey as they were translated in this book. Many of the readings begin and end out of the blue, no real beginnings and no sure end. Often I found that I had to read the entry more than once to grasp the setting and events. Again the editors remind us to consider the following as we read:

One can imagine what it must have cost them to tell their story, to recall the facts and details, the total and terrible drama. Yet it is a story that they could not reporess and relegate to the archives of their own private memory - not for history's sake, nor for their own. (p. xxiii)

This book reminded me of a unique and humbling experiene I had as a graduate student. A friend of mine knew a woman who was hospitalized with congestive heart failure. She was able to come home but was very afraid that she would soon die. She had been at Auschwitz and had never told anyone her story. She did not want to die without telling someone and my friend mentioned that I had an interest in studying Holocaust narratives. I went to her home and she told me her story. The impact hearing her, reliving her fear through her words, and knowing the strength it took for her to say them to me - it is something I will never forget. She did not have to share her story with me, a virtual stranger, but she did and I will be forever grateful.

The following words were found inscribed on the walls of a cellar in Germany where Jews hid from the Nazis:

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when feeling it not.

I believe in God even when He is silent. (p. 340)

Next time I sing that song at my Catholic Church, it will hold far more meaning for me. I thank the editors of this volume for bringing it, and the other readings, to my attention.

TITLE: Anthology of Holocaust Literature
AUTHOR: Jacob Glatstein, Israel Knox & Samuel Margoshes eds.
PAGES: 395
TYPE: compilation of original source materials from the Holocaust
RECOMMEND: Excellent book

09 October 2009

30. Family Sentence

Thank you to Beacon Press and LibraryThing for the opportunity to read and review the uncorrected proof of Family Sentence: The Search for My Cuban-Revolutionary, Prison-Yard, Mythic-Hero, Deadbeat Dad by Jeanine Cornillot. This is exactly the type of book I usually enjoy - as I tend more toward non-fiction and biographies in my personal reading tastes. In addition, I know a little something about the loss of a father with my own father disappearing during the Korean conflict when I was only two. So I was a bit surprised that I did not particularly like this book.

Jeanine Cornillot was only two years old when her Cuban father was arrested for anti-Castro revolutionary activities and imprisoned in Miami. Jeanine went to Philadelphia with her Irish-American mother and brothers where they lived in poverty and confusion regarding their blended cultural heritage. To further complicate matters, Jeanine spent her summers in Little Havana with her Hispanic relatives. Still this sounds like something I would enjoy. The problem was the whining! As the author sought to sort out her family problems, she whined and complained and whined. Or that is how the writing sounded to me as I read. I just never felt her pain; never mustered up what should have been natural empathy. I did learn some things about the culture of Little Havana, but ultimately I had to force myself to finish the book.

TITLE: Family Sentence: The Search for My Cuban-Revolutionary, Prison-Yard, Mythic-Hero, Deadbeat Dad
AUTHOR: Jeanine Cornillot
COPYRIGHT: October 1, 2009
PAGES: 220
TYPE: biography
RECOMMEND: Not my favorite although it does provide some insight into the Cuban-American culture

08 October 2009

29. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Thank you so much to William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers for sending me the advance reader's edition of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind [creating currents of electricity & hope] by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. This is the most wonderful story of how the hopes and dreams of one determined young boy changed the lives of many.

William Kamkwamba was just a young boy in a small village in Malawi. His family, like most of the villagers, were poor farmers and could not pay for William to continue his education beyond the elementary level. While William was discouraged by this, he ventured to the very small library in the elemntary school which had only three floor to ceiling shelves of books. He read science and physics books learning about windmills and decided to try to make one in hopes of creating enough electricity to power one light bulb so he could study after dark. He later hoped he could help his family through one of the many droughts and famine which affected his own family and the other villagers. Often having only mouthfuls of food each day, William went throughout the junk yards and nearby small town looking for parts to use in creating his windmill. His family and friends thought this was certainly strange behavior and while they loved him, they had little faith in his success. But using the most rudimentary equipment, William was successful and built first one windmill at his home and then a second windmill at the elementary school. Visiting the school, Malawian officials sought to meet the young man who was so dedicated to his own learning. Ultimately William was placed in an upper level school and also invited to attend a TED Global Conference. Finally meeting with other inventors and scientists at this conference, William was introduced to a multitude of knowledge - Google for one, but more importantly William stood with other Africans who were also inventors and he was pround of his heritage and continent.

The author maintains a website which provides opportunities to support his education, his family, and his village. I cannot think of a more worthy cause.

TITLE: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind [creating currents of electricity & hope]
AUTHOR: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
COPYRIGHT: September 29, 2009
PAGES: 347
TYPE: biography
RECOMMEND: Unbelievable, belongs in every school library - from elementary to college; and should be read by all who think hope and dreams don't have great power!

05 October 2009

28. The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary

The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary by Erno Szep and translated by John Batki covers only one small period of time and life as it was lived by only one man of fifty. The war was nearing its end and the bulk of Hungarian Jews had already been deported. In October 1944, Szep , a sixty year old Hungarian Jewish poet, and 49 other older men were rounded up by young Arrow Cross Youths. Just days before Governor Horthy declared a unilateral cessation of hostilities - for which he was deposed. The Germans and their Hungarian allies used these last Jewish men to dig and build an earthworks around their city of Budapest to protect the city from the oncoming Russians. Szep was released on November 6 when the Russians reached the perimeter of the city and managed to live while many others did not. This is a story of only 19 days. But we learn many things from the attitudes of the author, his eye for details, and the brilliance of his thoughts. I would like to share a few passages that struck me as very important to the understanding of his writings:

A man's biography consists of his thoughts. Everything else that happens to me is something alien. As we slipped and slid around in that mud the work was slowed down, providing an occassion for more conscious reflection. We are always thinking about something, although we may not pay attention to our thoughts. Now, writing ten months after the events, I cannot recall a speck of what I had been thinking then. But I do remember trying to recall the thoughts of that day on the march back. And I was unable to recover a single snippet of what my mind had dug up during that day. Thoughts sink into forgetfulness as quickly as rain into the earth. (p. 130)

With bombs falling all around the area where the men slept and worked, Szep wrote about his feelings:

I saw, not for the first time, that one did not fear death in its immediate presence. Thinking stops at such times. Within seconds a process of shutting off takes over within the brain, so that the mind (and, we might say, the soul) rejects, refuses to acknowledge all the horrors accosting us. There is a beautiful wisdom in this built-in self-defence. (p. 142)

Much like shock perhaps. Or the disbelief that something so horrible could happen. I have often hoped that people faced with these tragic endings might believe to the end that there is truth and beauty just on the other side of the river or hill. And then be surprised by death, maybe bewildered. And sanctified. I have often said that while I do not want to die, I am in no way afraid of death. So many people have faced it before me and in less gentle ways perhaps, that I should follow them with delight in our spiritual reawakening.

TITLE: The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary

AUTHOR: Erno Szep

COPYRIGHT: 1945 in Hungary, 1994 in English

TYPE: memoir Holocaust

RECOMMEND: a work of great interest