Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children
Last June was the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. This year we observe 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camps beginning with the Soviet Army’s 322nd Rifle Division entering the concentration camp at Auschwitz. One book that helps young readers understand these events from the perspective of children has recently been published by Sourcebooks entitled, Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children. What is striking about this book is how accessible it is through its honesty and specificity.
Stepping into history, at the start of the Second World War.
It is understandable if you might think the subject of the Holocaust is too much for a young reader but this book finds a way that honors young readers ages 10 and up. It is as if a thoughtful grandparent is telling their story. Each vignette is told my a real survivor in terms that inform and enlighten. The layout is inviting. The characters are engaging. The stories are revealing as with any good reportage. These are stories of the displacement and survival of Jewish children and young people amid the backdrop of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s persecution of millions of Jews across Europe between 1933 and 1945.
A growing international crisis.
Because these are stories told by individuals, you get very specific points of view. For example, the reader is there with Ruth as her family manages to escape from Germany to England and she hears the official start to the war on the railroad intercom. Or, another example is Martin and his family, along with other Jewish families, who are rounded up by the Nazis. In order to avoid crossing into Poland and triggering an international conflict, the Nazis force Jewish families to walk along the railroad tracks that separate the borders. That strategy works, at least for a while. Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children is an essential book for young readers interested in better understanding one of the most tragic events in modern history. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Sourcebooks right here.
I have been reading a lot of work by Jerome Charyn lately. Once you start, it is hard to resist more. Charyn has this passion for seeking the truth that is very seductive. In the case of his latest novel, “Jerzy,” published this March by Bellevue Literary Press, he is compelled to better understand Jerzy Kosinski, author of the celebrated 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” It is a fascinating, and often funny, journey written by one of our greatest writers about the rise and fall of another great writer.
Actor Peter Sellers looms large over the book that follows the making of 1979’s “Being There,” the film adaptation of Kosinski’s novel, starring Sellers as the blank slate turned celebrity, Chauncey Gardiner. In Charyn’s novel, Sellers is not much more than a lost man-child, a blank slate in his own right. Sellers hires Ian, a former bodyguard with a taste for literature, to be his all-around wingman. If there is anything Sellers needs in the way of protection or advice on dinner conversation, Ian must step in.
It is not long before Sellers enlists Ian in his quest to have Kosinski agree to have Sellers star in the movie version of “Being There.” It is hardly a walk in the park as Kosinski detests Sellers. Sellers perpetually complicates matters. He is convinced that Princess Margaret fancies him and that he will marry her. And Kosinski is equally complicated. At the most random moments, something will trigger a dark mood and a longwinded rant.
As is made clear, the vacuous Sellers is tailor-made for the role of Chauncey. And Kosinski has very little to complain about, despite his tremendous resistance to Sellers. But the conflict in this novel is far more deep-seated and sinister. Charyn suggests that Sellers and Kosinski have paid too high a price for fame, have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves; and in Charyn’s hands, both become compelling tragi-comic figures.
It is Kosinski who stands in for a great deal of unresolved issues, including World War II and its aftermath. In his novel, “The Painted Bird,” Kosinski challenges the reader to confront great suffering and atrocities. For such a compelling testament, Kosinski would, over time, secure fame. For Charyn, Kosinski is that large-than-life enigmatic Citizen Kane. The harder they come, Charyn concludes, the harder they fall. Charyn plays with the mixed bag of rumors of plagiarism that haunted Kosinski. Today, in a different context, the same techniques of borrowing from other sources would not raise eyebrows. “The Painted Bird” was a novel, not a memoir. Truth is stranger than fiction. And, as Kosinski said himself, “I am a truth, not facts.”
Charyn seems to take Kosinski to task at every turn. He seems to make a mockery of tender scenes in “The Painted Bird” and recollections from Kosinski friends and associates. In Charyn’s novel, Kosinski, like the villagers in “The Painted Bird,” is fascinated to utter distraction with turning old tin cans into homemade flying rockets. Kosinski, also in Charyn’s novel, prefers to sleep inside a large dresser drawer. Kosinski explains that he’s made too many enemies and his life is constantly in danger. However, Charyn is sensitive to life’s contradictions, no matter what misinformation Kosinski detractors may spread. Such work as “The Painted Bird” speaks for itself. In the excerpt below from Charyn’s novel, Ian, the narrator, concludes that Kosinski did not have ghostwriters but those who helped him, up to a point, with his English:
No baby-sitter from here to Mars could have scratched out the icicle-covered sentences in “The Painted Bird.” And after rereading the book for the sixth or seventh time, I realized that suicide was built into its very fabric, as if the narrator were locked into some kind of frozen grief, and had survived the war on fierce will alone. His entire life had become a chess move or chapters pasted onto “The Painted Bird.” Perhaps fate itself was a Russian doll. And Jurek’s leap into the darkness was another matryoshka, a doll without end.
It was a great deal of bile and misinformation from Kosinski detractors that contributed to Kosinski’s suicide in 1991 at the age of 57. And perhaps it was also part of fate. Anyone familiar with the work of Jerome Charyn knows that he’s most interested in the underdog, the person trapped in a corner fighting to find a way out. As the novel progresses, we see how the life and times of Jerzy Kosinski, the truth and the legend, all add up to a subject worthy of Charyn’s fiction.
What Charyn’s novel can do, with its brilliant satirical bite, is compel readers to learn more about Jerzy Kosinski, one of the great writers of the 20th century. It’s as easy as surfing the net to learn more. If you watch the documentary below, for example, you get a multifaceted look at Kosinski, his life and his work. It’s not a simple story, as Charyn’s novel attests. Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction seeks a greater truth:
“Jerzy” is a 240-page paperback, published by Bellevue Literary Press. For more information, and how to purchase, go right here.
World War II may seem ancient in comparison to today and yet its impact remains very much alive. This year, we mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, beginning with the landing on D-Day on June 6, 1944. This Memorial Day, as the U.S. honors members of the Armed Forces who died in service, we can look back at the heroic efforts of those who quite literally helped to save the world seventy years ago.
“Bombing Nazi Germany: The Graphic History of The Allied Air Campaign That Defeated Hitler in World War II” is a fact-filled and lively account of how aerial bombing came of age. It is not a slanted account but a thoughtful and honest look at how this military strategy began and what it has wrought. This is part of a series of educational comics by Wayne Vansant, pubished by Zenith Press.
“Mounthaven” is the story of a man on a journey of self-discovery stymied by his own personal set of blinders. Those blinders prove to be a costly problem for him. He seems to be aware of them. He wants them off. He is certain he can see the blinders others wear. That alone is the stuff of novels. This is also the stuff of life which makes this biography, thinly veiled as fiction, all the more remarkable. Throughout the book, there is a narrator leading you through a family history intertwined with the family estate, Mounthaven. By the last third of the novel, it is revealed that the narrator is the main character. And the main character happens to be my father. If that’s not remarkable, at least in my world of reading, I don’t know what is. In fact, out in the world at large, this book should find many interested readers.
“My Father’s House” is unusual in many ways. It is an honest and loving portrait of the author’s father, beautifully written, that provides a unique window into Nazi Germany. The book is made up of numerous vivid details such as this passage:
Once, my parents had lived a truly magical life. In the early years of their marriage, between the wars, they lived with their friend Baron Wilhelm Farnbühler at his castle near Stuttgart. The Baron had his own wing; my parents, with Uli and Anita, had theirs. In the great hall, in a cage, there dwelt an owl, who preferred to eat living things: rabbits and mice. His lame wing folded into a crutch, he shrieked into the night and rattled the bars.
I simply happened upon the life and work of Beatrix Ost while in the process of exploring. It began while I was doing some research for a book review of, “Jerusalem,” a graphic novel that relates to the creation of the State of Israel. I had also just written a movie review of a documentary, “The Flat,” about the unusual relationship between a Jewish couple, who had emigrated to Palestine during World War II, and maintained a friendship, after the war, with a high ranking Nazi official. Life is complicated. Things are never quite as they seem. In the case of Beatrix Ost, this is an enormously talented person: writer, artist, desginer, actor, and theatrical producer. She is what she appears to be and so much more.
Beatrix Ost comes from a world of the rich, those F. Scott Fitzgerald has noted as “different from you and me.” Ost is not here to deny the world she was born into. She was born in 1940, in the castle from the above passage. However, given this difference or distinction, Ost finds a way for you to join in. It is, in fact, a world not so different from you and me. It is far more earthy and raw than you may imagine.
This may sound trite, but many readers may relate to the stories presented here if they think of the landmark musical, “The Sound of Music.” As jarring as it is to juxtapose Nazis with Bavarian folklife, general audiences understand, in the context of the musical, how two Germanys could coexist: one run by Hitler and another very different one. It takes a strength and boldness to be able to bring out a multitude of memories that are innocent and sweet amid a backdrop of war. Ost engages the reader on a Proustian level, never missing a beat of recovered memory and dipping deep into a well of language that consistently produces gems.
Think of this book as a collection of passages that, as a whole, bring out a greater truth. Each passage is like a little story of its own. Consider this passage from “The Gleaners,” describing people during World War II coming to the Ost family farm in search of food. They would come in search of even the smallest potato. Dieter, a member of the household staff would be dispatched to fetch a bunch of the teenaged girls from the girls school to help themselves to potatoes. They arrived in what they could muster up for the latest fashion, all hardened by the war but joyful:
The girls trudged along behind the plow, collecting potatoes in sacks. When the sacks were full, they were tipped into a cart. It started to rain. The girls sought shelter under the one available roof: the potato wagon. But the rain got through between the narrow planks, and after a short while, they were drenched. Their cheap dresses rode up above their knees, clinging to their thin bodies. Little rivulets of color ran down their legs.
It is Ost’s father, Fritz, who looms larger than life over this landscape of memory. He did his military service in Africa and subsequently retired, including his membership in the Nazi party. He had only belonged to the party to help his friends, particularly his Jewish friends, secure safe passage out of the country. He was a proud man that seemed to only want to be left alone to rule over his estate, Goldachhof, a rural paradise of manor, farm and stables, about twenty miles out of Munich. If there were Nazis amidst the circles he travelled in, he didn’t want to know. What he, and his wife, Adi, did know was to help those in need and Goldachhof proved a haven for refuges many times over. It is this backdrop that little Beatrix grew up in and learned the ways of the world, from getting by on rations to celebrating the dawn of a new world ushered in by the Americans.
This excerpt gives you a taste of the exuberance of youth faced with big change. The Americans, all brash and exciting, had finally arrived. But they make a few missteps. A couple of homesick Texans decide to ride a couple of the carriage horses, who were not meant for riding. Then some soldiers got the nutty idea of going fishing with hand grenades. This was far too much for Herr Ost and he finally managed to restore order by bringing in a high ranking American officer to have a talk with his men. But change had arrived and there was no turning back:
Now we children played Yank all winter long as we sledded down the granary path on our Jeeps. We still had our “Judenstrick,” ersatz cigarettes made from the winter-dried marrow of elderberry twigs, but we were infatuated with everything the Americans brought into our little world. They had landed among us with the exciting utensils of their exotic culture. Chewing gum. Nescafe. Powdered milk. Hershey’s chocolate. Blue jeans. Johnson’s lotion. Marlboros. Things useful and also symbols of hope, the end of terror. Our blue days were gone–love live The Blues.
How such a book came into being is remarkable. “My Father’s House” is an inspiring and enlightening work. It can be appreciated on many levels, not the least of which is in the classroom. You can purchase it here.
In the big scheme of things, Nazi Germany is not exactly ancient history but, as this documentary makes resoundingly clear, people can be more than eager to turn a page and move on. “The Flat” demonstrates in so many ways how difficult it can be to find the truth to something once the dust has been allowed to settle. In the case of one Israeli filmmaker, Arnon Goldfinger, his life will never be the same once his grandmother has passed away and it is up to family members to sift through her belongings in her Tel Avi apartment. They find the usual clutter of old books, numerous handbags, shoes, and knick-knacks. It all appears rather quaint and humorous until old relics from the past emerge with a distinctive connection to Nazi Germany. What on earth, for instance, is someone to make of a series of old newspapers featuring “A Nazi Travels in Palestine”? It sounds like a sick joke but it’s far from it.
Documentaries sometimes take the rap for creating more drama than the subject would have generated on its own. Here you have an eager documentarian who, once confronted with bits of disturbing facts, keeps hunting for more facts, and then confirmation of facts, at an appropriate slow boil pace. The camerawork, the tone, the intention of this film feels like a close friend diligently attempting to figure out a problem rather than drama for drama’s sake. What Goldfinger discovers is that his grandparents were close friends with an SS officer and his wife. It was a friendship that lasted well after World War II. But why? Kurt Tuchler, the husband of Goldfinger’s grandmother, was a leader in the Zionist movement. And the SS officer was Leopold von Mildenstein, who promoted, so to speak, the Jewish establishment of a homeland in Palestine.
The story takes on an air of a good mystery as Goldfinger continues to push against polite resistance to reveal secrets. He has met his match with the two central players who seem to stand in his way. Goldfinger manages to strike up a friendship of sorts with none other than the daughter of Leopold von Mildenstein. Once Goldfinger has already made the viewer aware of enough evidence to indicate that Mildenstein was a high ranking Nazi official, his daughter maintains he was never a Nazi in the first place. This conflict is not something that Goldfinger will let stand and, in his own mild-mannered way, he will pursuit it. Then there is Goldfinger’s own mother who is more skeptical than supportive of her son. This conflict will not be left alone either as Goldfinger picks away to expose the truth. Goldfinger is self-aware and realizes what can be accomplished and what may not. At one point, he asks himself what he should do with what he’s discovered already. In the process, he reveals much about what people are willing to tolerate before they must ask themselves what to do with what they have discovered.
“The Flat” is currently available on DVD and you can find it here. Visit IFC Films here.
Bill Murray playing the role of FDR makes a lot of sense. We all think we know Bill Murray. He has that unique set of skills required to portray FDR, another person everyone felt familiar with. While “Hyde Park on Hudson” does not have the same scope and sense of awe you will find in “Lincoln,” it is just the sort of movie you can appreciate for its dry wit and charm. Here is an interview with the great man himself, Mr. Bill Murray, and a quick look on the set of the movie.
The central thing to consider is Bill Murray. He is someone we enjoy seeing perform. As this interview demonstrates, he is genuinely in tune with this film. He effortlessly sells you on it.
Then there is the controversy over the script. Did the screenplay by Richard Nelson go too far in its speculation over FDR and the women in his life? In the “hooking up” age we live in, maybe cranking up the speculation meter on what happened between FDR and his distant cousin, Daisy, rings more true, although this will offend some. It sure offended political writer (not entertainment writer) Melinda Henneberger at The Washington Post. For those too easily offended, the thing to remember is that this is a historical fiction so maybe an attitude adjustment is in order.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” is brought you by Focus Features. Visit them here and learn more about the film.