Every Holocaust survivor story is both an adventure and a horror story. As in every adventure story, there is danger-life-threatening situations and enemies. Since these are overcome by the survivor's ingenuity and courage, the ending becomes an affirmation of human life and spirit. But the story also has elements of horror because the survivor can remember only too well the many family and friends who died, and the atrocities they were forced to endure.
The delicate balancing of adventure and horror is particularly difficult when it comes to writing about the Holocaust for children and teenagers. Naturally, the adventure aspect draws children into and compels them through the story. But too much emphasis on it runs the risk of reductiveness and sentimentality. Too much emphasis on the atrocities, and the author risks frightening young readers away.
Carol Matas in Greater Than Angels and William Kaplan and Shelley Tanaka in One More Border balance these aspects with varying degrees of success as they tackle the subject of the Holocaust for younger readers.
Award-winning Winnipeg author Carol Matas has based her young adult novel on the real experiences of Jewish children and teenagers protected, then hidden by a French Quaker and Protestant community in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the south of France. They are the title's "greater than angels".
The story is narrated by teenaged Anni Hirsch. It begins in 1940 when Anni, her mother, aunt, and grandmother, along with all the Mannheim Jews, are rounded up by the Gestapo and deported to France. There, they are detained in Gurs, a refugee camp, because the French regard them only as Germans, the enemy, and not as Jews...at least initially. The conditions in the camp are terrible: they sleep on straw, there's little food. The weak and the elderly are the first to die from malnutrition and disease, Anni's beloved grandmother among them.
Anni is a fighter at heart, and she adjusts more easily to the camp than does her close friend, Klara Engel. Anni finds refuge in music and theatre and takes active part in the camp's cultural activities. As the war progresses and the Vichy regime's collaboration with the Nazis intensifies, the situation for Jews in the camp becomes more precarious. The French have begun to round them up and deport them to Nazi death camps. In order to protect the youths in Gurs, the Swiss Red Cross takes them out of the camp and places them in safe houses under the care of the villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. There, Anni assists Klara's older brother, Rudi, with the forgery and delivery of false visas for the Jewish refugees.
Anni is a convincing creation. She's smart, sarcastic, sharp, defiant, and self-dramatizing. Though her first person voice is strong, her narration is limited by the fact she is not particularly observant or perceptive about others. As a result, all the other characterizations are either types or functions, with the villagers fundamentally a mass of do-gooders, angels more than complex human beings with a range of motivations. As a result, the relationships between the characters tend to be emotionally limited.
Since Anni is a reactor rather than a reflector, the narration is a fast-paced adventure, with historical background skillfully integrated, and it immediately immerses the reader in drama and suspense. However, it zips along so quickly that it seems as if Matas were hesitant to slow down enough to show the horror. This horror is conveyed in the gritty details of the camp life: typhus, lice, the effects of slow starvation, and the grim reality that human beings do not always respond admirably and courageously in terrible circumstances.
The most memorable and powerful scenes are the ones where Matas has confronted the horror, as where Anni, in near hysteria, says good-bye to her aunt and mother, whose back is so covered in festering boils that she can barely stand up, when they are being "repatriated" back to Germany and the death camps by the French.
Greater Than Angels is a gripping, absorbing tale. Yet for the most part, Matas keeps to the adventure line, and has emphasized the upbeat and the affirmative in order to make the story as palatable as possible for readers. Maybe the point is that history shouldn't be so palatable.
One More Border is a non-fiction picture book aimed at nine to twelve year olds. William Kaplan and Shelley Tanaka relate the 20,000 mile wartime journey of Kaplan's father, Igor, and his family from Lithuania, east through Russia and Japan, to Cornwall, Ontario. The family's nerve-wracking escape is seen through the eyes of young Igor.
In 1939, Igor's father, Bernard, attempts to obtain transit visas for his family so that they can emigrate to Canada where his parents live. One by one, borders are closing across Europe, but by a stroke of luck, Bernard is able to secure visas for himself and his children signed by the Japanese consul, Chiune Sugihara (honoured in 1985 as a Righteous Gentile for continuing to sign as many as 300 visas a day to help Lithuanian Jews leave Russia and enter Japan-against his government's orders). Igor's mother, however, is Russian. After much struggle, she gets permission to leave Lithuania but still lacks the papers necessary to enter Japan, so every encounter with immigration officers is fraught with danger.
There is a soberness to Kaplan's direct, straightforward storytelling. Igor is a watchful, sensitive child. He has moments of fun with a new friend during the long Trans-Siberian train ride, and is excited by all the new sights. Still, he cannot help but share his family's anxiety and trepidation.
The story is enriched by the quietly realistic illustrations of Stephen Taylor and by the painful eloquence of the archival photos. Historical context is provided by well-written sidebars presenting clear, to-the-point background information, and by maps.
The family is fortunate enough to finally make it to Canada (very fortunate, considering that Canada had the most restrictive immigration policy in the Western world, allowing in only 5,000 Jewish refugees).
A fine combination of adventure story and history, One More Border is a good tool for introducing younger readers to the subject of the Holocaust.
Sherie Posesorski is a Toronto writer and editor.