After the War
is a novel that tells of a fifteen-year-old Holocaust survivor's return to her empty home in Poland and her subsequent flight to Palestine via the underground railway.
Ruth's tragic but hopeful tale, told in the first person, has drama, suspense, hate, love, violence, and a happy ending. Although I cannot claim to know the minds of sensitive twelve-year-old girls (this being the temperament, age, and gender that the author appears to have in mind as her audience), I can well imagine that the book will be found gripping and memorable.
The novel covers a lot of ground in 115 pages, with its well-researched, superbly paced story. If, however, it were a 120-page novel, some vital information could have been included. To assume that its audience has mastered the history of World War II and its aftermath is taking a lot for granted. The flyleaf states that Ruth "returns to her village in Poland after the liberation of Buchenwald." If a young reader should dive directly into the book, skipping the cover description, she would find a double-page map of half a continent showing only the places Ruth goes to-all capital cities and other points of reference have been left out.
We all know that the Nazis were bad people. But how did the September 1939 bombing of Poland come about? The reader now turns to the flyleaf hoping to find a chronology for such events. It isn't there, nor is it in the novel itself. Ruth "returns to her village," Ostrowiec, in an unspecified year. But Ostrowiec is actually a fair-sized town. And Buchenwald was a male-only concentration camp.
The next puzzle the reader encounters is in chapter two. A pogrom takes place: five are dead. We don't learn who did the criminal act, or why. The mob had apparently been shouting "filthy Jews, commie tyrants," and this is followed by one survivor's unexplained declaration, "I'm pretty sure they are part of a fascist group that's been terrorizing the local government."
The survivors and Ruth join up with other Jews in a shelter in Kielce located on Planta Strasse No 7. (I have trouble with Strasse, German for "street". In Polish it would be Ulica.) Here, another bloody pogrom takes place, still undated. The mob numbers thousands, highly unlikely in the circumstances. A paragraph or two explaining the tragedy would have helped.
Ruth and two other teenagers volunteer to lead a group of twenty orphans through central and southern Europe. Their adventures in the next chapters help reveal the state of mind and spirit and the hopes of Ruth, the adults, and the kids she meets along the way. From here on we get a clearer picture. However, Matas uses a limited, somewhat repetitious descriptive range and diction: a little invention would have gone a long way to improve the text. Ruth uses the verb "scoff", sometimes inappropriately. Then, when it would be useful, Matas makes her say something else.
" `Lucky, sure,' I snort. `We Jews are just full of luck.' "
Ruth's and Zvi's budding romance takes place in a bedroom shared by boys and girls aged fifteen to seventeen. At that time and place, it's highly unlikely that the supervisors sent from Tel Aviv would have condoned or approved of this arrangement. The setting is ideal, though-an old villa in Italy. Perhaps Matas couldn't resist the setting's potential for romance. What follows is a horrendous sea-passage to Palestine, including running the British blockade; these may be the best chapters in the book.
None of these lapses should deflect a young reader's attention. But she is entitled to learn the whole story, which she would have gotten had Matas dropped three or four minor characters from an otherwise good novel, and used the space saved to fill in the background. l
Manny Drukier's Carved in Stone, a memoir of Poland during and after the Second World War, has just been published by University of Toronto Press. He is a survivor of Buchenwald.