Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Once is too Often...

When I was in high school, I went to Germany on a school trip. In Germany, we went to Dachau, a concentration camp that has been turned into a memorial/museum. The emotions I felt at Dachau have never left me. The vast camp was completely silent except for the crunch of visitors' feet on the gravel. The pain within those gates was so strong, we couldn't even speak to one another. But more and more, I find my students are finding themselves disconnected from the Holocaust. Sure, they know the mass murder to millions of people is horrendous, but they really can't fathom the fear and agony felt by so many. We read books, we watch movies, but it is hard to grasp the same emotions I felt the moment I stepped foot into Dachau so many years ago. Therefore, as an educator, it becomes very hard to find quality books that will knock my students around emotionally the same way Night by Elie Wiesel did the first time I read it in high school. Once, by Morris Gleitzman knocked me around, and will certainly open the eyes of any jaded student.

It's 1942, and Felix has lived in a Polish Orphanage for 3 years and 8 months since his parents left him there. They are Jewish and owned a bookstore in town, but they made a deal with Mother Minka to hide Felix, but they told him they were just going to take care of some bookstore business and be back. They still haven't returned. So Felix passes the day writing stories about them saving people and being brave in the outside world. When Felix gets a whole carrot in his soup one day, he decides it is a sign from his parents that they are coming to get him. When Mother Minka sadly tells him it isn't a sign, he decides to leave the orphanage to find them. After watching a group of Nazis come to the orphanage and burn Jewish books, he is worried his parents' books are in danger, and he knows he has to go help.

On his way into town, Felix comes across a lot of puzzling situations. First, he tries to hitch a ride on a cattle truck that is full of people, but a soldier on top of the truck shoots at him. He assumes it must have been a mistake and actually feels bad for the soldier who must be upset he accidentally shot at a little kid. Then he goes to his parents' bookstore, but the books are all gone and a local Christian family is living in his house (and threaten to turn him in to the Nazis). Finally he happens upon a farmhouse in flames and discovers a mother and father shot (and all the chickens) and a young girl who is barely alive. He drags her away from the flames and the car coming back to the scene, saving her from whoever did this.

At first Zelda is upset, but then she is just plain difficult, arguing with everything Felix says. When they get caught by Nazi soldiers and taken to the ghetto, it is her determination not to lose Felix, though, that saves them both. When a Nazi soldier tries to separate them, a large Jewish man offers the soldier something in German and he allows the man to take the kids. Barney, the man, takes Felix and Zelda and hides them with the other children he has saved in the ghetto. It is hear that Felix begins to learn the truth about the Nazis and what they are really doing to the Jews. When the ghetto gets emptied, Barney and the kids have no choices but to be packed into the trains with the other Jews. You might think all was lost at this point, but at some point, Felix's luck has to change!

This was such a beautiful little book (150 pgs). I loved Felix so much I just wanted to gather him up and keep him safe. He is so sweet and innocent and just wants to protect his parents. His naivete about the Holocaust was so scary and endearing at the same time, it broke my heart. But something I think kids might relate to is the fact that he is just a kid. He does kid things like protect kids from bullies in the orphanage and make up wild, fanciful stories. Yet, at the same time, he is stuck in this time period that has been written about, talked about and filmed ever since it ended. I think kids can relate to his childish ideas and that alone makes this story more powerful than others. They can imagine how they might feel if they were in the same situation.

The story is very short and perfect for any middle school student, but its beauty lies within the multiple layers that can be pulled back for a wide age range of people. For a middle school student, this story might be a face-value story about a boy in the Holocaust, but for an older student, this can be a way to quickly examine the plagues of war, such as the loss of life and innocence. It gives them a chance to delve deeper into the consequences of war. This is quite simply a beautiful story and as sad as it made me to read it, it also made me hopeful for Felix and for the growth of the young people I work with each and every day.

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