In the novel's afterword, Gratz explains that the book is a work of fiction, but based upon the true life story of Gruener. Although the author takes "liberties with time and events to paint a fuller and more representative picture of the Holocaust as a whole," the reader is amazed to discover that the most incredible parts of the narrative are, in fact, true. Jack did survive the deprivation of the Kraków ghetto by living in a roof-top pigeon coop with his family, and he also incredibly withstood the brutality of ten different concentration camps (including Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau) before liberation by the Allies.
I wouldn’t have complained about brushing my teeth, or taking a bath, or going to bed at eight o’clock every night. I would have played more. Laughed more. I would have told my parents and told them I loved them.
But we didn’t. We just sat there in my family’s flat, listening to the radio and watching the sky over Krakow turn black as the Germans came to kill us.
While at Trzebina Concentration Camp, Gruener witnesses a fellow prisoner who dares to grab an officer's club rather than be beaten. "Yes! Yes,..." thinks Gruener. "It all begins here. Together we can take them all!" But as he looks on, no one (not even Gruener himself) steps forward to help. But even their stillness and silence can't save them. After the rebellious prisoner is killed, the camp commandant begins selecting others who will be punished for this "plot to escape."
I shook with helplessness and rage, but also with fear, This is what fighting back earned you. More abuse. More death. Half a dozen Jews would be murdered today because one man refused to die without a fight. To fight back was to die quickly and to take others with you.
This is why prisoners went meekly to their deaths. I had been so resolved to fight back, but I knew then that I wouldn’t. To suffer quietly hurt only you. To suffer loudly, violently, angrily - to fight back - was to bring hurt and pain to others.
You come in through the front gate, but the only way you leave is through the chimney, the guards had told us when we arrived. Ha! Look at me now, I wanted to shout, walking out through the front gate, the way I came in! I had survived the ghetto. I had survived Plaszów, and Wieliczka, and Trzebinia, and Birkenau, and now Auschwitz. I was going to survive it all. I was going to be alive when the Allies liberated us. This I swore.
- If your students are unfamiliar with even the most basic facts of the Holocaust, I recommend laying a foundation with nonfiction picture books (see my annotated list). This nonthreatening approach is effective for elementary students and up, although the reading level I'd personally recommend for Prisoner B-3087 is middle school and up.
- For an interactive and highly visual examination of the Holocaust, check out Glencoe's Holocaust Remembrance Day Interactive, along with its teaching guide.
- As suggested earlier, I recommend you read this book as a companion novel to The Devil's Arithmetic or another Holocaust title. Many issues concerning camp conduct which arise in Jane Yolen's Newbery winner are elaborated upon in this one.
- Each year I challenge my students with this essay topic: "Should Sixth Graders Study the Holocaust?" The fact is, many parents and educators believe they should not. Students consult many online sources for support, including a speech by Jane Yolen which includes the "Alphabet of Evil," and a collection of quotes I've compiled (after viewing many sources which turned out to be inappropriate, hateful, or biased, I chose to provide students with some excerpts which I had personally vetted).
- Upon his return to Krakow, Gruener discovers that a cousin was able to hide during the war and survive in that way. Discuss with students what they know about Jews who were able to go into hiding. Many students have likely heard of Anne Frank, and they can learn more about her experiences at The Secret Annex Online.
- As much as I loved the book, I disliked the cover. The wall and the boy's apparel are too modern, and to me the book looks Dystopian. For this book (and some others I know) I'd recommend that students create their own book covers to better represent the historical period, characters, and themes of the book.
- Help students picture Gruener's incredible journey by examining maps showing the locations of the camps. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum features a variety of animated maps related to the Holocaust.
A perfect read for middle school and up, Hero on a Bicycle reveals the courage of ordinary citizens when subjected to extraordinary circumstances. Conflicting interests and divided loyalties on both sides keep the reader hooked throughout.
The website for the book provides background information, maps, and wonderful illustrations by the author. You'll also find wonderful videos depicting the history, music, and popular culture of the times which are mentioned throughout the book.