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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

War Stories: Examining World War II Through the Lens of the Novel

So often when we study conflicts in history class, we learn only of the victors and the vanquished. But what happens to those innocents who get caught in between?

Alan Gratz provides an answer in Prisoner B-3087, an awesome and awful new Holocaust title based on the life of Jack Gruener, born Yanek Gruener in Kraków, Poland. 

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.

The novel is incredibly readable, and although disturbing and distressing, would make an excellent addition to any upper middle or high school level library. My own sixth grade class is reading The Devil's Arithmetic, and I discovered that Prisoner B-3087 makes an excellent companion to that book. 

Gratz, for example, is able to illustrate with incredible understatement the sense of loss and regret experience by so many who were subjected to the Holocaust:

If I had known what the next six years of life were going to be like, I would have eaten more.

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.

~Prisoner B-3087 (p. 2)

And again, that same regret, and a feeling of helplessness in the face of the enormity of the situation:

It was too late. The Germans were here. If I had only known then what I know now, I would have run. I wouldn’t have stopped to pack a bag, or say good-bye to my friends, or to even unplug my projector. None of us would have. We would have run for the woods outside of town and never looked back.

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.

~Prisoner B-3087 (p. 6)

One of the concepts which most students find difficult to comprehend is illustrated dramatically. Every year in every one of my classes, my students will ask, "But why didn't they fight back?" and they learn that some Jews did. Still they ask, "But why didn't they all fight back?"

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’m innocent!” the boy my age sobbed as they dragged him to the gallows and put the hangman’s noose around his neck. “I never tried to escape! I promise! I’ve done everything you’ve asked!”

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.

~Prisoner B-3087 (p.111)

Only by witnessing such horrific acts can we be inspired by Gruener's stubborn will to survive. Witness Gruener as he embarks upon a Death March to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp:

Under the whips and clubs of kapos and SS officers, we marched out through the front of Auschwitz. 

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.

~Prisoner B-3087 (p.168)

I read Prisoner B-3087 in one sitting, which would be my only reason for not recommending its use as a classroom novel; your students simply will not choose to read it piecemeal if doled out over several weeks. It's that compelling! For those students seeking a broader understanding of life in the ghettos and the camps that followed, this book provides them with that context, driven by a powerful and personal survival tale.

  • 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.
Additional Recommended Reading

Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes provides another fascinating glimpse into World War II. Thirteen year-old Paolo finds daily life mundane and tedious in Nazi occupied Florence. Caught between the Nazis and the equally terrifying Partisans who defy them, Paolo seeks a way to play a meaningful role in the conflict that ranges all around him. When his family reluctantly agrees to hide downed Allied pilots, the tension rises as threats begin to close in from all sides.

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.

Fans of graphic novels will enjoy Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins, illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh. Lily Renée, Escape Artist is the exciting biography of a young Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazis via Kindertransport. Her life story is truly a series of escapes, leading finally to her emergence as one of America’s most successful and influential comic book artists.
Students will be interested to learn that antisemitism was strongly felt in England during the war, and that many Jews who sought refuge there were considered “enemy aliens.” 

The book contains additional notes on Kindertransport program, concentration camps, internment camps, and English culture, as well as a photo album of Lily Renée.

For younger students seeking to learn more about those who escaped Nazi persecution, I recommend you investigate The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden and Allan Drummond. In this large format book full of wonderful "artifacts," husband and wife team Hans and Margret Rey flee Paris of 1940 as the German army approaches. Their manuscripts depicting a curious little monkey save them more than once, allowing them to reach safety in a new home. 

Check out the New York Times write-up titled How Curious George Escaped the Nazis.


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