Missions impossible

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
One Small Suitcase

By Barry Turner, Puffin pound;4.99

Hana's Suitcase

By Karen Levine, Evans pound;4.99

Searching for Anne Frank

By Susan Goldman

Rubin Abrams pound;13.95


By Jerry Spinelli

Orchard Books pound;10.99

Last Train from Kummersdorf

By Leslie Wilson

Faber pound;9.99

August 44

By Carlo Gebler

Egmont pound;5.99

January 27 is Holocaust Memorial Day. Tom Deveson reviews accounts for young readers in fiction and narrative non-fiction

Language falls apart in the attempt to explain the Nazi killings in Europe, but writers for each new generation must try again. Should fact or fiction be the means for approaching the indescribable? Is a broad survey or a single story the better method? Should the writing be marked by dignified detachment or by moral passion? The paradoxical answer is "Yes" to all.

Barry Turner tells about the 10,000 Jewish Kindertransport children who were rescued from the Third Reich and brought to England just before the war began. He has interviewed many of them and creates a clear and lively account of their experiences from their first bewildered arrival in Harwich clutching the single suitcase of the title. Both the efficiency of the improvised organisation and the care and compassion of the volunteers involved are rightly celebrated. Readers of primary age will also hear about the difficulties of eating porridge, kippers and ham omelettes, the rigour or kindliness of new foster parents, and the astonishing ordeal of growing up with little or no knowledge of the fate of your real family.

Some children, such as the former MP Alf Dubbs, became public successes; others still lead lives marked by residual fear. The author generously values all of them.

At the centre of Karen Levine's deeply moving true story for juniors is another single suitcase. It was sent from the Auschwitz Museum to the Holocaust Education Resource Centre in Tokyo, where the remarkable Fumiko Ishioka undertook to find out about the girl behind the name painted on this enigmatic piece of luggage. Her quest becomes a well-told detective story, full of half-understood clues and sudden discoveries, spanning 70 years and three continents.

We are made aware of the catastrophe that encroaches on young Hana Brady's household in Czechoslovakia. The terrible and unsentimental narrative is enhanced by her drawings; they miraculously survived her appalling end in the death camp. Fumiko's admirable persistence is rewarded when she finds that Hana's brother is still alive in Canada, and is able to reunite him with these touching mementoes of his sister. The book is about history, but also about the persistence of love and memory and the enduring strength of a sympathetic mind.

Searching for Anne Frank also spans the decades and the continents. For a very brief period in 1940, the best-known child victim of the Holocaust had a penfriend on a farm in the American Midwest. Juanita Wagner was a church-going girl in Iowa who wondered during the latter part of the war what had happened to her correspondent in Amsterdam. The book ably cuts between narratives of the two parallel lives, one already familiar from the famous diary. The war arrives more slowly and distantly in the US, but names of high school friends are slowly added to casualty lists and news magazines begin to report on something horrifying happening in Europe.

Teenage readers will find that Anne Frank's remarkable afterlife is given additional weight by this unexpected addition to a story that once seemed to be murderously complete.

Jerry Spinelli sets his story in and out of the Warsaw ghetto, where an anonymous boy - his renamings are an essential part of the plot - becomes an eyewitness to the Nazi occupation as he stays alive by stealing and smuggling. Rough innocence, as when he and his street companions discuss whether oranges, angels or mothers exist, turns to cruel experience when they discover what is meant by jackboot and tank. The boy's education consists of linking such words to their matching realities, watching bread, trees and people disappear and learning never to board a train. Though he gets closer to Himmler than seems likely, his story is powerful and affecting.

Leslie Wilson draws on family history to remind us that countless Germans were themselves victims and that the Allies were often seen as sources of fear and hatred. Her serious but still enjoyable novel brings together two very different young people - Hanno, a former Hitler Youth member and desperately young soldier, and Effi, an ironic Berliner who has been taught mistrust by living within a nightmare. They have known nothing other than Nazism and are now fleeing from "the Ivans" who are invading their devastated country in April 1945.

They see death in many terrible aspects, they encounter a vivid collection of fellow-refugees, and they gradually feel enforced comradeship turning into affection and then love. At the same time, they bear witness to the sense of history as a set of unpredictable satanic improvisations. There is much necessary truth in this well-written story, not least the lesson that in wartime the language of morality is neither self-satisfied nor simple.

Carlo Gebler boldly brings together two disparate events in his novel for young adults. The framing story occurs at the desolate final stage of the war, when a Jewish boy called Saul is hiding in a French cave with his extended family, waiting for the German defeat so they can emerge. The tragic betrayal that destroys nearly everyone except Saul is sadly all too plausible. Filling the novel's interior is a retelling of the myth of the Golem, the man-shaped piece of animated mud that was formed by Rabbi Loew in the magical medieval city of Prague, a place of dreams and omens, blood and fire, graveyards and matchmakers. The two narratives are not always fully harmonised, but Gebler shows an admirable faith in his readers'

capacity not only to grasp words like "proselytise" but to challenge nihilism and despair with an aroused imagination.

See www.holocaustmemorialday.gov.uk

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today