the Wrong Boy by Suzie Zail

13338887“The point is to stay human.” Erika bent over a bowl of brown water and splashed her face. “We musn’t become animals, Hanna. That’s what they want.”

“It’s the only way to beat them, ” Erika said… “Survive, and when you do, tell everyone what you saw – “

If life in Budapest in 1944 had been difficult before, it was only going to get worse for Hanna’s family – they are moved out of the Jewish ghetto that had been their home. Uprooted from their modest home and sent packing with few belongings, they are transported by rail to an uncertain future in Birkenau – a place we now know as a Nazi concentration / extermination camp.

Since the story is told from the point of view of a young (15 year old) girl, the reader is not exposed to the whole extent of the Jewish holocaust. Initially, Hanna and her family naively anticipate that they are simply being relocated temporarily. Hanna’s dreams of becoming a famous concert pianist linger for a while, and she clings to the hope of her family staying together.

The reality of their eventual separations dawns slowly, as Hanna’s mother loses her sanity and her will to survive. Her older sister, Erika, begins as the stronger one, but as their dismal living conditions impact on her health, it is Hanna who looks after them. Hanna’s saving grace is her ability to play the piano and the opportunity to escape Birkenau daily, gives her a marginally better existence than the others detained there.

Music gives Hanna an escape route – both physically (since she leaves the camp to play for the Commandant) and mentally (as she loses herself in her music as she plays). It is also how she connects little by little with the Commandant’s son, Karl – a music student and a Jewish sympathiser. But we do not escape the grim and devastating situation that millions of Jews faced during WWII – the desperation and suffering faced before atrocious deaths.

For Suzy Zail, this children’s book follows on from her father-daughter memoir The Tattooed Flower, published in May 2006. Both tackle a hard subject, about which many tales have already been written. Her own personal connections (her father being a survivor of Auschwitz) have enabled an authentic voice to come through in ‘the Wrong Boy’, as we see things from the point of view of a displaced young teen facing a future far removed from her dreams.

When asked about her book, Suzy made the following comments:

“Writing this book allowed me to revisit my father’s story and remember him and the millions of other children and teenagers who didn’t survive”, Suzy says.

“It was also the perfect way to pass on [my father’s] warning, because only by remembering can we prevent the past from fading. By reading about the Holocaust and trying to understand it we can make sure it never happens again.”

Let’s hope that we do learn.

# Selected for CBCA awards 2013 – see previous post on CBCA awards 2013

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