Always… (at last)

It seems it has been a long wait, but finally, we have the last book in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. ‘Always’ completes the lifelong journey of Felix, the young boy introduced 16 years ago in ‘Once’.

Felix is now in his eighties, living in aged care in Australia. When a young boy is brought to him and left unexpectedly in his care, Felix once again embarks on a journey (with the boy, Wassim) to right wrongs built upon the prejudices and beliefs from history.

Dedicated followers will enjoy many references to characters and phrases used in past books. Some of these voices echo clearly in my mind, having listened to several of the books, particularly with Morris Gleitzman reading them. (Highly recommended audiobooks!)

Endearing, with characters like young Felix, Zelda, and the many strong people determined to fight against the tragedy of the holocaust, this final book in the epic series is gentle in its teaching for young readers. It is also compelling for older readers who are lucky to discover the series when reading alongside young readers – a chance to share and reflect together.

Always stay hopeful. That’s my motto.
You’re probably thinking … what’s he got to be hopeful about? He’s ten years old and look at his life. (Quote from Wassim in ‘Always’, p.3)

You can find a better and deeper review of Always at Kids’ Book Reviews. And there is always the author’s own revelations and musings at Morris Gleiztman/Always.

# Have you read the whole series?

## Did you find any parts of the stories confronting?

### Are there other books of historical fiction you would recommend?

 

Revisit: the ‘Once’ series

As the 75-year commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz approached on January 2020, it was a good time to revisit the ‘Once’ series.

Written by 2018-19 Australian Children’s Laureate, Morris Gleitzman, this series has had world-renown for many years.* The first book, ‘Once’, was written in 2005 and presents Felix, a young Jewish boy, who sets off on a quest to find his parents in war-torn Poland.

What follows are several books which introduce the (younger) reader to the trials faced by those who suffered under the Nazi regime in World War II.

In spite of its tragic setting, among the events of World War II, and Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, ‘Once’ (and the following titles) is also a story of hope and friendships that stood the test of these times.

As Felix tries to make sense of the Nazi’s book-burning (a shock when his parents are booksellers. Why would anyone do that?) and other even more atrocious activities, the realities of his life (first in an orphanage, then further afield) reveal the conditions for many people in Poland at this time.

The life of Janusz Korczak among Jewish  orphans inspired Morris to write this series

Felix’s view of life (as a ten-year-old) at first seems naive, but it enables him to have a somewhat positive perspective, as he hopes to track down his parents. However, as his story continues, different aspects of life under the Nazi regime become apparent – things like the increasingly cruel treatment of Jews AND anyone who might offer them help. As Felix’s understanding grows, there is more to be learned, each step of the way.

Author, Morris Gleitzman explains how his family background (his grandfather was a Polish Jew) lead
him to research and, ultimately, to write the ‘Once’ series:

My grandfather was a Jew from Krakow in Poland. As a young man he left Poland, decades before the Holocaust, and ended up living in England. But many members of his family stayed in Poland and most of them were killed by the Nazis.

So researching and writing Once became a personal journey. It took me to Poland for the first time. To the streets of Kazimierz, the ancient Jewish area of Krakow, and to the Jewish cemetery where I found a memorial with my family name on it… (From Morris Gleitzman website on ‘Once’.)

There are currently 6 books in this series – the final (?) title, ‘Always’, should be released later this year. Are you ready for it? Or are you like me, in need of a re-read of this important series?

* ‘Once’ has been translated into many different languages, and won the 2011 Katholischer Kinder- und Jugendbuchpreis, (the Catholic Children’s and Young People’s Book Award in Germany) among many other awards, national and international.

** Morris’ books have been published in about twenty countries, including the UK, the USA, Germany, Italy, Japan, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, Russia and China.

*** The publication order for the series is: Once (2005), Then (2009), Now (2010), After (2012), Soon (2015) and Maybe (2017) – though I’m sure I heard/read Morris state they can be read out of order, each book complete within itself…

**** Available as ebooks and audiobooks.

Auschwitz – a story retold

There have been many books written about Auschwitz experiences. Heather Morris’ book, ‘the Tattooist of Auschwitz’ is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov – a Jewish survivor, following her interviews with Lale (Ludwig Skolov). In many ways, the story is very familiar. It is a story which combines resilience, the willpower to survive, and the weaving of relationships which will make a difference.

In other ways, it should be renamed ‘Nine Lives’ – as Lale manages to survive several difficult situations, in which many others met tragic ends, many times. His personal skills enable him to be in a position of privilege, negotiating small benefits for fellow prisoners, aiming to ease the harsh conditions of a raw concentration camp.

It is in his role as tattooist where he first meets Gita – a young woman whose life gives his purpose and hope. This hope, he reflects back to Gita, her friends and other prisoners, providing some relief in their harsh and mundane existence.

Based on a true story, the Tattooist of Auschwitz combines historical events and the power of storytelling to remind us of a dark period of world history, while highlightlighting the power of the human spirit. The relationship of Lale and Gita blossoms in a detention camp, inspite of their forboding circumstances; and Lale’s support of others makes you wonder when and if he will be caught out by the camp commanders. But in the spirit of survival, Lale perseveres while ever he can.

The historical accuracy of the novel has been questioned by some reviewers, but we must be reminded that it is a STORY based on the RECOLLECTIONS of a Holocaust survivor interpreted/RETOLD by another. The author answers critics thus:

“I have written a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust. I have written Lale’s story.” In November, she told the New York Times: “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.” Author Heather Morris speaks to the Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/07/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz-attacked-as-inauthentic-by-camp-memorial-centre

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a moving depiction of lives impacted by war – the loss, the cruelties, the friendships, the hardships, the loves… The resilience of the human spirit shines in this novel and it the memories of this harsh experience which Heather Morris brings to the page in Lale’s story, as told to her in many heartbreaking interviews.

I was not as emotionally impacted by this story as when reading The Book Thief or even The Boy in Striped Pajamas (which has also been criticised for several historical inaccuracies).

As stated earlier, there are many other stories based on the Holocaust which YA readers might enjoy, such as the Once series by Maurice Gleitzman, Alexander Altman A10567 and The Wrong Boy. Not all are going to be as accurate as you might expect from Corrie Ten Boom’s the Hiding Place or the Diary of Anne Frank, but telling the stories of survivors may give some understanding and hope that such an atrocious event may never happen again.

# Does Historical Fiction need to be 100% accurate? 

# Heather Morris wrote this after years of interviews with an elderly survivor of the Holocaust –  where else might some inaccuracies occurred in the tale?

# There is a YA version of the Tattooist of Auschwitz which may be more acccessible for younger readers.

# Here’s a range of Holocaust fiction found on GoodReads. Read the reviews to choose others you may like to followup, and maybe even add you own comment or rating once you join.

A10567 – just a number?

altmannAs I read Alexander Altman A10567, I recalled Suzy Zail’s earlier book the Wrong Boy – and it made sense that this book should follow. It made even more sense, when I read an interview where she spoke of wanting to tell her father’s story of surviving Auschwitz.

As Suzy stated in this interview:

There were history books and photos in the library, but not all children liked to read history books. Not all of them were ready for graphic images. I’d been to schools and libraries and talked to children about their holocaust reading and knew that the best way I could help them understand the holocaust was by giving them a character to care about.

In Alexander Altman A10567, she certainly gives young readers someone to care about (primarily 14 year old Alex). And as she describes the trials and desperation of those in concentration camps, there is also lots to think about on a personal scale. In doing so, Zail has not protected young minds from the brutalities of war, but causes you to think about the dark things that have happened in the world’s history, and the powerful instinct of survival.

Alexander’s world is understandably turned upside down as his family trudges towards the Jewish concentraion camp of Auschwitz. The alone, in survival mode, his wits are sharpened and his trust in others switches off. He sees too much, and questions everything in his efforts to survive. Truly a reflection of the brutal experiences and suffering which Zail researched – but there is hope and humanity to be discovered – somehow.

As another reviewer stated:

Alexander Altmann A10567 is not for the faint-hearted. People die horrendous, senseless deaths between its pages. However, Alexander Altmann A10567 is not to be missed if you can manage to push through. The power of one simple act of kindness truly can change the world.

pic-A-U-Auschwitz concentration camp gate

Auschwitz Concentration Camp Gate

With the character of Alexander Altmann based on the experiences of a real Auschwitz survivor (Fred Steiner), Zail has personalised history, shared the atrocities of war and made history accessible to young readers. Many will identify with the changing emotions of Alexander – even though it might be really hard to imagine being in his place. Certainly, it provides another way to understand some of the impacts of the Holocaust on the Jewish people – fitting well alongside other books such as the Book Thief, the Boy in Striped Pyjamas and of course, the Wrong Boy.

# One of the 21 CBCA Book of the Year Awards Notables for 2015.

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.”

http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1359375.Suzy_Zail

Let’s hope that we do learn.

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