Learning the Holocaust

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, a review of Annexed, by Sharon Dogar (Houghton Mifflin, 2010, 337 pages)

Yes, I am dead now, but if you listen you can still hear me.


Wake up.

Are you still there?

Are you listening?

I was around twelve years old when Adolph Eichmann, administrator of the Nazi death camps, was captured and brought to trial. A few months later The Saturday Evening Post, to which my parent subscribed, ran a multi-part article on the Eichmann story. That was my introduction to the Holocaust. Lacking political or historical context, my eye skipped over the actual capture by the Israeli Mossad and indictment in court and went directly to the testimony: detailed recollection by survivors and guards. It gave me nightmares. I recall much of what I read to this day but have never written about it or even spoken about it. It’s still too recent, too raw; not that such things should never be spoken but they are not, it seems to me, to be scattered about the landscape like trash. Some memories come at a price.

Brutal mass extinctions have occurred throughout history, some slow and lingering as in Stalin’s Ukraine, some swift and bloody as in Rwanda. But the Holocaust was probably the most well-documented and easily explained–in a way. The legitimate government of a highly cultured nation determined to eliminate an entire group of people under its control, and came close to succeeding. That’s what happened, deniers notwithstanding. That’s what happened. But it’s still hard to wrap a civilized mind around. Or it’s too scary, because deep down we know we’re not that civilized.

That’s the problem with Annexed, a young adult novel that fictionalizes Peter van Pels, the teenaged boy whose father was a business associate of Otto Frank. Peter and his parents, as is well known, sheltered with the Franks for two years in a small apartment hidden in a warehouse: the “annex.” This book is his story.

Peter seems rather average, a good-enough student with some drawing talent. As the story begins, he’s on the run. Instructed to go to the warehouse where his concealment–or prison term, to his mind–will begin, instead he hurries to his girlfriend’s house, hoping at least for a goodbye kiss before making a break for the countryside. But when he’s within view of her house he sees a government van parked in front, and soon after the whole family is loaded up and taken away. Peter helpless to do anything about it: “I don’t exist anymore. They’ve turned me into a nobody so they can wipe me off the face of the earth.”

During his first days and weeks at the annex, he literally turns his face to the wall. Only gradually does he come out of his funk, but everything irritates him. Especially Mr. Frank’s youngest daughter Anne: nosy, talky, prying, tactless Anne–and to make it worse she appears to have a crush on him. But as the months pass, she slowly changes from an obstreperous little girl to a fascinating young woman of fourteen. It’s not surprising that Peter falls in love with her, since one of his obsessions is whether he will ever have the opportunity to make love to a girl. This at least is blessedly normal: almost sixteen when he enters the annex, his mind is in the territory occupied by most teenage boys.

But their stars pass. After a mostly platonic affair, Anne falls in love with another: her diary. She dedicates herself to making a record of her thoughts and impressions, as if foreseeing an early death, and Peter is the one whose love goes unrequited. That’s the state of affairs on August 4, 1944, when their hiding place is invaded. The “annex,” a boxy, airless, tacked-on necessity, proves to be just a holding pen.

Ann’s diary ends here, of course, but Peter’s account goes on for another fifty-six pages, recounting the last seven months of his life: first at Auschwitz and then at Manthausen (Austria). Arriving at Auschwitz, he tries to hold on to his mother with one hand and Anne with the other, but they are torn away from him. Peter is left as he was in the beginning: alone. “Am I truly the last? The last Jew on earth?” His identity, except his Jewishness, has been stripped from him along with his clothes. He never had the chance to figure out who he was or what was true.

Youth is no help in such a situation. Otto Frank, the most wise, thoughtful, and patient of them all, was the one who survived. His wisdom probably helped: the ability to lose himself in thought, hold himself aloof and not be sucked into despair. For Peter it comes down to bones: “The structure of the camps, the bones that held them up, are within me–written in invisible ink–engraved on me like the blue tattoo on my wrist.”

That’s why we have to be careful pushing books like this at teenagers. It’s a good book, but in spite of Peter’s vision at the very end, of Anne and Margo and his parents and girlfriend Liese hovering over him in a cloud of words, there’s no real hope in it. “Jump, Peter!” they shout together. Only death can deliver him, and only his words remain (Are you listening?) That’s the last question, and it’s up to the reader to answer.

But no answer will be satisfactory, and as a matter of fact, God does not give answers. He gave himself, in the person of Christ, to suffer a personal holocaust. Which, we are called to believe, paid a price. Because of this, “we may not grieve, as others do who have no hope” (I Th. 4:13). It sounds too pat to some, but it isn’t. It’s actually the only way to pay that price–to be just, and yet let us off the hook of justice.

While still in the annex, Peter van Pels gives up his belief in God, not that he ever had much. “It’s not the idea of God I don’t like, it’s the choosing. It’s that one religion is meant to be better than the others. I mean, how is God deciding any different from Nazis deciding . . . ?” Anne holds on to faith in God, which seems to Peter hopelessly abstract: “I believe in people, Anne! In you and me, and even Dr. Pfeiffer. In all of us.” But it was people who brought about the holocaust, and other genocides. Did the Nazis give up their right to be called “people”?

As the portrait of a young man in extremis, Annexed is valuable. As a guide to dealing with unanswerable questions, not so much. It is honest, but incomplete. CAUTION: The author is frank about Peter’s sexual feelings at the beginning of the book, and brutal about his ordeal in the camp. The reader will encounter some vulgar words in the last fifty pages. Not for younger readers, and older teens should be warned.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 550 pages.  Age/interest level: 14 and up.

 I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality.  But what could I tell her about these things that she didn’t already know?  I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race–that rarely do I ever simply estimate it.  I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant . . . . I am haunted by humans.

The cover of The Book Thief is a grainy photo of a line of dominoes stood on end, with a bodiless finger poised to knock over the first one.  The finger is Death, who narrates this story: the “I” of the passage above.

Not light reading, obviously.  The book is a rare crossover, appearing in both adult and children catalogues–though by “children” is meant Young adult.  Many of those YAs will be put off by Death’s meandering introduction in the first few pages, the chopped-up time sequences, the immediate appearance of a deceased child, and the interruption of announcements, facts, definitions and theories, centered and bold-faced.  The narrative settles down and reveals a story, beginning with the death of Leisl Meminger’s brother while the two children are traveling with their mother.  During the funeral, the gravedigger’s assistant carelessly leaves a handbook behind, Leisl picks it up, thus becoming the title character.

Her mother soon disappears, and though we never know what happened to her it seems she was a Communist, and thus a criminal in the eyes of Nazi Germany.  Leisl is taken to a small town near Munich, where Hans and Maria Hubermann take her in.  Leisl’s new Mama is loud, foul-mouthed and a rotten cook, with a stout heart nevertheless.  Papa is quiet, observant, and unobtrusively kind.  He and 10-year-old Leisl form an immediate bond, forged on his accordion-playing and his offer to teach her to read–even though he’s barely literate himself.

Slowly Leisl knits herself into the community and gains a best friend, Rudy Steiner: a scrappy red-headed classmate who dreams of running as fast as Jesse Owens.  Then the war comes.  We knew it would, with Death telling the story.

War clears the way for our second main character, Max Vandenberg, a Jew who seeks refuge in the Hubermann house in return for a debt owed by Papa from the first World War.  A friendship develops between Max and Leisl, cemented by his birthday gift to her: a book, written and illustrated by himself from scavenged newsprint.  The first book she doesn’t have to steal.  And then . . .

The story doesn’t move quickly but it does move, compelling enough to carry a mature reader along.  Before long we understand that this is a story about the value of stories.  Leisel is sought, wooed, redeemed, and eventually saved by them–not from Death, who comes for her eventually– but from futility.  Death does not go so far as to say there’s a purpose in life, but there’s a record, and a grammar and vocabulary, and an irresistible mystery in the species that breeds both Hitlers and Hubermanns.

Some writers need the reader’s patience to get comfortable with their style and approach.  Often patience is rewarded.  Markus Zusak, a native Australian whose parents grew up in wartime Germany, both rewards and frustrates.  His prose is striking, but self-consciously brilliant.  Sometimes it works, as when Jews being herded to Dachau are looking at Death: “They would each greet me like their last true friend, with bones like smoke and their souls trailing behind.”  Sometimes the images merely irritate, such as Leisl waking up, “tasting the sound of the accordion in her ears,” or Death bearing away souls through a “breakfast-colored sky.”  Are we trying too hard?  And is the theme hammered a little too hard?  And is this a case of less being more?

There is no sex and little violence, but the language may be a problem: some vulgarities and profanities in keeping with the place, time and character.  Though the main character is a child, I would recommend her story only for older teens–and not all of them.

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6 Responses to Learning the Holocaust

  1. Janie May 5, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Melinda, I’ve heard of this book. It sounds like it would dovetail well with North To Freedom, which I would like to mention in a post (even though it’s been around awhile). I would like to check out Shades of Gray sometime in the near future (so many books . . .)

  2. Melinda May 5, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    I just finished Between Shades of Gray this morning. After reading the first few chapters (where fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother, and her brother are given a few minutes to pack before their deportation from Lithuania), I wondered if I had the fortitude to read this book, based on true stories of deportment, forced labor, and imprisonment beginning in 1941.

    It is wonderfully written (using flashbacks and an epilogue for an even richer story), heartbreaking, and lifts the rug that the main character says “the Soviets swept us under.”

    In a note at the end, the author encourages the reader to “Please research it. Tell someone” about this time in history.

    Janie (and Emily!), I hope you get a chance to read it and let us know what you think.

  3. Janie March 21, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    Thanks for directing me to this review, Melinda. I have nothing but praise for North to Freedom, so I’m eager to check out Between Shades of Gray.

  4. Melinda March 21, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Did you see Meghan Cox Gurdon’s review in The Wall Street Journal this weekend (March 19/20)? She reviews a book called Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (and mentions others), a YA book set behind the Iron Curtain. She mentioned that while many stories have been written for children (“as it should be”) about Nazism and the Holocaust, fewer have been written about Soviet Communism.

    As you have done here, she piqued my interest in the recommendations she made from, as Gurdon describes it, “this tiny but perhaps widening historical niche.”

  5. Janie February 6, 2011 at 2:56 am #

    Beautifully put, Emily. Indeed human compassion has its limits . . . but divine compassion does not.

  6. Emily February 1, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    I’m really thankful for your insight into this book, Janie. It sounds like the author has done her job well, and yet, why is it that she and so many in our culture are drawn to this story? For all our hopeful confusion about God and who He is, I suspect many of us feel there is something profound about death we’re missing. What does it mean?

    Does death really come as a sequence of coincidences? Was Peter really just unlucky?

    I think you’re right–the Christian may not understand death in all its details, but we do know this: that it is man who started the holocaust we call death. It is man who raised the wall to keep God out, and death is merely a consummation of that rebellion.

    Yet that knowledge, thankfully, doesn’t keep us from mourning someone like Peter. So often I am tempted to “dehumanize” those outside of Christ so that I don’t have to feel the loss that sin and death has carved into the world. What an extraordinary blessing it is to be able to grieve in a genuine, godly way–like the Apostle Paul who wished he could trade his own salvation to save Jews who didn’t love Christ–but without descending into madness, as those without Christ have often done. What a blessing to realize that even human compassion has its limits, and that this too is right and good.

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