"It was September 1939 when the Germans invaded our country. A month later, they marched into Warsaw and took up residence as if they would never leave."
Indeed the Germans stayed and the war against the Jews began. In THE WAR WITHIN THESE WALLS, Misha, a fictional Jewish teen tells a true story of harassment, humiliation, and unimaginable abuse. This story takes place in a section of Warsaw, Poland known as the Jewish Ghetto. The Nazi's herd Jews by the thousands into one section of the city. Private homes are overrun with strangers forced to inhabit the same space. The Nazi's build a ten foot high wall around the ghetto, and top it with barbed wire and shards of glass.
At first, in order to survive, Misha is tempted to deny his Jewish identity. But then we see him go through a range of emotions - the overwhelming one being defiance. He determines not to be defeated and finds a way to slip out of the ghetto, steal food, and slip back in. He does this regularly until he sees the dreadful consequences for others who are doing the same thing. After that, he holds back and as even more terrible events unfold, he loses hope and the will to fight.
Time passes and deportations begin as the Nazis begin loading the Jews onto trains. Misha wants to believe rumors that the Jews are being sent to the countryside. But rumors of death camps spread also and the reality is too obvious, too stark, too horrendous. At his moment of lowest despair, Misha meets Mordechai Anielewicz and everything changes.
Anielewicz tells Misha that not all Jews are bowing to the Germans. Some are secretly, actively working against them. He invites Misha to join the fight against the Nazis. Finally Misha has a place to direct his anger. He joins the secret resistance movement, learning how to stockpile weapons and how to use them when the time is right. Eventually in early 1943 the time for confrontation arrives.
Mordechai inspires the fighters with these words. "We are going to shake our people awake. The eyes of the world will be on us."
For four weeks Misha and more than seven hundred other Jews put up a powerful fight. In the end, however, the Nazis overpower them. Mordechai and other leaders are killed. The world does not intervene. Somehow, Misha survives to tell the story.
Aline Sax tells this story in sparse, lyrical language and with brutal honesty. She gives us a character - many characters - to really care about. The reader cannot help but feel anger, remorse, and despair with Misha. Caryl Strzelecki's stark black and white illustrations - some complex and others simple and iconic - add to the raw power of the story.
The book was originally published in Dutch by De Eenhoorn, a Belgian publisher. Eerdmans published the English version and Laura Watkinson translated it.
Watkinson did a masterful job and the book won the Batchelder Honor Award given by American Library Association for a book published in another language and translated into English. It also won The Sydney Taylor Honor Award for Teen Readers.
The Sydney Taylor Book Awards recognize outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. For several years now I've participated in the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour which offers interviews with winning authors and illustrators. I'm especially fortunate this year because I have three thoughtful and talented people to interview - Author, Aline Sax, Illustrator, Caryl Strzelecki, and Translator, Laura Watkinson. Watch for those interviews here on Sunday, February 16.
And do check out the complete Sydney Taylor Blog Tour here. It's a great place to discover excellent literature and the gifted storytellers who create it.
Friday, February 14, 2014