‘In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer’: nonfiction young adult book


Rating: 5 stars

In “In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer” by Irene Gut Opdyke, readers will learn about the Holocaust from the eyes of a young Polish girl who at the age of 17 had to endure horrors most children only dream about in their worst nightmares.

Opdyke (her married name) tells of growing up in a close-knit Polish family proud of their Polish heritage and living in a house where kindness was encouraged. Hurt animals were brought home and healed, dogs were loved, and the sisters were close. When Irene was 17, she decided she wanted to keep helping people by becoming a nurse. It was while she was in school, far from her family, when World War II broke out.

The story relates the horror of how the Russian soldiers abused the women they found, including Irene. Irene got lucky when her German looks and her ability to speak German helped her get a position working for the Nazis in a hotel. The hotel backed up to the ghetto, and Irene saw firsthand the horrors of what was happening there. It was obvious that the Germans wanted to kill all the Jews. And the German officers talked freely in the restaurant about the goal of making the town free of all Jews. The man in charge of the kitchen was kind and looked the other way when Irene started helping the Jews.

First it was simply putting food in a metal box and shoving it into the ghetto through a hole she made under the fence. That escalated when she got Jews to help in the laundry room. She would pass on news she heard from the officers about deportations to her friends — because the Jews working in the laundry became friends. When she learned about the last final “action” to rid the town of all Jews, she knew she had to do more.

That’s when the book really becomes almost incredible — reading about the risks that Irene took on behalf of people she barely knew. She risked her life, she did whatever she had to to make sure that the Jews she saved remained safe. The book is written beautifully with the help of author Jennifer Armstrong, whose writing beautifully brings out the beauty of the human spirit and the cruelty of which humans are capable — all in the course of a few pages.

This nonfiction book should be included in any study of World War II from middle school through high school. While there is mention of rape, it is not graphic. It’s unusual in that most WWII memoirs are written from a Jewish perspective. This one is written from the perspective and voice of a Polish, Catholic girl.

‘Prisoner B-3087’ by Alan Gratz: Middle grade holocaust story


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

In “Prisoner B-3087” Alan Gratz takes the true story of Jack Gruener and turns it into a fictional account that is a perfect way for middle grade readers to learn about the Holocaust while reading a book with action and suspense.

Yanek Gruener is only ten when the Nazis change his life forever. Gratz “hooks” the reader from the first sentence: “If I had known what the next six years of my life were going to be like, I would have eaten more.”

Gratz continues to write about Yanek’s life as his family first endures minor indignities and later fatal ones. When the Nazis arrive, the Polish boys decide that the Jews can’t play soccer with them. Poles and Germans won’t buy shoes from his father’s store. And soon, he is told that he can’t attend the public school. Next the synagogue is burned and the wall is built, forcing the Jews to be concentrated in a ghetto.

The story details the horrors of what happened to the Jews during World War II. Yanek ends up going to ten concentration camps. Gratz does not mince words as he describes the cruelties and the terror of those incarcerated behind barbed wire.

There are many who have written books for middle grade readers about the Holocaust. Some are classics like “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This book is one that should be read as a companion to those books because it tells the story of those inside the concentration camps.

Please note: This review is based on the final paperback book purchased by the reviewer from the publisher, Scholastic.

‘My Family for the War’ by Anne C. Voorhoeve: Middle grade historical fiction

my family for the war

Rating: 5 stars

“My Family for the War” by Anne C. Voorhoeve is a story about Jews during World War II, told with a slight twist. The protagonist is Jewish through her ancestry, but is actually a practicing Protestant. Hitler and his minions do not care.

Franziska Mangold leaves Germany on a kindertransport — where thousands of children between the ages of four and sixteen went to stay with families in England. Frances, as she comes to be called, is very lucky and ends up with an Orthodox family who take her as their daughter.

Voorhoeve explores many themes in this hefty book (400 pages). The Shepard family includes Amanda, who was born Amanda O’Leary. She converted to marry into the Jewish family, but even with the conversion, her husband’s family barely speaks to them. Her own Irish family has absolutely nothing to do with them. Gary, their son, enthusiastically makes Frances his adopted sister.

When the bombing of London begins, Frances is sent out of the city with other children. Her new temporary home is much worse than expected. She is basically expected to work and eat table scraps. But Frances’ character is strong, and she manages to shame the family into treating her better.

Will she ever be reunited with her parents? Does she even want to be reunited with her parents? How does a child who was raised to go to church and wear a cross adapt to living with practicing Jews?

While the horrors of the concentration camps are only vaguely alluded to, young readers will learn much about the other Jews who were affected by the war. Voorhoeve’s pacing, characters and dialogue make this a book that is difficult to put down. In spite of the 400 pages, it becomes a fairly quick read. The first person narrative works well as readers gain insight into Frances’ feelings about her mother, her adopted parents and even her relationship with God.

There is humor, also, for Jewish readers. Frances looks at the mezuzah on the doorframe and thinks it’s a tiny mailbox. Her new family explains Jewish customs and tradition to her and it will fascinate non-Jewish readers, also.

This is a book that should be a part of every classroom collection of historical fiction. It rounds out the stories with a realistic, albeit fictional, account of the Jewish children who left Germany to grow up in safety with other families.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Dial, for review purposes.