Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 23, 2014

These five books were the ones that stuck in my mind during 2014. They reveal truths about our shared humanity while introducing readers to new places and new forms of style. Take a moment to try these out; they are well worth your time.

Claire of the Sea LightClaire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
On the night of Claire Limyè Lanmè’s seventh birthday, she disappears. Motherless, her fisherman father Nozias has decided to give Claire away to Madame Gaëlle, a shopkeeper who lost her daughter in an accident years earlier, to ensure Claire greater opportunities. As the members of the seaside Haitian town of Ville Rose, search for her, their interconnected stories, secrets, and losses emerge. Danticat creates vivid characters and her writing captures the beauty and sorrow of daily life.

The CommitmentsThe Commitments by Roddy Doyle
Put together a group of Dublin working class misfits with the soul sounds of the 1960s and you have Roddy Doyle’s punchy and charming novel about the joys of rock and roll. The book follows the escapades of the band as they combat over practice, get through their first gig, cut their first single and run into inevitable creative differences. Doyle’s free-flowing bawdy dialogue is exhilarating. So, if you are looking for some fun, introduce yourself to the Hardest Working Soul Band in Dublin: The Commitments.

My Struggle Book OneMy Struggle Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard blurs the lines between fiction and memoir in the first volume of his novelistic autobiography. The book begins with a meditation on death and then proceeds to explore Knausgaard’s childhood and fraught relationship with his troubled father. This expansion and contraction of universal ideas and the minute details of Knausgaard’s life creates a fascinating tension between the author and the reader. Knausgaard lays his life out on the table with unflinching directness for the reader to examine. My Struggle is probably not for every reader, but it is something strange and new.

AusterlitzAusterlitz by W. G. Sebald
Traveling across Europe, the unnamed narrator meets and befriends Jacques Austerlitz an architectural historian. As their relationship develops, he gradually learns of Austerlitz’s search for his lost history. As a small child, Austerlitz’s mother placed him a Kindertransport to Britain where an aged Welsh couple adopted him and gave him a new identity. After learning of his birth family after their deaths, Austerlitz begins to discover his past and how the Holocaust severed his past life from his present. Uncanny, hypnotic, and dreamlike, Austerlitz conveys the incompleteness of memories with their ragged and hazy qualities, while capturing the devastation of the Holocaust.

The Patrick Melrose NovelsThe Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn pillories the excesses and absurdities of the British upper class with elegant prose and vicious wit in this cycle of four novels. He begins with Patrick’s childhood relationships to his sadistic father and neglectful mother, and following him into a ravenous drug addiction, recovery, marriage and fatherhood. His character eventually reaches a form of uneasy redemption. Patrick and the world he inhabits aren’t likable, but there’s a level of truth to St. Aubyn’s storytelling, as Patrick struggles to place himself beyond his lifelong demons. Despite some of their grim subject matter, the novels are deeply, darkly funny.

The Wave by Todd Strasser

September 11, 2014

Ben Ross was an enthusiastic young teacher, always leading his high-school history students toward deeper understanding, rather than just memorizing battle dates and lists of kings. The older teachers tolerated his style, figuring that it would wear off soon enough. When Ben showed his students a film about the Nazi concentration camps, some of his kids woke up from their bored lethargy, but they raised questions about how this could have happened. A few of them openly stated that they did not believe that ordinary people would stand by and let their neighbors be treated this way. Ben needed a strategy to convince them that the Holocaust really did happen— and could happen again.

The next day, class was conducted differently. Ben wrote on the board: “Strength Through Discipline.” He made the kids stand beside their desks and start all of their answers with, “Mr. Ross!” There was no discussion, just questions and rapid-fire answers. To Ben’s surprise, the students ate it up! The class showed a cohesion that he had never seen before, and later they opined that they all felt equal for the first time. As the days went by, they created a salute and a motto, and the movement spread beyond Ben’s class. Even the football team began to incorporate the disciplined group mentality that began as Ben’s experiment. Students who had always been shunned as outsiders were some of the most enthusiastic adherents, as they fit into a group for the first time. Chillingly, however, Ben’s students began to persecute those who were not part of the group, and at least one young man landed in the hospital. How could Ben bring this experiment to an end?

Although The Wave is a novel, it is based on the true story of a classroom experiment in Palo Alto, California, in 1969, and is often assigned in high schools. The writing is simple and straightforward, but the message is frightening. Pair this with the spectacular novel The Book Thief (also based on a true story) or the movie based on this title, which I highly recommend. Sometimes it feels as if we are awash in Holocaust stories, but their importance goes far beyond the history of what happened in Germany seventy years ago. It is the revelation of the evil that lies within each of our souls that needs to be kept out in the open, warning us that this was not just a German phenomenon; it is a human phenomenon. Even at our best, we rush to self-preservation against the slightest danger, but at our worst, we can perpetrate terrible cruelties toward our very own neighbors if the opportunity presents itself—and opportunities are always presenting themselves. If you are looking for ways to discuss these issues with your teens, or even among an adult book group, this story is a great springboard. Weighing in at 138 small pages, everyone should be able to get in on the conversation.

This review was adapted from the original on EatReadSleep.


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Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2013: Stephen B’s Picks

December 18, 2013

My name is Stephen Bank and I have been working in Wake County Public Libraries for over 12 years. My favorite genre is mysteries, but I also like Historical Nonfiction and sometimes human interest stories as you will see from the following 5 short blogs.

Snow in August by Pete Hamill
Having been raised in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in New York City, I have found no one who captures the essence of the Big City like Hamill. This touching story takes place in Brooklyn just after WWII, where an extraordinary relationship develops between 11 year old Michael Devlin and Rabbi Judah Hirsch, a Polish refugee. Michael’s Dad was killed in the war and he and his Mom are just surviving. The relationship between Michael and the Rabbi teaches us how all people can live together in all types of circumstances.   Read my full-length post here.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
It’s 1890 and Chicago politicians will do anything to bring the next World’s Fair to their city. As various factions battle against other sections of the United States for the Fair, something very diabolical is going on. Chicago wins the rights to the World’s Fair and now there will be the infighting from those factions who want to profit from producing the Fair. There is also a serial killer loose, but at first no one realizes that the dead women have not died of natural causes! We are really dealing with the two stories, the Fair and the murders.  Larson’s unbelievable research makes you feel like you are there, living in Chicago. And this is a true story!  Read my full-length post here.

The  Informationist  by Taylor Stevens
In this book you will meet one of fiction’s most interesting leading protagonists, Vanessa “Michael” Munroe.  Abandoned in darkest Africa by her missionary parents as a teenager, Vanessa has to learn every possible survival skill…which she does. As an adult, she is self-sufficient and capable of anything, including killing to save herself and her clients. She is not evil and she hires herself out to secure information for clients.  She is fascinating and if you become “hooked” as I did you will seek out Stevens’ two successive novels with ‘Michael’ as the main heroine. If you do some research on author Stevens and her background, it may become clearer to you how she arrived at this talent and the development of ‘ Michael ‘ as a leading character!  Read another review here.

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo
This was a new discovery for me. This book is the first in a series of books where our main protagonist is Kate Burkholder, the chief of police of Painters Mill, Ohio. I always thought that the main Amish community was in Pennsylvania but there is a strong Amish community in Ohio. The Amish and English residents have lived besides each other for years but not entirely peacefully! Although they were peaceful, there always was some resentment of the Amish.  Kate was brought up in the Amish community but a series of brutal murders convinced her that she didn’t belong there.  Despite that, she returned to Painter’s Mill after some big city training to be the new Police Chief. A new murder and Kate is convinced she must find the culprit before there is another murder. Castillo has followed this initial story with several other books with Burkholder as her leading protagonist. Not only is this a solid read but you will learn some things about the Amish communities.

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
This is the different selection, one I would not ordinarily select but it was suggested by a fellow librarian I trust. Samuel Lake is preacher, a good one but one who has alienated his parish enough that they don’t renew his contract. Now it is time for Samuel and his wife, Willadee and their three children to return to her family’s farm in south Arkansas and the annual reunion of the Moses’ family. And that is the catch…!  You will fall in love with Samuel and Willadee’s precocious eleven year old daughter, Swan. And as you get to meet and know the rest of the Moses clan, you will see the good and the bad. If you have an extended family as I do, you will understand their trials and tribulations.  Samuel has to face his own demons … why can’t he hold on to a congregation? Plus there certainly are members of the Moses’ clan that will present their own challenges. This book will touch your heart, I promise.

The Boy on the Wooden Box, by Leib Leyson

October 9, 2013

Leib Leyson was eight years old when his family moved from his parents’ ancestral village of Narewka, Poland, to the then-capital city of Krakow, where his father had taken a job that would help his family to live more prosperously than they could in a small town. His mother missed her family, but Leib was entranced by the beauty of a city he had only seen in pictures and heard about in stories. He went to school, played with friends, and lived securely with his loving, Jewish family. Jews made up about a quarter of Krakow’s residents, and everyone lived and worked together amiably.
Toward the end of the 1930s, the Polish people began to hear rumors that Germany’s Führer, Adolph Hitler, wanted to amass more land for Germany, and that he had begun blaming the Jews for everything that was wrong with the country since their humiliating defeat after World War I. Gradually, Leib’s friends began to shun him, and his teachers called him names. In 1939, his brother, Herschel, joined a group of Jews running east to escape the German soldiers. They never saw him again. The Nazis arrived in Krakow, closed Jewish businesses, and broke into Jewish homes. Orthodox Jewish men were beaten on the streets. Nazis took over the formerly Jewish companies, and Leib’s father was allowed to keep his job only because he spoke German. Soon, Jewish children were forbidden to attend school, and Leib’s formal education ended at the age of ten.
One day, Leib’s father was asked to perform a menial task for a Nazi-owned business. When he was done, the owner offered him a job. Since his family needed food, he accepted, however distasteful his decision may have been. Little did he know that that moment saved his family’s lives, since the owner of the business was Oskar Schindler. Although the Leyson family suffered cruelly in ghettos and work camps throughout the duration of the war, Schindler put all of their names on his list of expert machinists and metalworkers, ensuring that they would not be sent to Auschwitz or any of the other Nazi death camps. Even Leib, who was tiny for his age because of extreme malnutrition, worked at a machinist’s post in Schindler’s factory, standing on a wooden box in order to reach the controls.
The author of this moving memoir, who later used the name Leon Leyson, was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, and he did not reveal his past to anyone in his new American home until after Stephen Spielberg’s famous movie, which told the story of the personal sacrifices that Oskar Schindler made for his group of 1,200 Jewish people, posing as one of the Nazi party faithful while shielding helpless people from the horrors he had witnessed at the hands of his own countrymen. Schindler spent all of his fortune on bribes to Nazi guards and food for all of his workers. There were so many opportunities for all of it to collapse, including once when Leon, his father, and his brother were in line to board a train to Auschwitz. The family was separated, reunited, and separated again. At the end of it all, Leon decided to leave Europe entirely and emigrate to the United States, where he continued his education, taught high school, married and had children and grandchildren. He died this past January at the age of 83.
Highly recommended for older children, teens, and adults.
This review is an abridged version of a longer article on

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Snow in August by Pete Hamill

August 6, 2013

I’ll admit before I start that I am prejudiced about tales of New York City. I was born there and raised there until I spread my wings to see a little more of the world. And no one writes with more passion about New York City than Pete Hamill.

This is a tale of Brooklyn and the multitude of ethnic groups that have always populated that borough. It is the story of 11-year-old Michael Devlin and Rabbi Judah Hirsch.  The time period is just after the end of WWII and many refugees have flooded the New World.

One day Michael passes by a synagogue when the Rabbi opens the door and asks Michael to do a favor for him. Would he turn on a light switch? Michael is hesitant, but he does it and he is thanked although he can’t understand why he was asked to do this simple task.  Although Michael’s friends warn him to stay away from the ‘Jews’ Michael is fascinated by the Rabbi. And soon a friendship blossoms as Michael learns what it means to be a’ Shabbos Goy ‘–a friendly non-Jew who assists the religious Jew on Saturday, the Sabbath.

Michael is bright and inquisitive and soon they are meeting on a regular basis. He is teaching Rabbi Hirsch English and about the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Michael is learning Yiddish from his new friend. As this relationship flourishes, events are brewing in the neighborhood that will draw the Rabbi and Michael closer together.

This is a beautiful tale of a friendship and a period of history that in many ways changed the world forever. Please enjoy Snow in August  by Pete Hamill.

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Black Cross by Greg Iles

July 29, 2013

bookcover.phpIn January 1944, Winston Churchill asks two very different men to participate in a mission that must remain secret not only to the Germans, but to his American allies as well. Mark McConnell , an American Doctor working in Britain, is a committed pacifist. Jonas Stern is a determined German Jew whose original mission was to convince the Allies to bomb the Extermination camps.

The British have discovered that the Germans possess a nerve gas which is so virulent that it will stop an invasion force in its tracks. This threat must be neutralized before the planned landings in Normandy take place. With the support of a crack British demolitions team, McConnell and Stern will target a top secret German concentration camp where the nerve gas is being perfected in hideous experiments on the inmates. Their goal is not only to destroy the gas and the men who created it, but also the entire population of the camp as an object lesson to the German High Command. The British only have a small supply of their own nerve gas, but they hope to bluff the Germans into thinking they are capable of wholesale retaliation against any German use of poison gas.

The mission begins to unravel as soon as the support team hits the ground. Wearing the uniform of the hated SD, Stern infiltrates the camp to make contact with an informant. Black Cross takes the reader inside the Concentration camp, the chilling, sadistic Doctor in charge of the “experiments”, a young Jewish widow, the resourceful Block Leader of the women’s barracks; and a “snitch” who turns out to be nothing of the sort. The German officer in charge of the camp, who has served at the front, despises the Doctor and the sadistic and vicious Camp Sergeant Major. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the portrayal of the society within the camp, with its hierarchies and survival mechanisms. Too often it is easy to view the prisoners in the camps as a multitude of faceless victims, but Iles’s characters provide a human dimension that brings the horrors of the camps to a personal level.

The plot becomes very convoluted, with many twists and turns. The middle of the book bogs down a bit with philosophical meanderings that may put off readers who are primarily looking for action, but the ending is worth the wait. Nothing is as it seems, and there are no stereotypical heroes here. Choices are made, for good or bad, as in real life. It is not exactly a casual read, and rather lengthy at over 600 pages, but “Black Cross” will appeal to readers who like historical and military fiction, with a substantial dose of suspense.

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The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

July 25, 2012

I vividly remember reading this book. I was home sick and read it from cover to cover in about 3 days, even though the book is over 600 pages. I absolutely could not put it down, despite not feeling well at all. The book begins with Mendelsohn describing how his elderly relatives would cry when he entered a room. They would tell him how much he looked like his Great Uncle, Schmiel. No one would ever say anything more about Schmiel, his wife, or his four daughters, other than they were “killed by the Nazis”. Later, as an adult, he found a set of letters from Schmiel, asking for help to leave Poland. Mendelsohn decided to search for more information, and to see if it would be possible to find out exactly what had happened to them.

Mendelsohn’s research uncovers as much information about the small town of Bolechow as it does about his family. He travels to meet the survivors of the town who are now living in Israel, Australia, and many other places. His goal is to get as many descriptions as possible of the life they lived and what happened during the war. The stories he hears are like many stories from other towns of Eastern Europe: how the local population were often worse in their persecution of the Jewish population, but also how brave people helped or hid some of the Jewish people. In addition, he learns the complicated history of this town which had belonged to several different countries over time, including Poland and Ukraine.

The book is a combination of a personal journal, a mystery story, and a historical quest. Mendelsohn succeeds because he learns not just about his family’s deaths, but also about their lives. They become real people to him with personalities, likes and dislikes, and complicated lives before they died. They are no longer just six names listed among the six million who died.

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Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow

June 28, 2012

After his father died, Stewart Dubinsky found a batch of papers that related to things about his father that Stewart had never known. So Stewart sets out to find out his father’s story in an effort to know him better. This premise sounds so familiar you might think that the book would be boring or formulaic, but that is far from the truth. The secret that Stewart’s father, David, was hiding is that he was court martialed and sentenced to prison in 1945 after serving in Europe for more than a year. Stewart is so shocked by this revelation that he is determined to find the whole story.

David was a lawyer serving in the Army’s judge advocate general office during the army’s march across Europe after D-Day. He spent most of his time prosecuting or defending soldiers accused of crimes against French citizens; but in 1944 he was assigned to the case of Robert Martin, an OSS officer who had either become a spy or gone rogue. When David met Martin he became involved in one of Martin’s covert operations. He also became involved with Martin’s companion Gita, a woman who may or may not have still been Martin’s lover. Shortly after that, Martin and Gita both disappeared.

After the German surrender, Martin was finally recaptured and David was sent to bring him to trial. Instead, Martin disappeared again David was accused of letting Martin go. Shortly after his conviction, though, David is released without serving any time. Why would they suddenly drop all charges? This is the mystery Stewart is searching for the answer to, as well as the question of whether his father released the man he spent so much time searching for and if so, why.

The story of Stewart’s father’s service in WWII is a fascinating one. He becomes involved in the Battle of the Bulge and other fighting simply because he is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is privy to some of the secrets of OSS and not to others. Turow’s novel is very different from his usual courtroom thrillers, but it is just as compelling. Even more interesting to me is the fact that many episodes of the book were based on stories Turow heard from his own father, who served as a medic in WWII.

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The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

May 9, 2012

I first read The Hiding Place when I was a teenager, and I was immediately caught up in this true story of a quaint, old-fashioned family of watchmakers in Haarlem, Holland, in the 1940s who are drawn into working for the Underground Resistance during the Nazi occupation. The story was so compelling that I don’t believe I looked up once till the book was over and dawn was streaking the sky outside my window. Fortunately, it was the weekend, and the book is only 241 pages long!

Corrie and Betsie are unmarried sisters in their fifties, living with their eighty-year-old father, when tentative knocks began to be heard at their alley door. A Jewish neighbor whose shop has been closed by the Nazis is afraid to go home to his upstairs apartment. A Jewish mother and her newborn baby need a place to stay till she is well enough to travel. Can they help?

Corrie and her family are staunch members of the Dutch Reformed Church and law-abiding citizens, but they can’t turn away the needy from their door. At first they provide a halfway house for Jews and other refugees seeking asylum in the countryside, but eventually their home becomes a “hiding place” for seven Jews who for one reason or another cannot be placed elsewhere.

As their ring of contacts grows ever larger and more complex, the chances that their activities will be discovered becomes ever greater. One night during Passover, their next door neighbor knocks on their side door: “Do you think your Jews could sing a little more softly? We can hear them through the walls . . .”

Your Jews. The family realizes that their secret isn’t really a secret at all, and it is just a matter of time before they are arrested. Despite all their drills and precautions, one night it happens. Corrie, Betsie, and their father are taken into custody, but thanks to a carefully constructed secret room at the top of the stairs, their Jews remain safe.

However, even though they are now at the mercy of their captors, their calling to be a “hiding place” becomes more important than ever. The same love and faith that led Corrie and Betsie to help those in need not only sustains them during the dark years of their imprisonment, but becomes a shining place of hope that shelters those who gather around them. They discover that even the smallest acts of kindness can plant seeds that grow and make a community among those whose pain would otherwise tear them apart.

There are so many wonderful things I could tell you about this book, but I want you to discover them for yourself. However, this story is anything but sugar-coated, I warn you — the graphic details of human cruelty and suffering are painful, but seeing how love triumphs in the midst of darkest evil makes this one of the most inspiring stories I have ever read.

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The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

December 27, 2011

“Viennese Jewess, 19, seeks position as domestic servant.  Speaks fluid English.  I will cook your goose.”

So reads the “Refugee Advertisement” Elise Landau places in British newspapers.  It draws a response from the Rivers family and Elise accepts a position as a servant at Tyneford House, even though looking back she recalls “When I received the letter that brought me to Tyneford, I knew nothing about England, except that I wouldn’t like it.”

Thus ends Elise’s life as the cosseted daughter of a famous and artistic family; her mother is a renowned opera singer and her father a critically acclaimed (except by Hitler’s government, which despises him) novelist.  Her parents hope to get a visa to America, but in the meantime they do everything in their power to get Elise out of Austria.

Once in England, Elise struggles to find her place.  She’s gone from being waited on by servants to waiting on others.  No more sleeping in and waking to a steaming cup of hot chocolate and freshly laundered clothes.  Now she’s up at dawn, preparing fires, cleaning, and generally trying to look as busy as possible.  She realizes that sauntering through the day is a mark of privilege and she misses it.

But most of all she misses her family.  The House at Tyneford is the story of someone who sees her world disappear overnight and struggles to create a new life in a strange place that is itself changing rapidly.  I found Elise very sympathetic and her efforts to fit in engrossing.  The descriptions of Vienna and Tyneford are so vivid I found myself longing for a cup of Viennese coffee and inhaling with gusto the salt air of the English coast.

With its atmospheric writing and bittersweet portrait of a young girl doing her best to adjust as a world fragments around her I recommend this book to anyone, particularly readers of historical fiction, fans of novelist Kate Morton and devotees of the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.

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