This book was recommended to me by a granddaughter from her summer school reading list. It is a fictional account by Alan Gratz based on a true story told by Ruth and Jack Gruener of a young Jewish boy in living in Poland when the Nazis invaded and begin imprisoning Jews to either use them as forced laborers or to execute them. The dust cover of the book mentions that the boy “…encounters evil he could never have imagined, but also sees surprising glimpses of hope amid the horror.” The book recounts innumerable examples of evil, but I’m hard pressed to think of more than a very few events that would give anyone a “glimpse of hope.” The book documents countless Nazi atrocities and the extraordinary will to live that was required to survive despite conditions that would make most want to die to escape. The book is dedicated “For Jack, who survived.”
The story begins with a ten year old boy and his Jewish family living comfortably in Krakow, Poland. The boy’s Polish name was Yanek, but the family called him Jakob. Everyone realized Jews were being threatened because of Hitler’s comments about the “Jewish menace,” and making statements such as, “The Jews must disappear from Europe.” Hitler had already annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia and the British and French had declared war against Germany. The ominous conversation one evening was about the German invasion of Poland. Jakob’s father dismissed the threat with, “Mark my words: This war won’t last more than six months.” Only six days after the beginning of the invasion there was an announcement on the radio, “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this broadcast with the news that the German army has reached Krakow.” German soldiers escorted by their panzers soon filled the streets.
There were hopeful statements that the Germans would not behave badly. One woman commented that Germans “were very nice people” during World War I. However, the degradation in living conditions came very fast. Food became scarce and expensive and non-Jewish Poles began avoiding Jews. Jews were no longer allowed to attend school. It wasn’t long before the synagogue was burned and the order came that any Jew violating curfew would be shot. Walls were built around the Jewish neighborhoods, and they became known as ghettos. The building where Yanek lived with his family was soon overcrowded. The Germans ruled that every flat must hold at least four families. There were soon fourteen people living where three had lived comfortably before. Yanek’s father continued to be in denial, proclaiming, “This will be over by summer.”
The Nazis and Judenrat (Jews the Nazis put in charge of the ghetto) were soon going door to door and taking everything of value. Truck loads of people began disappearing to places unknown. Jakob’s family eventually moved to a pigeon coop on the top of the building and lived on what little food they were allowed and what they could buy at great risk at night on the black market. Jakob and his father had to sneak to a secret meeting to hold his bar mitvah when he turned thirteen and was deemed to be an adult and allowed to read from the Torah. Most of the other men at the ceremony left to attempt to escape the deportation that had been announced for the following morning. Jakob was coming home from his work assignment one evening when he saw a crowd of Jews shuffling down the street surrounded by Nazi soldiers. He saw a brief glimpse of what he thought were his mother and father. It was the last time he ever saw them. He was thirteen and would have to survive what came next alone.
The Nazis snatched him from work one day and sent him to Plaszow, the first of many concentration camps he would have to endure over the next few years. A kapo, a prisoner put in charge of other prisoners, directed what armband the prisoners had to wear. Jakob other Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David. Others wore different designators. “The red armbands belonged to political prisoners. Green meant criminals. Black armbands were worn by gypsies, though there were very few of those, as they were usually killed straight off. Purple meant Jehovah’s Witness. Homosexuals wore pink.” The triangle in the center of the armbands had single letters to designate the nationality of the prisoner. Jakob’s was “P” for “Polen or Pole.”
There was some good news when Jakob spotted his uncle Moshe amongst the prisoners. He learned the bad news was that the camp was commanded by a psychopath named Amon Goeth. The first he saw of Goeth was when he randomly selected a Jew and ordered his two German shepherd dogs to kill him. A discussion later was about “the score.” Someone reported “Goeth seven, Jews nil.” Goeth had killed seven Jews in that single day.
Jakob was sent with a work detail to search the ghetto for clothing or anything else of value. He returned to his flat and found his father’s old coat and felt a lump in the seam. It was a thousand zloty that had been hidden. He also found another thousand in his coat and a pair of diamond earrings in another coat. The score for the day had been “Goeth nineteen, Jews nil,” a good day to be away from camp. He gave his uncle the money and the earrings, and they began to have extra food that could be purchased. Janek celebrated having a limp carrot one night. The good new didn’t last long because Goeth killed the uncle one day, and Jakob had no idea where the money had been hidden. He realized that without the extra food he was at risk of becoming one of the “Musselmanners.” That was the name given to those who had been starved to the point they could barely walk, if they could walk at all. Other prisoners knew when the end was near for those people, because “…you always knew a Musselmann from his eyes. There wasn’t anything left. Musselmanners had given up, and there was no life in their expression, no spark of a soul. They were zombies, worked and starved into a living death by our captors.”
Jakob survived at least nine different concentration camps. He received his B-3087 tattoo while in the Birkenau Concentration Camp. His work as a slave of the Nazis included working in a salt mine that was remarkable for the elaborate statues that had been carved out of the salt by previous workers. He managed to not be pulled from the lines to go to the extermination centers and crematoriums at the camps, but he saw thousands who suffered that fate. He came face to face with many monsters including the infamous Josef Mengele. He saw inhumanity, including one unfortunate prisoner who was discovered to have a tattoo. The book doesn’t mention it, but other sources say lamp shades were made from the tattoos of prisoners. The book says that half a million Jewish children survived from the million and a half living in Europe before the war. I wondered how so many made it through.
The cover of the book says it is the “…true story of Ruth and Jack Gruener.” Jack immigrated to America after the war, became an American citizen, and was drafted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War. He had met a girl named Luncia in Munich and found her as a young woman who had changed her name to Ruth. They were married soon after their re-acquaintance. They have two sons and four grandchildren. They travel the country speaking about their experiences during the Holocaust.