The year is 1942, and Chaim and Gittel, Polish twins, are forced from their beautiful home and made to live in the Lodz Ghetto. Their family’s cramped quarters are awful, but when even those dire circumstances become too dangerous, their parents decide to make for the nearby Lagiewniki Forest, where partisan fighters are trying to shepherd Jews to freedom in Russia. The partisans take Chaim and Gittel, with promises that their parents will catch up — but soon, everything goes wrong. Their small band of fighters is caught and killed. Chaim, Gittel, and their two friends are left alive, only to be sent off to Sobanek concentration camp.
Chaim is quiet, a poet, and the twins often communicate through wordless exchanges of shared looks and their own invented sign language. But when they reach Sobanek, with its squalid conditions, rampant disease, and a building with a belching chimney that everyone is scared to so much as look at, the bond between Chaim and Gittel, once a source of strength, becomes a burden. For there is a doctor there looking to experiment on twins, and what he has in store for them is a horror they dare not imagine.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Guns, Strong language, Violence
Booklist starred (January 1, 2018 (Vol. 114, No. 9))
Grades 9-12. Nazi-occupied Lodz, Poland, 1942. Chaim and Gittel, 14-year-old Jewish twins, live with their parents in a small apartment in the ghetto. Life is made bearable for the taciturn Chaim by the poetry he writes (he seldom speaks because of a stutter). Things become grimmer when the twins’ parents are forced to open their home to an unsympathetic family, which also has two children: Sophie and the disagreeable Bruno. When the twins’ father learns his family is to be transported, he arranges for them to escape from Lodz along with Sophie and Bruno. The four children are put in the custody of a group of partisans who are to take them to safety. Alas, they are surprised by a company of Germans and killed, leaving only the children, who are taken to a forced labor camp (slave labor camp, Chaim wryly calls it). There they are put to work in a munitions factory until an insane German doctor, a protégé of the monstrous Dr. Mengele, arrives, intent on performing experiments on the twins. Using the framework of the Hansel and Gretel story, Yolen does a superb job of dramatizing the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, bringing vivid fear and suspense to her captivating story. It makes for altogether memorable and essential reading.
Kirkus Reviews (January 15, 2018)
A Holocaust tale with a thin “Hansel and Gretel” veneer from the author of The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988).Chaim and Gittel, 14-year-old twins, live with their parents in the Lodz ghetto, forced from their comfortable country home by the Nazis. The siblings are close, sharing a sign-based twin language; Chaim stutters and communicates primarily with his sister. Though slowly starving, they make the best of things with their beloved parents, although it’s more difficult once they must share their tiny flat with an unpleasant interfaith couple and their Mischling (half-Jewish) children. When the family hears of their impending “wedding invitation”—the ghetto idiom for a forthcoming order for transport—they plan a dangerous escape. Their journey is difficult, and one by one, the adults vanish. Ultimately the children end up in a fictional child labor camp, making ammunition for the German war effort. Their story effectively evokes the dehumanizing nature of unremitting silence. Nevertheless, the dense, distancing narrative (told in a third-person contemporaneous narration focused through Chaim with interspersed snippets from Gittel’s several-decades-later perspective) has several consistency problems, mostly regarding the relative religiosity of this nominally secular family. One theme seems to be frustration with those who didn’t fight back against overwhelming odds, which makes for a confusing judgment on the suffering child protagonists. Stands out neither as a folk-tale retelling, a coming-of-age story, nor a Holocaust novel. (author’s note) (Historical fiction. 12-14)
About the Author
Jane Yolen is a novelist, poet, fantasist, journalist, songwriter, storyteller, folklorist, and children’s book author who has written more than three hundred books. Her accolades include the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Kerlan Award, two Christopher Awards, and six honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Born and raised in New York City, the mother of three and the grandmother of six, Yolen lives in Massachusetts and St. Andrews, Scotland. Her website is www.janeyolen.com.
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