This new Holocaust novel by author Alan Gratz is based on the true story of Yanek Gruener, a Jewish boy living in Krakow whose comfortable, middle-class life is turned upside down when the Nazis take over his country in 1939. The title, of course, refers to the number tattooed by the Nazis on his arm at one of the ten concentration camps he managed to survive. In fact, survival at all cost is the theme of this gripping and moving novel, told in the first person by Yanek. From the opening line: "If only I had known what the next six lives of my life were going to be like, I would have eaten more," this is a story difficult to ignore.
When Hitler invades Poland, Yanek, like the rest of the Polish Jews, has no idea what is to come, despite having heard Hitler on the radio and his rhetoric about making Germany and the rest of Europe "Jew-free." He sees his neighborhood being walled off by the Nazis, with all the Jews who lived elsewhere in Krakow moving in. As things go from bad to worse in the ghetto, Yanek and his parents move into the pigeon coop on the roof, hoping that the location might help them avoid the "selections," when the Nazis took thousands of ghetto dwellers away at a time to distant camps--usually to their deaths. Wild rumors circulated about the camps--rumors that no one could believe. One day his parents, too, are grabbed in a deportation, and at 13 Yanek is on his own.
During the course of the novel, Yanek, too, is deported, and is sent to a series of ten concentration camps. First sent to Płaszów, a camp run by the infamous SS Officer Amon Goeth (portrayed in the film Schindler's List), he learns to be no one, and care for no one--the secret to survival in the camps. But can he survive with his human dignity intact?
Written in short chapters and sparse prose, the novel is filled with narrow escapes from death. Yanek manages to survive work details in salt mines and rock quarries, only to wind up at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he survives the infamous showers and the deadly Death March from the camp at the end of the war. Like with other Holocaust stories, the reader is overwhelmed by the ability of the human spirit to survive under indescribably inhumane conditions, and likewise by the power that an individual's will to live can have.
An afterword tells more about Yanek Gruener, who took the name of Jack in America, and the author explains some of the liberties he took with time and events "to paint a fuller and more representative picture of the Holocaust as a whole." The author explains that these changes were made with Jack's permission to help ensure that "the horrors and realities of the Holocaust beyond those that he personally experienced would not be forgotten."
|Jack Gruener showing his concentration camp number to a school class|
I highly recommend this novel for any student learning about the Holocaust.