Quill & Quire Review
Whispers from the Ghettos
2011 Red Maple™ Official Selection
Authors: Kathy Kacer & Sharon McKay
Publisher: Puffin Canada, 2009
We made seven trips back and forth to the synagogue that day. Those books were my education, my entertainment, and my friends. Those books became a part of me. The Nazis could take what Papa called our ‘trinkets,’ but they could not take away what was most important to us- the knowledge that books gave us. And they could not take away the love and pride I felt for my parents. Never.
There are few stories as harrowing as the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Even so, both in spite and because of the realities experienced, the stories must be transmitted. One of the questions we face then becomes how to ensure that these stories are transmitted productively- meaning, in a way that opposes traumatizing the human spirit (specifically the spirits of youth) but, at the same time, insists on the full truth. With Whispers from the Ghettos, co-authors Kathy Kacer and Sharon McKay respond to this challenge with elegance and great insight. Through this unique collection, they bring to life 12 stories from behind the ghetto walls of Nazi Europe, reviving Holocaust survivor testimonies, telling their stories from the perspective of the survivors’ younger selves. This is one of the most affecting pieces of Holocaust literature written for young people to date.
The testimonies in Whispers from the Ghettos present Jewish stories of great variety- observant and secular Jews who span the geography of Europe (and in one case, also China), love stories, and stories of family hardship and loyalty. Each one revolves around a particular event, which is always some kind of act of resistance.
One story, “Sabotage,” tells George Berman’s story of surviving in Poland’s Lodz Ghetto. In order to evade transport to the death camps, George shows the Nazis that he can work and so is then put to “use” as a builder of car motors. George, like other characters encountered in Whispers from the Ghettos then faces a recurring dilemma: how to stay alive while not contributing to the Nazi effort. He spends sleepless nights devising a plot to sabotage the infinite hours he has spent laboring over German motors. Eventually, with the help of two fellow Jewish conspirators- a chemist and a syringe-maker- he devises a plan which culminates in destroying every single motor his has built, by secretly injecting acid into each one. He knows he will be instantly killed if his plot is found out, though beyond all he is informed by his determination to resist.
The stories also reveal the absurdity of a given moment, reflected in an incident during which George’s mother decides to color her hair with brown shoe polish to make herself appear younger than she is. This impulsive moment ultimately saves her from transport to the death camps.
The sixth story, “First Love,” describes Maud Beer and Hermann’s falling in love while still in their hometown in Czechoslovakia and then their determination to survive in the Terezin children’s ghetto. The story reveals intimate letters that the two write to each other as they struggle to express their intensifying feelings alongside their will to stay alive and dream of a world where they can be together. At the end of the story, the image of Maud witnessing Hermann’s transport pains the reader.
The stories in Whispers from the Ghettos never trivialize the impact and horror of the realities of the Holocaust. However, they also avoid merely paralyzing the reader with tragedy. Each story imprints a series of vivid images of the defiant characters encountered- their acts of bravery and their determination. To highlight this individuality and vitality, each story is written though a different narrative perspective, style, voice, and tone, presenting vastly different stories that defy the aesthetics of writing and embed themselves into the reader’s memory.
The testimonies published in Whispers from the Ghettos also express the richness and resilience of Jewish values and tradition; the love of learning and books is exemplified by the recurring image of the bookseller mother and father who risk their lives in order to save important texts. In many cases, children insist on collaborating in these efforts. Elly, the 16-year-old protagonist in “The Rescue,” asks: “Books? What would the Nazis want with books? Thugs did not read.”
Whispers from the Ghettos’ format is innovative and compelling. The book opens with an effective introduction to the Holocaust, outlining events, dates, and describing the ghettoization of European Jews. The 12 stories then follow, with each one capped with a Postscript that briefly describes how life ultimately unfolded for the main characters of each story. Of particular interest is the fact that many of the survivors eventually find their way to Canada where they now live. It is stirring for the reader to discover that these heroes, who are for some of us ancestors just one or two generations removed, live here among us. The reader is pulled through each story, anticipating these Postscripts. There is also a glossary at the end.
Kacer and McKay are gifted writers who have enabled the creation of a stunning and vital work. Each story in Whispers from the Ghettos is profound. The writing is compelling and brilliantly crafted, the characters are deep and their voices visceral, the stories shattering and stirring at the same time. By putting names and faces to these many acts of resistance, each of the stories in “Whispers” is uniquely affecting. The stories are made accessible to youth and in doing so fulfill a great need to connect the generations and transmit the testimonies.
At the end, the theme is survival through telling and re-telling. As Salomon Rubenstein expresses in the story “A Letter to my Grandchild”: “Even though I will not be here forever, my story, as I tell it to you, must live on long after I’m gone. And you, my darling grandchild, you will be the next one to tell it, and then your children, and then your grandchildren after that.” Kacer fulfills this obligation of transmittance as she, herself, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
Marketing plans include classroom kits with audio recordings of survivors. This is the first of a three-book collection of Holocaust survivor stories with Whispers from Hiding appearing in August, 2009, and Whispers from the Camps planned for a spring, 2010 release.
Danya David is a graduate of UBC's Master of Arts in Children's Literature program.
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