I have again included Holocaust books as part of my theme for November. People often ask me why I read Holocaust stories and I never know the reason. It feels like associating the word ‘good’ to Holocaust is insensitive, yet the books are interesting and well-written.
Of course they are also awful, horrific and so incredibly heart-breaking that they often stay with me for months after I read them. But it might be after reading Witness Passing The Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations, compiled by Eli Rubenstein with March of the Living, and by speaking with Ella Burakowski, who wrote her family’s memories of the Holocaust in the book Hidden Gold, that might have given me the ah-ha moment; I read Holocaust books so the millions of people who were murdered in this terrible time in our history are not forgotten and that their deaths have meaning so this atrocity never happens again.
Hidden Gold, A True Story of the Holocaust
Second Story Press, www.secondstorypress.ca
It’s 1942, and the Nazis are rounding up Jews in the Polish town of Pinczow for transport to the Treblinka death camp. Leib and Hanna Gold thought they had more time to develop an escape plan. While Leib leaves to negotiate a hiding place, Hanna and their children, Shoshana, Esther and 12-year-old David, steal away in the night to find shelter with a family friend. Leib promises to join them in the morning, but when daylight breaks, Leib had vanished. Hanna must flee to a safer refuge or she and her children will die. So begins a true story of terror, suspense and deplorable hardship that lasts more than two years. In a place where everyone is afraid, neighbors turn on neighbors, gentiles betray Jews and Jews victimize each other, hoping to survive the Holocaust. David Gold’s memories of his formative years during Second World War are captured by his niece, author Ella Burakowski, in this heart-stopping testament to the human spirit. Learn more about the book and see historic photos of the Gold family at www.hiddengoldbook.com
Editor’s Note: I have read a lot of Holocaust books and this one I almost couldn’t finish. Was it worse than other things I have read? Likely not, but I suspect it has to do with David, who was 12 years old when he was forced into a labour camp and beaten because he didn’t get up fast enough. I know children weren’t spared during the Holocaust, but I don’t think I have read a child’s account before and I had a hard time with it. I also learned more things about the Holocaust including how some Jews did awful things to each other. I didn’t realize that happened, although I suspect if you are a terrible person, you don’t care who you torment. I made it to the end, but I wanted more – I wanted to learn more about what happened to this resilient family after the war and I wanted some happy news.
Questions to Ella Burakowski:
1. Growing up, did you know your parents were Holocaust survivors? Was this something that was talked about or, like many survivors, did they not say anything, wanting to move on?
I always knew I was the child of survivors. Our freezer was packed with bread because my parents were afraid we would starve. We were never allowed to discuss personal or family related items in public. Every morsel of food had to been eaten or we were not allowed to leave the table. Money was not spent on anything extra like a cookie or toy. Everything was a secret. My parents worked from morning till night to make ends meet and to ensure we had a Jewish education and Jewish friends.
They sacrificed so we would never have to know what they lived through. When I was two years old we moved from Israel to Canada and I grew up under one roof with my uncle’s family and my grandmother. When I went back to see the tiny house we lived in on Wychwood Avenue, in downtown Toronto, I wonder how we all managed to fit? All my clothes were hand-me-downs or sewn by my grandmother. I never had what the other kids had. I was different.
No one in our home ever spoke of the Holocaust. It was as though by not speaking about it, those horrors would disappear and life would be “normal.”
However, I always felt loved and safe, except sometimes at night when my parents would cry out in their sleep. It was hard as a child to hear their suffering and not understand. In January of 1972, my mom died in front of me of a massive coronary. I was 14. She took with her all the memories of her hard life. I remember thinking and praying that she was at peace now.
2. When did you start hearing stories about the Holocaust and your family stories?
I don’t remember life without knowing about the Holocaust. It was an unspoken reality. My parents sent me to a Jewish parochial school, where it was part of the curriculum. I was not the only one in that school whose parents were survivors. You could pick each one of us out of a lineup. There was something about the way we looked and acted.
We never really discussed the Holocaust at home. I learned most of my information in passing. It was always something I would have to pick up in conversations between my parents, their friends, various family members and what I was taught in school.
As a child, I wanted to fit in so badly but knew that my circumstances were different than most of my friends.
3. When did you decide to write down your family’s story? Why was it important at that point? Why did you write your uncle’s story?
A series of events lead me to write my family’s story.
My uncle had been looking for someone to write his memoir for a number of years, but never quite clicked with anyone.
Meanwhile in the fall of 2010, with winter fast approaching, I decided to take a continuing education course to get me out of the house at least one night through the dark winter evenings. With Photoshop, life drawing and pottery not available in my area, I was left with creative writing.
One of our assignments was to write a dialogue. I knew my mother, her siblings and my grandmother were hidden in secret cramped enclosure of a barn for over two years, and it always astonished me. I often wondered what they spoke about being together with no outside stimulus, starving, freezing and wondering if they would survive, for over two years. So that’s what I chose as my first dialogue – a conversation in that hiding place.
When I read it aloud to the class, they were fascinated and wanted to hear more. At the instructor’s request, all of my assignments after that, were about my family’s experiences during the war.
That was the beginning of how Hidden Gold evolved into a book.
6. Was there creative liberties taken? Why?
All the events in Hidden Gold are true, however, I took creative liberties in my writing to turn the historical events into a story that the reader could identify with.
In order to engage a young audience as well as adult readers, I wanted to put my reader, in the moment. I therefore created a story that includes dialogue, vivid descriptions, emotions and thoughts of each of the characters. Some of the plots that link to the real events were also created to make the flow more realistic.
My goal was to bring the characters to life, to help the reader visualize their surroundings and grasp the fear, loss, pain and choices that each and every character endured though this horrid journey.
7. I was a little disappointed at how the book ended, that the Gold family was let out of the barn and then we went to the future. I felt after reading all that suffering, it would have been nice to read happy news. Why did you write it that way?
Actually, I didn’t write it that way. I originally wrote Hidden Gold for my family to hand down through the generations, never realizing it would get published. As more people read it, the book took on a life of its own. Without exception, each person who read it felt Hidden Gold was a story that needed to be told.
After much thought I submitted the manuscript to Second Story Press and Margie Wolfe agreed that Hidden Gold was a story that would teach and touch people. My editor at Second Story Press wanted to target the book to a young adult (YA) audience and felt that it should end at liberation. The original manuscript was quite a bit longer and perhaps too much for a YA book.
In the book I wrote for my family there is a fourth part called After the war. It follows the Gold family as they returned to their home town, their grief in finding that any resemblance to their past life was gone, their experiences in post-war Poland and their decision to leave Europe.
After the war, anti-Semitism continued to rage throughout Europe. The Poles confiscated all Jewish property, assuming the Jews would never return. Today a Polish bank sits on the Gold family’s property, which they were never able to redeem.
While I was doing research for Hidden Gold, at the United States Holocaust Museum, I discovered that my father, who never spoke of his days through the Holocaust, was in a number of forced labour camps, before he was finally liberated from the Dachau Concentration Camp. Most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, but he was reunited with his one remaining brother in Israel. After the war my father worked for the UNRRA (United Nations Relief And Rehabilitation Administration) in Foehrenwald displace persons camp. That’s where my parents met and fell in love.
They smuggled onto a ship headed for Israel before it became a nation, but were turned away by the British and sent to Cyprus. Once again they found themselves in a camp, this time an interment camp. Eventually, the British allowed them to enter Israel and they began to make a new life for themselves.
Both my sister and I were born in Israel. After living through numerous wars with the Arabs, my mother longed for some peace and quiet. She longed to feel safe and be with her family. We boarded a plane in 1959 and came to Canada. Life was not easy in Canada. Once again my parents found themselves trying to build a new life for themselves and their children. They worked very hard trying to make ends meet, all the while wondering if they had made the right decision.
8. You would be considered a first-generation of Holocaust survivor, how did that awful period of time shape who you are?
I am considered a second-generation survivor and it absolutely affected me growing up. With both my parents being survivors it was not an easy gig. Many books have been written about children of Holocaust survivors, Goodreads lists 37 of them.
Even though my parents tried to protect my sister and I, they were both very broken people. When things are broken, it’s human nature to try to fix them. And fix them I did.
I have become an independent, strong woman. I’m a critical thinker and have a keen ability to identify common sense in most situations, which is why my advice column, “Ask Ella” in The Canadian Jewish News has been popular for over 20 years.
Growing up with no luxuries, has taught me to appreciate everything, from the smallest item like peanut butter, which we never had growing up, to living in my own home with my husband in the heart of Toronto. I take nothing for granted and I believe everything happens for a reason. I grew up in a home where my mother and grandmother were superstitious, in fact there are a couple of scenes in Hidden Gold where my grandmother, Hanna, relied on a dream or premonition to save herself and her children.
I am a strong supporter of Israel, a country that was created from the ashes of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust. I am proud to have been born in a country where family, acceptance of everyone, and education are priorities. A country whose people live life to the fullest, but who still lack the peace that my parents so yearned for.
I do everything with conviction and never stop half way. I attribute it all to being the child of Holocaust survivors.
9. What do you hope people take away from your book?
I hope that Hidden Gold will teach our young people what happens when we become complacent and allow others to do our thinking for us.
I hope this book will spark discussions and inspire further research into the Holocaust.
I hope people will learn how easily and quickly evil can penetrate each and every life.
I hope that anyone reading this book, will come away with the knowledge that being a silent bystander is not an option. We must all be cognizant of what is happening in the world around us today, and try to ensure that the atrocities inflicted on the Jews during the Holocaust does not happen anywhere else in the world ever again. We must not sit idly by and allow people to be tortured, killed and persecuted for their beliefs, religion and gender.
10. I always find Holocaust stories hard. I wouldn’t say they are good books – always well written, but horrific. It’s hard to recommend something where you know the ending of many people, but the middle is different, but always awful. Why should I recommend someone reading this book?
Life is not always about rainbows and flowers. In order to appreciate the good in life, you sometimes have to experience the bad. You need both, in order to find a balance, and truly appreciate what you have.
To quote the very wise Elie Weisel, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” To pretend that this disturbing period in our history did not exist, instead of learning from it, would mean that 11 million people died in vain. If no lessons are learned from the Holocaust, then history is doomed to be repeated. Ignoring the stories, the facts, does not make the evil disappear. It allows those whose goal it is take control and spread hate and terror succeed.
I sign every book with my name and the words, “Never Forget.” It’s important for all of us to educate ourselves, and others for humanity to survive.
11. Anything else you would like to say?
As a second-generation survivor, I am all too aware that we are a unique link to the past and the future. Very soon there will be no one left to directly tell these harrowing stories of survival. By writing Hidden Gold, I am passing on this remarkable story, in the hope of teaching and influencing for the better, the next generations.
I remember when I finished writing Hidden Gold, there was a sense of peace and calm that came over me. I felt like one of those people who carry the Olympic torch.
“Hidden Gold” is my metaphoric torch to pass on to the next runner, with the hope that they learn from history and keep the flame going and moving.
Other Holocaust books
Mister Doctor, Janusz Korczak and the orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto
Annick Press, http://www.annickpress.com
An unforgettable story of courage, imagination and love for life, based on the true story of Janusz Korczak and his
Editor’s Note: It is an unforgettable story. Like all Holocaust stories, can one say it’s a beautiful story? It’s not. It’s tragic and awful and horrific. But it does show courage and bravery. And it has stuck with me all this time.
The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, Knud Pedersen and The Churchill Club
Farrar Straus Giroux, macteenbooks.com
At the outset for the Second World War, Denmark did not resist German occupation. Deeply ashamed of his nation’s leaders, 15-year-old Knud Pedersen resolved with his brothers and a handful of schoolmates to take action against the Nazis if the adults would not. Naming their secret club after the British leader, the boys committed countless acts of sabotage, infuriating the Germans who eventually arrested the boys. The boys exploits were not in vain, eventually sparking a full-blown Danish resistance in the latter years of the war. Interweaving his own narrative with the recollection of Pedersen himself, Phillip House captures the story of these young war heroes.
Editor’ Note: I wonder if JK Rowling’s Dumbledore Army was based on the Churchill Club, which is what I thought the moment I started this book. People’s bravery and desire to do what is right, impresses me. I often wonder if I would have the same courage. It was an interesting read, but more of a memoir than a story. Lots of pictures and drawings by Pedersen. I read it. I wouldn’t read it again, but I would recommend people should pick it up. What an amazing story from a bunch of very brave young people. It was also interesting to read their brief follow-up story. Amazing.
Witness Passing The Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations
Compiled by Eli Rubenstein with March of the Living
Second Story Press, http://secondstorypress.ca
Holocaust Survivors are aging. Once they are no longer able to, who will tell their stories?
For more than 25 years the March of the Living has brought together survivors and students from all over the world to ensure that first-hand accounts of the Holocaust are not lost. During their visits to Poland, where millions of innocent people were enslaved and murdered by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, survivors, those who helped them, and liberators all share their memories with young people.
As they walk through concentration camps, ghettos, and towns depleted of Jewish communities, a special bond forms as the original witnesses to the Holocaust pass their mantle to a new generation whose task it is to remember what they hear and see. Moving photographs and firsthand accounts show us the remarkable passing of the torch to the young of many faiths and cultures who become the new witnesses, carrying the torch toward a future of peace. Based on an acclaimed exhibit of photographs launched at the United Nations.
Editor’s Note: People often wonder why I read Holocaust stories and I never really knew why. It’s not like they are good books – they are well written, but the stories contained within them are always horrifying and heartbreaking and they stay with me long after I close them. They also make me wonder if, at the time, I would have been one of the ones who did nothing or risk my own life – or my families – for strangers. I would like to think I would be the later.
I certainly don’t think would believe the propaganda. I still don’t understand it. This book came to me and I stopped to read it from cover to cover. And I cried right along with survivors who say the finally are telling their stories so that we, the next generation, will remember and hopefully learn from our mistakes, ensuring something like the Holocaust never happens again. We can only hope. As noted in the introduction, not one word in this book is filled with hate – sadness, but not hate – not from survivors or the young people and adults who participate in the March of the Living. This book is interactive. When you see the blue flame icon, you can scan it to unlock exclusive stories for Holocaust survivors.
DK World War II, Visual Encyclopedia
DK Books, http://www.dk.com/ca/
With more than 200 individual entries of specially commissioned CGI images, War World II: Visual Encyclopedia covers the key players including Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Charles de Gaulle; major events such as the invasion of Poland, Battle of Britain and Pearl Harbor; plus the weapons and machinery used such as Gato-class submarines, V1 Rockets and the atomic bomb, all with age-appropriate text and images. With key information available at a glance and data boxes to dip into, plus facts and stats to compare, kids can discover the most cunning strategists, the longest battles, the fastest fighter planes, and more in this new addition to DK’s award-winning Visual Encyclopedia format.
Editor’s Note: Unlike the Smithsonian books (see below), this book as basic information about each person, event and so on along with fast facts, highlighted information about various pictures presented and more. Lots of information, and interesting information, but in easily digested pieces.
DK Eyewitness World War 1
DK Books, http://www.dk.com/ca/
Updated and revised to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, Eyewitness World War I takes an in-depth look at the battles fought, the weapons used, and the lives lost. From the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, to life in the trenches, and Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points to the Treaty of Versailles, Eyewitness: World War I highlights the highs and lows of this four year battle in a format appropriate for readers from eight to 12 years of age.
DK Eyewitness World War 11
Discover the war that shaped the modern world in Eyewitness: World War II. From the pre-war rise of Nazi Germany to the start of the war with the invasion of Poland in 1939 to Japan singing the surrender agreement in 1945, all aspects of the deadliest conflict in human history are covered in great detail with content that is accessible and appropriate for young readers.
Editor’s Note: I really like Eyewitness books. They are like an encyclopedia, where you sit down for a moment to flip through the pages and you surface hours later because you have been pulled in by the quick hits of information, great photos with information. The Eyewitness books also focuses on more personal parts of the war such as, in the Second World War, you learn about a wartime childhood including a Mickey Mouse masks that made putting on a a gas mask more fun for British toddlers or the Evacuee card game, which was perfect for spending long nights in air-raid shelters. My heart is sad.
Smithsonian World War 1, The Definitive Visual History
DK Books, http://www.dk.com/ca/
Written by historian R. G. Grant and created by DK’s award-winning editorial and design team, the First World War charts the developments of the war from a global perspective. Using illustrated timelines, detailed maps, and personal accounts, readers will see the oft-studied war in a new light. Key episodes are set clearly in the wider context of the conflict, in-depth profiles look at the key generals and political leaders, and full-color photo galleries showcase the weapons, inventions, and new technologies that altered the course of history.
Editor’s Note: From The Troubled Continent (1870 to 1914) to the Aftermath (1919 to 1923) this book provides those who need a brush-up with history information, photos and quick tidbits of information in various categories including events, people, eyewitnesses, weapons and technology, key moments and connections. An amazing book.
Smithsonian World War II, 70th edition
DK Books, http://www.dk.com/ca/
World War II: The Definitive Visual History is a comprehensive, authoritative, yet accessible guide to the people, politics, events, and lasting effects of the Second World War.
Perhaps the most complex, frightening, and destructive event in global history, the Second World War saw the heights of human courage and the depth of human degradation. The Second World War presents a complete overview of the war, including the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, fascism, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and the D-Day landings. This book also looks at the enduring effects of Second World War during succeeding decades.
Editor’s Note: My knowledge about the Second World War is limited, but this book will certainly help that. Starting with the Seeds of War (1914 to 1938) to the aftermath (1946 to 1950), this book offers so much information about all aspects of the war. As with all DK books, each chapter offers the main piece of information about the chapter, a look at before and after, multiple photos and information snippets. There are timelines and information such as personal gear, medals, riffles and more.
The Tortoise and the Soldier, A Story of Courage and Friendship in World War I
Henry Holt and Company, mackids.com
As a boy, Henry Friston dreamed of travelling the world. He thought he was signing up for a lifetime of adventure when he joined the Royal Navy. But when the First World War begins, it launches the world, and Henry, into turmoil. While facing enemy fire at Gallipoli, Henry discovers the strength he needs to survive in an unexpected source: a tortoise. And so begins the friendship of a lifetime. Based on true events, and with charming illustrations, this story of war, courage, and friendship will win the hearts of readers.
Editor’s Note: What a great book. You learn about some pieces of the First World War, you understand the fear and the courage of those soldiers – both on our side and the enemy side – but mainly it’s a story about friendship. I will read this one to my seven year old.
Other war books
A Year of Borrowed Men
Pajama Press, http://www.pajamapress.ca
When the Second World War “borrows” the men in seven-year-old Gerda’s family, the German government sends them three new men in return: Gabriel, Fermaine and Albert, French prisoners of war who must sleep in an outbuilding and work the farm until the war is over. Gerda knows they are supposed to treat the men as enemies, but it doesn’t seem fair. Can’t they invite them into the warm house for one meal? What harm could it do to be friendly? Writing from her mother’s childhood memories of Germany during the Second World War, Michelle Barker shares the story of one family’s daring kindness in a time of widespread anger and suspicion. Renné Benoit’s illustrations bring warmth to the era, showing the small ways in which a forbidden friendship bloomed: good food, a much-loved doll, a secret Christmas tree. Family photographs and an author’s note give further insight into the life of Gerda, the little girl who proved that it isn’t so far from Feinde (enemies) to Freunde (friends).
Sharon E. McKay
Annick Press, http://www.annickpress.com/Prison-Boy
In an unnamed country, when little Kai is brought to the orphanage run by Bell, a fearsome Englishwoman whose dedication to her charges is unflinching, an older child, Pax, immediately takes him under his wing. It soon becomes apparent that Kai is a brilliant child, and given the right circumstances, could go on to achieve great things.
Penniless and living amidst political strife and constant uncertainty, the children are nonetheless taken care of and protected—until Bell dies and they are left on their own. Pax is determined to keep Kai safe, and to make sure he gets the education he deserves. But life on the streets is tough – and dangerous.
In a desperate attempt to make enough money to keep Kai in school, Pax agrees to work for a shady character known only as Mister. Mister sends Pax on a “special” mission – carry a very heavy box to a pre-arranged location, and wait. At the very last minute, Pax realizes the box contains a bomb, which explodes, killing and maiming hundreds of people.
Pax and Kai escape the deadly explosion, only to be arrested soon after and charged with terrorism. What follows is a descent into the hellish prison where brutal guards stop at nothing to make Pax talk.
Pajama Press, http://www.pajamapress.ca
Seventeen-year-old Erich is a prisoner of war working at a northern Alberta logging camp. Twelve-year-old Max goes to school – reluctantly – in the nearby town. The two would be unlikely friends, except that neither has anyone else to turn to. At the height of the Second World War, nobody wants to befriend a German. It doesn’t matter that Erich was forced into the military by his father, or that Max was proudly born in Canada. They are both easy targets for the locals’ grief and anger against the Nazis. The other prisoners are no more welcoming, distrustful of Erich’s perfect English and his dislike for Nazism. Still, when a series of accidents shake the logging camp, they pressure Erich to question the Canadians and find the saboteur – even if his questions get him into trouble. Caught between angry prisoners and suspicious captors, Erich is afraid to take any action at all. It is only when Max’s schoolyard tormentors cross a dangerous line that Erich realizes his real loyalties lie not with a regime or a country, but with his friend.
This column was first published at insidetoronto.com