Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The War Within These Walls

The War Within These Walls was written by Aline Sax and illustrated by Caryl Strzelecki.  It was translated by Laura Watkinson. In  2011, it was published by Eerdans Books for Young Readers.

The War Within These Walls is one of the most captivating, yet sad stories I have ever read.  I read through it twice to ensure I got everything I could out of it, as the first time through I was in such shock and full of emotion. I've read the history on WWII and the years leading up to it, but I've never read something that made me feel so angry and so outraged for the people who suffered through it as The War Within These Walls did.

This award winning book (2014 Batchelder Honor book, 2013 National Jewish Book Award for Children and Young Adults) follows the story of Misha, a young boy who is forced into the Jewish ghetto with thousands of other people.  "Possessions, houses, women were requisitioned.  I had to wear an armband, too.  I was no longer allowed to go out with my friends. I was not permitted to sit with them on a bench or to play soccer in the park.  I had never felt so Jewish before." This quote reminded me of Max from The Book Thief when he stated that he was now German -- but he had always been German.

Sax's description and Strzelecki's illustrations depict the horror Misha and the others must endure daily.  When they first arrived in the Warsaw ghetto, there was food and jobs for most people.  As time went on and people from all over the country were also brought there, food ran out quickly.  With everyone just trying to survive, they would trade off their belongings for minuscule amounts of food.  Finally, there was just no food left. "It was astonishing how quickly you got used to the smell of starvation and the sight of naked corpses."  This is when Misha rebelled for the first time.  He found a way out of the ghetto, through the sewers.  He was able to make it to a bakery and would bring food back for his family nightly. That is, until, the German soldiers caught on.  They vowed to kill anyone they found smuggling food into the ghetto. "People who slipped through the gates were shot.  Children who crawled through holes in the walls were beaten to death. Every day more corpses dangled from the lampposts.  With signs around their necks. Schmuggler -- Smuggler." This quote made me feel so sad for humanity.  I cannot understand how anyone would not just stand around and watch them be tortured by hunger, but kill them for trying to survive that hunger.  It was after this that Misha no longer had the courage to get more food. 

After another year, the people of the Warsaw ghetto had another fear. The signs explaining that they are to be resettled began to show up.  Misha's family was able to stay because his father was a doctor at the hospital and part of the Jewish Council.  This was when Misha realized something even worse happened when you left.  He saw thousands of people leaving, and none of them ever returned.  He heard the rumors of the death camps and couldn't believe resettlement was a positive thing, as many of the other people did.

It was in this time that he met Mordechai Anielewicz. Anielewicz was a real man and according to the notes Sax wrote at the end of the book, "Anielewicz was only 23 years old when he took command of Jewish resistance forces in the Warsaw ghetto.  Under his leadership, fighters made their first stand against the Nazis in January, 1943."  Aneilewicz had lead Misha and hundreds of others in their rebellion.  He knew they would most likely not make it out, but felt as though they should as least die an honorable death.  They fought for over a month, but in the end, the ghetto was destroyed.  Almost everyone in it had been killed. In The War Within These Walls, only Misha and one other woman survived.  They escaped the ghetto to tell the story of the cruelty to the word.

Sax's honest description of the horrific deeds done by the German Nazis made this book what it was.  There was scene after scene that made me tear up, but the most memorable for me was the following:

"A German soldier raced back into my field of vision. He gestured at the woman.  Her eyes staring down at her feet, she handed him a piece of paper. The soldier didn't read it.  He threw it on the ground and spat on it.  The woman kneeled, but didn't dare to pick up the paper. Then everything happened so quickly.  The soldier kicked over the baby carriage. A bundle of blankets fell onto the ground and started to wail.  The woman reached for the baby. The soldier grabbed the child by one leg. The child shrieked. The mother screamed. The soldier slammed the child against the wall. I closed my eyes. But I couldn't close my ears. The woman's scream was stopped by a shot.  Somewhere in the distance I heard a truck start up again and drive on."

As in all good historical fiction, this book makes you feel for the human element. It goes beyond the facts of the time and pulls at your heart and makes you angry.  This book would hook students learning about WWII.  It would make them want to learn more about what happened and why. How could it not? It is from the view of a teenage boy. A teenage boy that could have been any one of them, had they been born in a different time. 

You can find additional information on the Warsaw ghetto uprising by visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

To watch the trailer for this book, click here.

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