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YA Nonfiction: Two Holocaust Memoirs

Posted by Sherry on 10/15/2013 in 1944, 1945, Czech Republic, General, Nonfiction, Poland, World War II |

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the impossible became possible . . . on Schindler’s list by Leon Leyson with Marilyn J. Harran and Elisabeth Leyson.

Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel.

Both of these accounts, written by Jewish Holocaust survivors about their teen years in Nazi-occupied territory, were quite absorbing and harrowing, each in its own way. Mr. Leyson’s book has a two-fold purpose as evidenced by the dedication: “To my brothers, Tsalig and Herschel, and to all the sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, parents and grandparents who perished in the Holocaust. And to Oskar Schindler, whose noble actions did indeed save a ‘world entire.'” There has been some controversy over whether the hero of the movie Schindler’s List was really a an unequivocal hero since he was something of a contradiction, a womanizing Nazi businessman who nevertheless saved the lives of perhaps more than one thousand Jewish workers who were slated for extermination by the Germans. Leon Leyson has no doubts about the heroism of Oskar Schlindler since Leon was one of those workers who was on Schlindler’s famous “list”. The memoir begins with Leib Lejzon, now known as Leon Leyson, living in the rural village of Narewka in northeastern Poland. Leon says that when he was a boy “[l]ife seemed an endless, carefree journey.” First, Leon’s father moved to the city of Krakow to work, and then in 1938 when Leon was eight years old, his father sent for the family to join him in Krakow. In 1939 the Leysons’ idyllic and upwardly mobile life came to an abrupt halt when the Germans invaded Poland.

The Boy on the Wooden Box is an excellent story for young adult readers about the Holocaust and about the survivors, particularly the work of Oskar Schlindler in saving many of the Jews who worked for him. Leon Leyson’s mantra for survival could be useful to anyone who is going through suffering and hard times, even if they never have to survive something as horrendous as the Holocaust:

“a new phrase surfaced: ‘If this is the worst that happens.’ My father and mother also adopted this saying as a tool of survival, perhaps as a way of keeping darker thoughts at bay. . . . Whenever a German was near, we whispered to ourselves, ‘If this is the worst . . .'”

Helga’s Diary is the story of the Czech/Jewish Helga Weiss’s childhood spent in the concentration camp of Terezin, and then later at Auschwitz. The Terezin portion of the diary was written at the time of the events and edited later for clarity by the author. Helga’s uncle hid the diary for her at Terezin when Helga and her mother were sent on a transport to Auschwitz. Then, after the war, Helga retrieved the diary and added the details of events that happened to her and her mother at Auschwitz and on their final journey through Poland and Czechoslovakia on a “death train” as the war was drawing to a close.

Helga’s childlike confusion over what was happening to her family and to the rest of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, and then her growing understanding and horror, lend her story an immediacy that pulls the reader into the story in a way that Mr. Leyson’s story is unable to do, written as it was long after the events took place. At the same time there are questions left unanswered in Helga’s account, as there must be in any child’s view of the war. An interview with Helga Weiss in the back of the book brings her story up to date and answered a few of those questions. Other uncertainties in the story simply must be left open since we are reading the story from young Helga’s point of view.

Finally I leave you with Helga Weiss’s words on why her book (and by extension Leon Leyson’s book, too) is important and should be read:

Why should we read another account of the Holocaust?

Mostly because it is truthful. I’ve put my own sentiments into it as well, but those sentiments themselves are emotional, moving, and most of all, truthful. And maybe because it’s narrated in that half-childish way, it’s accessible and expressive, and I think it will help people to understand those times.

The Boy on the Wooden Box has been nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Young Adult Nonfiction. Helga’s Diary, although eligible in the same category, has not yet been nominated. The thoughts in this review are my own and do not reflect the thoughts or evaluations of the Cybils panel or of any other Cybils judge.

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