Three young friends lark about in Vienna, riding on a Ferris wheel. All seems perfect at the start of When the World was Ours, Liz Kessler’s new novel about the Holocaust: Max, Leo and Elsa will be together forever. Soon, however, things begin to change as war is rumoured and then engulfs them all.
The first sign of trouble is when Leo Grunberg’s father, a gregarious, handsome photographer, is forced to scrub the streets on his knees, his erstwhile friends mocking him. Sensing danger, he begs his family to flee; the scene in which Leo and his mother are stripped by Nazi guards at a railway station while their train to freedom awaits them on a different platform bristles with tension. Herr Grunberg must remain behind. Leo is, in a sense, the lucky one, as he reaches Britain, where he is amazed to discover that his Jewishness is not a problem.
It is much worse for Elsa, who gets sent first to the Prague ghetto and ends up in Auschwitz. Kessler is unsparing in describing privations and degradations – families being shoved at gunpoint into cattle trucks, near-starved, tortured and shot – and yet she handles it all in a way that her young audience will be able to comprehend, giving attention to the small things: the sparkly shoes that will never be worn to parties, the emaciated cat that comes to Elsa for comfort. Elsa’s resilience in the face of unspeakable horror is remarkable.
Kessler also explores the Hitler Youth, as Max, desperate to impress his father, becomes a star in the movement, longing to help with ‘the real work’. His unease at what he witnesses is quashed by his desire to be part of something great. It is only towards the end, when he realises the true extent of the crimes at the camps, that he has a moment of redemption. But it does not last long. The book ends with both tragedy and a sliver of hope. Readers of eleven and up will learn much about the Holocaust from this intelligent and passionate novel.
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The testimony of an actual Holocaust survivor appears in Keren David’s uncompromising new novel, What We’re Scared Of. Mala Tribich, a Polish Jew, was separated from her mother and eight-year-old sister when she was a child. They were shot and buried in a mass grave near Rakow Forest. Tribich was transported to Bergen-Belsen, where she managed to survive until the camp was liberated.
Tribich’s testimony is used here at a school event about the Holocaust. David was moved to write this novel in response to a concerning rise in anti-Semitism. An accomplished novelist and journalist for the Jewish Chronicle, she is on fine form as she follows the paths of twin sisters in modern-day London. Lottie is gawky and funny and not really interested in her family background; Evie is the clever one, and it’s she who starts to investigate her family’s Jewish heritage.
Their mother, a radio host, begins to receive anti-Semitic threats online, and the abuse soon spills over into real, brutal violence. David is excellent on casual anti-Semitism: the conspiracy theories about ‘world powers’; the offhand remarks. It’s devastating that this vital book needed to be written at all. Those of twelve and up will enjoy its fast pace and quick wit, while its handling of the subject matter is both sensitive and gripping.
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In a much more light-hearted vein, Francesca Simon’s new book, Two Terrible Vikings, delights in overturning social mores, much like her bestselling Horrid Henry series. Elsa Gold-Hair (the worst Viking in the village – she was once caught sharing) is having a party and demonic young Vikings Whack and Hack haven’t been invited. Chaos ensues. There is much revelry and raucousness; repeated phrases add a rhythm to the whole. Simon has a well-tuned ear for child-friendly jokes and the Viking children convincingly boast and brag with glee. Fortunately, the miscreants never learn any moral lesson and end the book as mischievously destructive as they began it. With hints of A A Milne and Cressida Cowell, this book will be immensely appealing to children of five and up.