The Plot To Kill Hitler – by Patricia McCormick (2016)

The Plot To Kill Hitler

As I was browsing through a Scholastic flier last month, I came across this book. It’s a biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor-turned-conspirator during World War II. At a time when many just went with the tide, Bonhoeffer had the courage to say the dictator was wrong. In addition, he tried to rally others to take a stand, and eventually was willing to be part of a plot to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer did what he could to help save the lives of Jewish people and others who were being targeted. Why did he get involved, when he could have had a quiet, comfortable life in safety? This excerpt from the book gives the answer:

Dietrich had seen the effects of “separate but equal” in the United States, and even though he was just a junior lecturer at Berlin University, he knew he had to speak out. The rest of the country might have fallen under Hitler’s spell, but Bonhoeffer thought that the clergy, men who had taken solemn vows to love and care for their fellow man, would take a stand against such blatant injustice. This, after all, was why he had become a minister, as he’d told his brothers back when he was thirteen – not to retreat from the issues of the day but to affect them…

The church, he said, has an obligation to “assist the victims” of government wrongdoing – “even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” He didn’t say so, but everyone knew he was talking about the Jews. At that, some of the ministers in the meeting got up and walked out.

But Bonhoeffer had more to say. It was not enough to simply “bandage the victims under the wheel” of the government, he said. The church had a duty to jam a stick in the wheel itself. He was calling on his fellow pastors to stop Hitler in his tracks.

(pages 56-57)

This was an excellent summary of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is also a good book to introduce kids to the resistance movement during World War II, as it is not terribly graphic. I would highly recommend this book to anyone ages 10 and up.

 

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The Zookeeper’s Wife – by Diane Ackerman (2007)

The Zookeeper's Wife

She was a homemaker. A mother. The zookeeper’s wife. In 1939, Antonina Zabinski was enjoying a happy life with her husband Jan, who was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and their young son Rys. Together they cared for an array of animals, including baby lynxes, lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, monkeys, a cat, a badger, and a hamster. Antonina’s greatest joy was to spend time studying and understanding them, reading their behavior and body language, and learning their techniques for keeping their babies safe.

When Poland was overrun by the Nazi army in 1939, the zoo was damaged by bombs and gunfire. But Jan and Antonina stayed at their villa in the zoo as long as they were able, and became a part of the Polish underground. Jan kept on friendly terms with some of the Germans, knowing that they valued prized animal specimans such as they had in their zoo. When the Jewish citizens were confined to the ghetto area of town, Jan was able to smuggle food and fake ID papers in to them.

Antonina’s role was to keep the appearance of normalcy at the zoo, and make anyone who was spotted there appear to be a staff person or visiting relative. Over the course of the war, about 300 Jews were hidden in the zoo park until they were able to be smuggled out of the country. Whenever Nazi soldiers would come to the door, they were totally disarmed by her calm, nonchalant demeanor. She showed no fear, a skill she learned from the animals.

So it was that the Warsaw Zoo, imperfect and damaged as it was, became a sort of ark. Like the ark that was written of in the Bible, the zoo-grounds became a place of refuge for both humans and animals, a place where they lived side by side, waiting for the flood of war to go away. After World War II ended, Jan and Antonina were included in the Jewish list of “The Righteous Among The Nations”.

I listened to this book in audio form, and thought the narrator – Suzanne Toren – was fantastic. When she was reading a word-for-word quote from Antonina, she effortlessly broke into a strong Polish accent. There were many lengthy descriptive parts in the book, especially describing animal behavior and scenery. Some people may find this tedious, but once I became accustomed to it, it was enjoyable. This is not a book to rush through, but to savor.

Antonina Zabinski

A picture of Antonina Zabinski from:
http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/zabinski_gallery.asp

All The Light We Cannot See – by Anthony Doerr (2014)

All The Light We Cannot See

I waited a long time to get a copy of this novel at my local library. It seemed that everyone and his brother was trying to read it. After all, it had been on the New York Times best-sellers list for over a year, and had won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Fiction.

The story spans from 1934 to 1974, following the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure from childhood to adulthood. Marie-Laure is the only child of a widowed master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She becomes blind at a young age, and her father builds her a model of their French village so that she can “see” it with her fingers. She learns to maneuver around town because she has memorized everything from the model.

Werner is a poor German boy being raised, along with his sister, in a charity house. He has a brilliant mind, and teaches himself all about radio technology. At 16 he is forced to join the Hitler Youth. When his superiors find out how great he is at understanding and repairing radios, they put him in a special unit that seeks out and confiscates them. It is supposed to be an honor to be in this special division, but he and his bunk-mate Frederick dislike the increasing brutality they see. There seems to be no way to get out; they are reluctant participants in a war neither one of them wants to be in.

The book oscillates back and forth from Marie-Laure to Werner, and back again. Each one has a part to play in the war, but they are on opposite sides. They are enemies, yet when they finally meet (more than 400 pages into the book) they are not enemies.

“All The Light We Cannot See” is a well-written story with a minimal amount of wartime horror spelled out. Still, it conveys the fear and uncertainty and darkness that most people felt during that time in history. Even those who survived physically carried the emotional scars the rest of their lives.

 
Excerpt #1:

(Part of a conversation when Werner and Frederick are on leave from training camp)

“Do you ever wish,” whispers Werner, “that you didn’t have to go back?”

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”

 
Excerpt #2:

It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled. Marie-Laure still cannot wear shoes that are too large, or smell a boiled turnip, without experiencing revulsion. Neither can she listen to lists of names. Soccer team rosters, citations at the end of journals, introductions at faculty meetings – always they seem to her some vestige of the prison lists that never contained her father’s name.