Tag: holocaust


Module 13: Maus by Art Spiegelman

December 2nd, 2012 — 10:08pm

Maus is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. He tells his father’s story of his experiences during the Holocaust through animals — the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats. Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

SUMMARY

The novel begins with a flashback from Art’s childhood in Rego Park, NY, where Art and his friends are rollerskating. Art falls down and his friends all leave him. When Art goes back to his father, crying that his friends left him, his father replies ominously, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”

The narration then cuts to 1978, where Art is interviewing his father about his experiences in the Holocaust for a book that he’s always wanted to write. The story includes both Art’s visits with his father, exploring the strained relationships between Art and his father, Vladek, and Vladek and his second wife, Mala, whom he married when Art’s mother, Anja, committed suicide in 1968, and Vladek’s memories of his life in Poland in the 1930s and 1940s. The book begins with Vladek courting Anja and marrying into her wealthy family and ends with he and Anja arriving at Auschwitz (a second volume, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, tells of their time in the barracks of Auschwitz to the bungalows of the Catskills).

Vladek and Anja married and had a baby, Richieu, but Anja, who has always been an “emotional” sort, has an emotional breakdown (what we would today probably recognize as postpartum depression) and she and Vladek go to a sanitarium until Anja is better. When they come back to their town, they discover that the Nazis have taken over. Vladek is drafted into the Polish Army and is sent off to fight the Nazis, but is taken as a prisoner of war.

When he is released from POW camp, he has to sneak across the German controlled land to reunite with his family. The city has been turned into a ghetto, and in 1943, they’re taken to a work camp. Vladek and Anja send Richieu off with Anja’s aunt when the Nazis begin rounding up and transporting Jews, hoping that he will be safe with her; however, they find out after the war that when Anja’s aunt was in danger of being taken by the Gestapo, she poisoned her three children, Richieu, and herself, killing themselves before the Gestapo could take them to an extermination camp to die.

Vladek and Anja manage to escape the ghetto and avoid the Gestapo, hiding with random Polish friends that they bribe with the last of their money and jewels for safekeeping. They arrange with smugglers to be taken to Hungary but are betrayed by the smugglers — they sell them out to the Gestapo, and Vladek and Anja are taken to Auschwitz. Vladek mentions that Anja kept diaries while in Auschwitz and that these are the only accounts of her experiences in Auschwitz, but when Art asks to see them, reveals that he destroyed them after her suicide. Art is furious, and the book ends with Art calling Vladek a “murderer” as he walks away.

IMPRESSIONS

The book is horrifying. The anthropomorphized characters do nothing to make the tale of the Holocaust less severe and heartbreaking. It’s always difficult to read about the brutalities that people inflict on each other and this is no different.

The narration, with the side by side stories of “present day” Art and Vladek that melt into Vladek’s memories, is very effective. I was never confused about that was going on and it made the storytelling aspect make sense, especially as told in Vladek’s broken English.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Told with chilling realism in an unusual comic-book format, this is more than a tale of surviving the Holocaust. Spiegelman relates the effect of those events on the survivors’ later years and upon the lives of the following generation. Each scene opens at the elder Spiegelman’s home in Rego Park, N.Y. Art, who was born after the war, is visiting his father, Vladek, to record his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Nazis, portrayed as cats, gradually introduce increasingly repressive measures, until the Jews, drawn as mice, are systematically hunted and herded toward the Final Solution. Vladek saves himself and his wife by a combination of luck and wits, all the time enduring the torment of hunted outcast. The other theme of this book is Art’s troubled adjustment to life as he, too, bears the burden of his parents’ experiences. This is a complex book. It relates events which young adults, as the future architects of society, must confront, and their interest is sure to be caught by the skillful graphics and suspenseful unfolding of the story.
School Library Journal

“Maus” represents Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Americans as dogs, Poles as pigs and the French as frogs. Mice and cats summon up the sort of conflicting associations that help to give the comic strip its metaphorical weight. Mice can be either adorable, like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, or the vermin to which the Nazis likened Jews. By exposing his characters to a range of interpretations, Mr. Spiegelman rejects precisely the caricatures that are supposedly a drawback of the comic-strip form.

His imagery is inextricably bound up with his text. But it is the text that ultimately propels “Maus” and sticks in the mind. If in several of the sketches the artist approximates German Expressionism, in the finished scenes he almost entirely avoids such obvious devices, opting for a simplified style remarkable for being so unremarkable. As much as possible, both visually and linguistically, Mr. Spiegelman allows the painful facts of Vladek’s life to speak for themselves, with a minimum of melodrama and sentimentality. It is not meant to take away from the undeniable power and seriousness of “Maus” as literature and history to say that Mr. Spiegelman’s manner of drawing is the least memorable aspect of his achievement.
New York Times

LIBRARY USES

This would be a great addition to either a Holocaust display or to a graphic novel collection. It would also be a good addition to a school library for teachers to access to showcase how memoirs can take different forms.

REFERENCES

Keeler, R. G. (1987, May). Maus. School Library Journal, 33(9), 124. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/5795317/maus-book-review

Kimmelman, M. (1991, December 27). Examining how ‘maus’ evolved. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/27/arts/review-art-examining-how-maus-evolved.html

Spiegelman, A. (1986). Maus. New York, NY: Pantheon.

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Module 11: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

November 14th, 2012 — 10:48am

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow is an informative book by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. In it, she has researched the Hitler Youth and details the lives of several teenagers growing up in Nazi Germany.

SUMMARY

The book follows the timeline of the formation of the Hitler Youth, starting with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and ending with the aftermath of World War II and the unification of East and West Germany as a democratic state in 1990. Within the information, the author uses the examples of several members of the Hitler Youth. Membership in the Hitler Youth (called Hitlerjugend for boys and Bund Deutscher Madel for girls) was compulsory for the young people of Germany. Many of the youth believed that what they were doing was for the betterment of Germany because that was what they had been taught and told for years. However, some teenagers disagreed with what was required of them and what Hitler was doing and put up active resistance, printing and distributing pamphlets telling about Hitler’s lies and the true work of the Nazis and the concentration camps. The author used both diaries and personal interviews to share the experiences of the variety of young people in Germany in the 1940s.

The book focuses solely on the events of WWII as it pertains to the Hitler Youth. It paints a grisly portrait of youth taken advantage of by their government and their leader. Hitler said about his Youth, “I begin with the young…We older ones are used up…But my magnificent youngsters! Are there finer ones anywhere in the world? Look at all these men and boys! What material! With them I can make a new world.”

IMPRESSIONS

The Hitler Youth was a topic that I’d never explored; I’m pretty sure I only knew they existed from watching Swing Kids. But this book was fascinating. I saw parallels between then and now — I’ve often wondered how young people in our society can be closed-minded and prejudiced, and this book showed that children are especially susceptible to propaganda and the direction and influence of adults. I say adults and not their parents because in a few instances, the youth were so entranced with Hitler that they turned in their parents to the Nazis for saying “unpatriotic” or disparaging things about Hitler or the Nazi Party. It was very 1984, where adults feared their children.

The inclusion of the interviews and personal anecdotes made the book read more like a narration and less like a textbook. It was very well put together, though at times I lost track of the timeline of the events and what was happening elsewhere in the world. The chronology was loose in the book, but it didn’t keep the information from being effective. There was also a plethora of pictures — pretty much one or two on every page — which also distracted from the chronology of the story.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Hitler’s plans for the future of Germany relied significantly on its young people, and this excellent history shows how he attempted to carry out his mission with the establishment of the Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, in 1926. With a focus on the years between 1933 and the end of the war in 1945, Bartoletti explains the roles that millions of boys and girls unwittingly played in the horrors of the Third Reich. The book is structured around 12 young individuals and their experiences, which clearly demonstrate how they were victims of leaders who took advantage of their innocence and enthusiasm for evil means. Their stories evolve from patriotic devotion to Hitler and zeal to join, to doubt, confusion, and disillusion. (An epilogue adds a powerful what-became-of-them relevance.) The large period photographs are a primary component and they include Nazi propaganda showing happy and healthy teens as well as the reality of concentration camps and young people with large guns. The final chapter superbly summarizes the weighty significance of this part of the 20th century and challenges young readers to prevent history from repeating itself. Bartoletti lets many of the subjects’ words, emotions, and deeds speak for themselves, bringing them together clearly to tell this story unlike anyone else has.
School Library Journal

What was it like to be a teenager in Germany under Hitler? Bartoletti draws on oral histories, diaries, letters, and her own extensive interviews with Holocaust survivors, Hitler Youth, resisters, and bystanders to tell the history from the viewpoints of people who were there. Most of the accounts and photos bring close the experiences of those who followed Hitler and fought for the Nazis, revealing why they joined, how Hitler used them, what it was like. Henry Mentelmann, for example, talks about Kristallnacht, when Hitler Youth and Storm Troopers wrecked Jewish homes and stores, and remembers thinking that the victims deserved what they got. The stirring photos tell more of the story. One particularly moving picture shows young Germans undergoing de-Nazification by watching images of people in the camps. The handsome book design, with black-and-white historical photos on every double-page spread, will draw in readers and help spark deep discussion, which will extend beyond the Holocaust curriculum. The extensive back matter is a part of the gripping narrative.
Booklist

LIBRARY USES

This, like Between Shades of Gray, would be well used for Holcoaust Memorial Day. It would also be a good booktalk for middle school students. In a school library setting, this would be a good companion piece to a class reading The Diary of Anne Frank; reading excerpts from this book and showing the pictures would help pique interest in the era.

REFERENCES

Bartoletti, S. C. (2005). Hitler youth: Growing up in hitler’s shadow. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Medlar, A. (2005, May 30). Book of the week: Hitler youth by susan campbell bartoletti. School Library Journal, 176. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA604629.html

Rochman, H. (2005, April 15). Hitler youth: Growing up in hitler’s shadow. Booklist. Retrieved from http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=1180952&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

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Module 10: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

November 14th, 2012 — 8:15am

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is historical fiction about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic region during World War II. It is narrated by Lina, a 15 year old Lithuanian girl, as she and her family are deported to Siberia.

SUMMARY

The novel opens with men from the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, taking Lina, her mother, and her brother, Jonas, from their homes on June 14, 1941. Her father, provost at the university, has already been taken. They’re loaded on a truck with some of their neighbors and a few people they don’t recognize. They’re horrified that the next stop is at the hospital, as one of the people they are scheduled to take is a woman who is at that moment giving birth; they load her and her newborn baby into the truck as she’s bleeding onto her hospital gown.

Lina’s father, Kostas Vilkas, helped his brother and his family escape Lithuania to Germany, which put him on the black list as an accessory. Lina’s mother, Elena, speaks fluent Russian, which allows her to communicate with the NKVD. He is taken to a different camp from the rest of the family. They are stuffed into a train with even more prisoners, including the Andrius Arvydas and his mother, the son and wife of an officer in the Lithuanian army. The conditions in the train are horrible and they’re travelling through Europe for three weeks without stopping. On the train, the young woman’s baby dies and she is shot by an officer when she’s overcome by grief.

The train finally stops in Siberia, at a camp where they are assigned to live in shacks and work as beet and potato farmers. They stay there for a while, and Lina finds solace in her art. She has always been an artist and she’s particularly drawn to the work of Edward Munch. She decides to draw pictures of people and events so that she can send them to her father in hopes that he will find them.

While they’re at the camp, Andrius and his mother live in the officers house, where they are fed and treated better than the others. Lina is upset with this special treatment, but when she confronts Andrius about it, he reveals that his mother is prostituting herself to the officers to keep the officers from killing him. She’s horrified by this and distraught with his anger, which makes her realize that she’s falling in love with Andrius; when they reconcile, it’s shown that Andrius has similar feelings. He gives her a special stone to bring her luck and to remind her of him.

The NKVD tries to force the prisoners to sign papers saying that they are criminals and acknowledging that they’re being sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor and that they will pay a war tax of two hundred rubles per person, which most of them refuse to sign. Jonas becomes sick with scurvy from the lack of vegetables in his diet and almost dies until Andrius steals a can of tomatoes from the officers house. Soon after he heals, the prisoners hear that some of them will be transported to a different location. Some people are fools enough to think they’re being transported to America, but Lina knows better.

The prisoners, which now include prisoners from other camps, are taken farther north in Siberia. The NKVD take them to an empty field and tell them that they will have to build their own shelter, and quickly, as the arctic chill begins in September. They suffer through the cold temperatures and hypothermia. It is here that Lina discovers why they’ve been deported and that she is being punished because her beloved cousin and best friend, Joana, was able to escape — she is dying to allow Joana to live. It also here that a guard reveals to them that Lina’s father has been killed in prison. Lina’s mother takes sick and she dies in the shack.

Lina and Jonas are able to hide her body from the officers so they can bury her properly. The other prisoners help them, as a testament to how much they have become a family within themselves — they need each other to survive and Lina’s mother in particular was a unifying force due to her calm demeanor and peaceful spirit. Lina paints a map to her mother’s grave so that she will never forget where it is. Lina is determined to survive the camp and now cares for Jonas.

The other prisoners all take their turns with illness — scurvy, dysentery, typhus, hypothermia. They’re dying more and more every day. Jonas becomes very ill and just when Lina is afraid that he won’t be able to survive the night, an inspection officer, a doctor, appears at the shack. Dr. Samodurov is to inspect all of the prisons to report that everything is fine and the prisoners are being treated fairly, but he tells Lina that is not going to submit false reports. He spends ten days at the prison; he helps the prisoners store fish for the upcoming storms and plot a burial yard for the dead. The doctor tells her that it’s possible that her father hasn’t died; the guards have told prisoners before that people have died, only to be found living somewhere.

Lina is determined to live to reunite with Andrius. When they left each other, they promised that they would meet again, and when Lina closes her eyes, she can imagine that they are together as she holds the stone.

The novel ends with an epilogue from 1995 in Lithuania. A construction crew has discovered a wooden box int he ground that contains a glass jar full of papers. The papers contain drawings and a letter:

Dear Friend,

The writings and drawings you hold in your hands were buried in the year 1954, after returning from Siberia with my brother, where we were imprisoned for twelve years. There are many thousands of us, nearly all dead. Those alive cannot speak. Though we committed no offense, we are viewed as criminals. Even now, speaking of the terrors we have experienced would result in our death. So we put our trust in you, the person who discovers this capsule of memories somewhere in the future. We trust you with truth, for contained herein is exactly that — the truth.

My husband, Andrius, says that evil will rule until good men or women choose to act. I believe him. This testimony was written to create an absolute record, to speak in a world where our voices have been extinguished. These writings may shock or horrify you, but that is not my intention. It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Lina Arvydas
9th day of July, 1954 — Kaunas

IMPRESSIONS

This book was incredibly moving. This was a side of the Holocaust that I wasn’t very familiar with, but it was equally as horrifying — in fact, one of the characters in the book points out the similarities between Stalin and Hitler. The horrors that people can commit to others, blindly, without cause or reason, is stunning. I’ll never fail to be amazed by the deplorable ways that people treat others.

That being said, the story was effective for several reasons. Lina’s story is told through flashbacks to events in her family, adding a dimension to the story of her relationships and her life before they were taken. I enjoyed Andrius’s character because he had his own experience that added to the plot; it didn’t feel like he was added solely for a romantic element. There were so many descriptions of Lina drawing that I began to wish that there had been reproductions of drawings to add just one more realistic element to the story. The epilogue was great, because I was a little disappointed in the ending that left Lina in the camp, so knowing that they survived and she and Andrius married was cathartic.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Sepetys’ first novel offers a harrowing and horrifying account of the forcible relocation of countless Lithuanians in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country in 1939. In the case of 16-year-old Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, this means deportation to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where conditions are all too painfully similar to those of Nazi concentration camps. Lina’s great hope is that somehow her father, who has already been arrested by the Soviet secret police, might find and rescue them. A gifted artist, she begins secretly creating pictures that can-she hopes-be surreptitiously sent to him in his own prison camp. Whether or not this will be possible, it is her art that will be her salvation, helping her to retain her identity, her dignity, and her increasingly tenuous hold on hope for the future. Many others are not so fortunate. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, estimates that the Baltic States lost more than one-third of their populations during the Russian genocide. Though many continue to deny this happened, Sepetys’ beautifully written and deeply felt novel proves the reality is otherwise. Hers is an important book that deserves the widest possible readership.
Booklist

This bitterly sad, fluidly written historical novel tackles a topic woefully underdiscussed in English-language children’s fiction: Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. On June 14th, 1941, Soviet officers arrest 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother and her mother and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia. Their crammed-full boxcar is labeled, ludicrously, “Thieves and Prostitutes.” They work at a frigid gulag for eight months-hungry, filthy and brutalized by Soviet officers-before being taken to the Siberian Arctic and left without shelter. Lina doesn’t know the breadth of Stalin’s mass deportations of Baltic citizens, but she hears scraps of discussion about politics and World War II. Cold, starvation, exhaustion and disease (scurvy, dysentery, typhus) claim countless victims. Lina sketches urgently, passing her drawings along to other deportees, hoping they’ll reach Papa in a Soviet prison. Brief flashbacks, seamlessly interwoven, illuminate Lina’s sweet old life in Kaunas like flashes of light, eventually helping to reveal why the repressive, deadly regime targeted this family. Sepetys’ flowing prose gently carries readers through the crushing tragedy of this tale that needs telling.
Kirkus Reviews

LIBRARY USES

This book would be an excellent vehicle for a book talk. I would also recommend it be used in a display for Holocaust Memorial Day on May 8; it is important that the story of the genocide in the Soviet Union be told as well as the atrocities committed by Hitler.

REFERENCES

Between shades of gray. (2011). Kirkus Reviews, 79(2), 138.

Cart, M. (2011). Between shades of gray. Booklist, 107(11), 68. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/58626231/between-shades-gray

Sepetys, R. (2011). Between shades of gray. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

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Module 2: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

September 9th, 2012 — 6:41pm

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak is a children’s book published in 1970. As in Sendak’s previous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, the book follows a child through a dreamlike world and adventure. It won the Caldecott Honor medal in 1971.

SUMMARY

Mickey is a young child who is in bed and hears a commotion downstairs. When he stands on his bed to shout “quiet down there!” to the noisemakers, he falls out of bed, out of his clothes, past his sleeping parents, and into the night kitchen, where three chefs (who have Hitler mustaches) are baking a cake for the morning. Mickey falls into the cake batter, and the bakers pour the Mickey batter into the cake pan and put it in the oven. Mickey bursts out of the oven during the baking. He escapes the oven and falls into bread dough, which he forms into an airplane and flies to a giant bottle of milk for the bakers, who are freaking out about Mickey’s escape from the cake. Mickey pours out milk for the morning cake and the bakers are satisfied and continue to bake the cake. Mickey wakes up, “cakefree and dried,” in his bed and we learn “that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.”

IMPRESSIONS

The controversy of In the Night Kitchen lies in the appearance of Mickey’s naked body, which does not give him the Ken doll treatment at all, and the chefs appearing unconcerned about baking a young boy. In an interview with NPR in 1986, Sendak said about the nudity issue:

Well, we live in a very strange society. I mean, I was outraged when that book came out and there was a such a hullabaloo over his genitals.

I mean, I assumed everybody knew little boys had that and that this wasn’t a breakthrough. The fact that people considered that outrageous: incredible. I mean, you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you go to the Frick, you go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and there’s a Christ child with his penis. It’s accepted in fine art, but somehow in books for children there’s a taboo.

Well, the hell with that. I mean, I didn’t set out to cause a scandal. I set out to do a very particular work where he had to be naked in order to confront a particular dream he was in. You don’t go into a dream wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear or PJs. You go tutto. You go yourself, your being, and that’s why he was naked, and it was idiocy. It was incredible idiocy what went on over that book for many, many years about Mickey being naked.
Maurice Sendak, 1986

It was no coincidence that the chefs have Hitler-esque appearances. Sendak was Jewish and was deeply affected by the Holocaust; his parents were Polish immigrants and most of his extended family was killed in concentration camps. The oven and the bakers insistence in baking him are a reference to the Holocaust (Gross 2003).

The bakers of “In the Night Kitchen” baking a Mickey cake.

According to the American Library Association, In the Night Kitchen is one of the most frequently banned or challenged books due to Mickey’s nudity and the phallic suggestions of the milk bottle. Eyeroll.

At the end of the day, the book, like all of Sendak’s work, is full of vivid pictures and a fun story. Childhood can be scary and dangerous, but through Mickey’s ingenuity and leadership, he survives enough for cake in the morning. I really enjoyed the book and think that children would enjoy it as well. It’s fun!

And reading the book makes me want cake.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

This is Maurice Sendak’s comic strip apotheosis of the Thirties/ dusky dream of sensual bliss/ bim bam boom bombshell of a child-echoing picture book. Sometimes Mickey’s toss and turn from bed into the night kitchen and back keeps in time to internal rhyme, or sets up a rhythmic chant or a remembrance of things heard, or makes sport with words; while what’s doing in the kitchen is the concoction of a cake by three Oliver Hardy cooks who take Mickey for milk until “right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking Mickey poked through and said I’M NOT THE MILK AND THE MILK’S NOT ME! I’M MICKEY!” But wait: in his bread dough plane with his milk-pitcher helmet, Mickey flies up and up and up “and over the top of the Milky Way,” then dives down into the bottle “singing ‘I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God Bless Milk and God Bless Me!'” God bless naked and naturally exposed, Mickey is pure joy. . . or as the cooks chorus “MILK IN THE BATTER! MILK IN THE BATTER! WE BAKE CAKE! AND NOTHING’S THE MATTER!” (Can it go without saying that the pictures are superb.)
Kirkus Reviews, 1970

In the Night Kitchen is perhaps the closest any children’s book has come to telling an authentic dream since the days of George MacDonald who, after all, lived in that pre-Freudian world where it was still possible that dreams were messages from Faerie. That Night Kitchen also works as a story is a measure of Sendak’s power and control. Sendak’s major concern is always the integrity and the individuality of a child, who will be neither civilized nor molded. Mickey creates the airplane of his escape from the dough that was to have molded him into shape. Max, in Wild Things, turns the wild things to his own will. Sendak’s heroes return home, but never entirely forsake the wild places of their journeys.
The New York Review of Books, 1970

LIBRARY USE

The most obvious use would be to use this book prominently in a Banned Books display. The fervor over Mickey’s nudity was overwhelming when the book was published, but upon Sendak’s death in May of 2012, libraries are re-examining the book to introduce in circulation. This book would be an easy way to discuss censorship with children.

REFERENCES

Gross, Terry. (Producer). 2003, October 30. “Interview with Maurice Sendak.” Fresh Air with Terry Gross. NPR, National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=152248901

Hentoff, Margot. (1970). “Little private lives.” The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1970/dec/17/little-private-lives/?pagination=false

Kirkus’ Reviews. (1970). “In the night kitchen.” Kirkus Book Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/maurice-sendak/in-the-night-kitchen/#review

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96. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

May 10th, 2011 — 2:04pm

Spoiler alert: This is quite possibly the most depressing book imaginable. Oedipus Rex has more laughs than this book. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, then you should turn back now.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was published in 1979. It is narrated by Stingo, a Southerner working in publishing in new York City, who befriends an extremely screwed up couple. It takes place in 1947.

The Sophie in question is Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Throughout the book, she tells Stingo about her past — both of her parents were professors, and Sophie was married at a young age to a mathematics scholar. One day, the Germans came and took Sophie’s father and husband away to a concentration camp and shot them on New Year’s Day. Sophie was taken to Auschwitz when she smuggled ham to her dying mother. While at Auschwitz, she worked as the stenographer to Rudolf Höss and tried to convince him that her son, Jan, should be taken from the camp and put into the Lebensborn program and be raised as a German orphan because he has blonde hair and blue eyes and speaks fluent German, but Höss refuses.

Sophie (Meryl Streep) living with her Choice.

The final piece of Sophie’s story from Auschwitz is about when she and her two children first arrived at the camp. She has two children, her son Jan and her daughter Eva. On the night they arrived, a doctor makes her choose which of her children will be sent to the gas chamber that night and which one will live.When she is unable to choose, a Nazi officer said both would be sent to die so Sophie chooses Eva to die that night, because she figures that Jan would have a better chance of surviving the camp. However, after she and Jan are separated between the adult and children camps, Sophie never finds out what happened to her son; she gets a letter saying that he’s been moved from the Children’s Camp and she assumes that he was killed. She has been living with overwhelming guilt and mourning ever since the day she arrived at Auschwitz.

You can start crying now. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Sophie moved to America immediately after the war and met Nathan, who took care of her when she was sick when she first arrived. Nathan is crazy (he’s an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) and is abusive to Sophie when he has one of his outbreaks; it doesn’t help that he’s self-medicating with cocaine and prescription drugs that he gets from his job at Pfizer.

Unfortunately, Nathan sets his crazy on Stingo and Sophie, who he accuses of having an affair together and he attacks Sophie and tries to kill her. Stingo takes Sophie away to Virginia, where Sophie tells him the story of her children. Stingo tells her that he’s in love with her and Sophie takes Stingo’s virginity. The next morning, Stingo wakes up to find a note from Sophie; she has gone back to Nathan. Telling the story of her children has overwhelmed her with grief and she has gone back to commit suicide with Nathan, who is on his own suicidal crazy-train. Stingo returns to Brooklyn and discovers that Sophie and Nathan have poisoned themselves with cyanide.

DEPRESSING.

There are a lot of nuances to the book — the way that the narration is told in both third and first person, the jumps in time, the comparisons of the Holocaust to the American South, the focus of a Holocaust survivor who isn’t Jewish — but who cares? Not when you compare it to the heart-wrenching choice of knowing that you are responsible for the death of your child. I don’t have, much less want, children and I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest. I didn’t think anyone could find a way to make the horrors of the Holocaust even worse, but congratulations, William Styron, you did it.

The apocryphal story of the film version of Sophie’s Choice has Meryl Streep as Sophie only being able to do one take of the “choice” scene, as she found it too emotionally draining and painful. Preach, Queen Meryl.

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