Since I was about twelve, I’ve read countless books about the Shoah and the early post-liberation years (both novels and memoirs), as well as watching countless documentaries and historical dramas on the subject. Though some people prefer happier subject matter, I’m really in my element when reading or writing about these dark periods of history. I believe I’ve always been most drawn to darker stories, with imperfect, sometimes less than sympathetic characters, because of the subconscious influence of the first book I ever read. When you start reading the adult, uncensored version of Grimms’ Fairytales at all of three years old, you understand early on real life isn’t all rainbows, flowers, puppies, and sparkles.
The Shoah and WWII books lining my shelves include but aren’t limited to:
The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski
Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom, by Isabella Leitner (a somewhat edited, one-volume version of Fragments of Isabella and Saving the Fragments)
In My Hands, by Irene Gut Opdyke
Thanks to My Mother, by Schoschana Rabinovici
The Seamstress, by Sara Tuvel Bernstein
Journey to America and Silver Days, by Sonia Levitin
Upon the Head of the Goat and Grace in the Wilderness, by Aranka Siegal
I Have Lived a Thousand Years, My Bridges of Hope, and Hello, America, by Livia Bitton-Jackson
In My Brother’s Image, by Eugene Pogany (whom I had the privilege of meeting in April 2001)
The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk
Exodus and Mila 18, by Leon Uris (whom I consider a somewhat above average writer with a very good editor)
Till the Break of Day, by Maia Wojciechowska
Rena’s Promise, by Rena Kornreich Gelissen
The Wall, by John Hersey
The Pianist, by Władysław Szpilman
Alicia: My Story, by Alicia Appelman-Jurman
Hide and Seek, Anna Is Still Here, Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon, and The Key Is Lost, by Ida Vos
Hiding in the Open, by Dr. Sabina S. Zimering
All of these are excellent books I’d highly recommend, each with its own unique story of survival and learning to readjust to normal life in the early years after liberation. A few of them are also stories of Gentiles who lived through the war, such as In My Hands (the story of a teenage rescuer) and Till the Break of Day (the adolescent wartime memoirs of a children’s writer who escaped Warsaw on the first day of the war and lived in France, Spain, and Portugal till her family left for America in 1942).
Amid all these great books I voluntarily added to my library and thoroughly enjoyed reading (if such a word is appropriate), there are The Cage and To Life, by Ruth Minsky Sender. I’m glad to know I’m not the only person who just didn’t click with these books. Just because a book is about the Shoah doesn’t mean it’s automatically above criticism. I criticized the hell out of the freaking Book Thief, and also felt Zev Birger’s No Time for Patience was rather shallow and undeveloped.
Why did I not like these books that much?
1. Unrealistic dialogue! So much of the dialogue reads like the way someone might’ve expressed oneself in a letter or journal entry, or articulated thoughts to oneself. Not the way normal people talk in real life. It’s clunky, infodumpy, and stilted, like trying to convey emotional feelings and historical background through dialogue.
2. Not much character development. I honestly couldn’t begin to tell you what each of these separate characters were like, since there aren’t a whole lot of details to flesh them out.
3. Lacking details. Just to give one example of many, at one point Riva gets blood poisoning in her finger and gets permission to be treated in a civilian hospital. As can be expected, she had to be taken to several hospitals before someone finally agreed to operate on a Jewish patient. Yet there are only cursory details given about this entire experience.
4. Not much suspense, in spite of being set in a time clearly full of suspense. Even the present tense did nothing to create a sense of immediacy and wondering what would happen next. For that matter, many emotional situations are related rather matter-of-factly.
5. Not much description of life outside of Riva’s own little world.
6. Several repetitive spots.
7. Too predictable and formulaic, in spite of having so much potential to be a compelling, original story.
8. Pretty unmemorable. Even if I’m not constantly thinking about the other Shoah books I’ve read, skimming through them quickly brings back so many powerful details. I honestly barely remember anything about The Cage or To Life, even when skimming through them.
9. Simplistic writing. These books have MG-level writing, though Riva ages from 13–19 in the first book and is an adult in the second. Livia Bitton-Jackson’s memoirs seem to straddle the fence between upper MG and lower YA, but I never feel like I’m reading simplistic stories meant for a much younger audience. As YA books, with longer chapters and more descriptions, they could’ve been so much better.
10. Frequently skipping blocks of time. Obviously, not every single day, week, or month merits coverage in a memoir, but the sudden passage of time just wasn’t handled well in these books.
11. I was actually kind of annoyed at how frequently “As long as there is life, there is hope” was quoted. Great sentiment, but after it had already been hammered home so many times, I didn’t need to see it over and over and over again! Dayenu (Enough)!