Illustrated by David Ziggy Greene
For ages 9+
Usually, I’d be trawling through my book marks or highlights and making notes to create my book review. In this case, uniquely, I don’t feel I want to and I don’t need to.
Holocaust Memorial Day is 27th January every year which was the day in 1945 when the largest Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Allies at the end of World War II. Learning about the holocaust at school back in the late 1980s was shocking, I remember the black and white videos in history lessons showing dead emaciated human bodies piled up in the concentration camps, or being offloaded into pits by the Nazis. I remember feeling as nauseous about it then as I do now. You can’t unsee those images. Over the years there have been projects to record survivors testimony of their lives, uprooted from blissful ignorance of what was to come through to Hitler’s rise to power, the segregation starting and then the violence and transportation to camps, life and death in the concentration camps. The Jewish word for the Holocaust is ‘Shoah’ which means the Catastrophe.
About the book
Did you know that Hitler and Germany’s Allies created over 44,000 concentration and internment camps during the war? What has come to light recently is that one of the main influences on Hiltler's ideology was the USA’s own changes in immigration laws to prevent non-Nordic acceptable ‘races’ from entering the USA in the 1920s to prevent 'dilution' of the first settlers' 'superior' gene pool. The snowball effect of the ensuing hate propaganda spread from the USA to Europe, and the election of Adolf Hitler as leader of the German Reich in the 1930s became the anacrusis of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was Nazi Germany's deliberate murder of approximately 6 million European Jews and at least 5 million prisoners of war. According to my research this is the second largest act of genocide after the Nazi genocide of Soviet Slavs (military and civilian) during World War II numbering at possibly 20 million deaths. It’s hard to comprehend that this was only barely 78 years ago, the average lifespan of a modern day European man or woman. Against all the odds, the Hitler lost the war.
Adults may remember the first time this biographical story was published, back in 2019, under the title ‘The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz’. Author, Jeremy Dronfield, was asked many a time by his readers since to rewrite the story for kids so that they could share it with their own children at home or in the classroom. This gave Dronfield the opportunity to do further research and dive deeper into records and testimonies to bring a richer text to light for children aged 9+ to absorb. I want to reassure you, dear reader, that this story is accurately pitched, so please do not worry, your child or children will NOT be reading words with vivid descriptions of starvation, torture, or death. Yes, all this does happen and is vital to the story, but at the appropriate level to maintain a younger reader’s wellbeing.
At the start of the story, Austria 1938, readers are invited to observe kids playing after school with a football made of old rags, sneaking off to the market for scraps of tasty cakes from a kind stall holder, rushing back to make sure they’re not late for supper. The Kleinmann family are parents Gustav and his wife Tini, and their four children - older girls Edith and Herta, younger boys Fritz and Kurt. They lived in the beautiful city of Vienna in Austria, the home of some of the giants of classical music including Mozart, Johann Strauss, Josef Haydn - a vibrant and progressive city teeming with life and culture.
Papa, Gustav, a skilled upholsterer, is a highly decorated soldier who fought in World War I, and a valued member of the local community. Yes, the family are Jewish and they attend synagogue, observe the Friday night prayers and traditions called Shabbat, but they are not orthodox to any degree and live within their means with beliefs, hopes and dreams of almost any honest family with on a similar income, regardless of their religion. Once the Austrian-born politician, Adolf Hitler, comes to power in Germany, there are rumours that his Nazi party are introducing sweeping reforms across the German nation. As the first move in Hitler’s plan to hegemonise Europe, then the world, with his ‘Aryan’ ideologies, he invades his country of birth first. In March 1938 the German Nazi troops invades Austria and it becomes part of the German Reich.
The Kleinmann family becomes ostracised from non-Jewish society. The children as banned from school, 'no entry' signs for Jews are put up at local parks. Friends are now members of Hitler’s Youth, or members of the Nazi party or even masquerading as informants loyal to the new regime. Life has become ‘lawfully’ prejudiced and extremely dangerous for Jewish people within a very short space of time. So much so, that it proves very difficult for Tini to arrange for her children to escape to the safety of another country from what might happen through the ‘Kindertransport’. Along with thousands of other extremely anxious parents, she bravely queues day in day out with papers to show the Nazis that she has sponsors for all the children in the US. It is palpable, the sorrow Gustav and Tini feel endlessly that they have to do everything within their power to separate themselves from their children, by getting them to safe haven, not knowing whether they themselves would survive to ever see them again, or be safe. Such selflessness and sacrifice.
On the night of 9th-10th November 1938, the Nazis carried out a pogrom (an organised massacre of a particular ethnic group) in Vienna in retaliation to the assassination German diplomat in Paris by a teenage Polish-German Jew. You may have heard of this program by its name ‘Kristallnacht’, but it known also as ‘The Night of the Broken Glass’. Fritz watches from his apartment window as synagogues are set on fire, gangs of ‘Brownshirts’ or SS storm troopers smashed in every Jewish business or shop premises they could find and painted ‘Jude’ (the German word for ‘Jew) on the walls. Like bloodthirsty dogs, Jewish people were hunted down by Hitler's loyal subjects, street by street and many were taken away to an unknown fate.
Time starts to pass without any sense or structure as Jewish community’s are broken down, thinned out by either killing on sight or arrests. Jews are not allowed to work or goto school. Food and clothing are scarce. Life is extremely hard, and incomprehensible. How could it have come to this, the reader echoes Fritz’s sentiments?
Only Fritz’s oldest sister, Edith and his younger brother, Kurt are able to get out of German-occupied Europe to avoid persecution. Fritz and his Papa first enter Buchenwald concentration camp in October 1939. In 1942, Tini and her youngest daughter Herta are sent east on a transport in 1939 with hundreds of other women and children as part of the Nazi’s ‘the Final Solution to the Jewish Question’.
What makes this book more accessible and captivating for children than its predecessors or perhaps other books they might normally read? For a start, the illustrations by David Ziggy Greene, in a more graphic novel/comic strip illustrative style, are plentiful throughout the book, often providing visual representation of situations that are happening; whether it’s Fritz being held prisoner in a football stadium looking for his mum outside the barricades or depictions of life in the concentration camps. Greene’s illustrations seep into the reader’s consciousness emotions of surprise, disappointment, confusion, ignorance, bewilderment, pain, starvation, triumph, hope, love and more. Dronfield has masterfully retold the Kleinmann’s story. He included fascinating anecdotes of life experiences inside the concentration camps that I have never heard of - the Kapos (non-Nazi guards who were convicts) in charge of the prisoner working groups, the sheer bravery and survival instincts of Fritz and others who took immeasurable risks on behalf of loved ones or the resistance within the camps to get more food, weapons, jobs or letters back home.
I had no idea about the concentration camps prisoners' role in building other camps, the Nazis relying heavily on the incredible skilled workforce of some of them Jewish and non-Jewish political or Roma prisoners to further Hitler’s plans for his new world order. I also gleaned other information about the Holocaust years that if you managed to survive outside of them as a Jew for most of the war, then your chance of surviving the camps if you entered them just before the war ended were next to nothing, as you had no rapport with any of the inmates or Kapos, you didn’t know over the years which of the Nazi staff were starting to regret their part in Hitler’s genocide once the Allies approached and therefore could be begged for medical supplies or extra food. Fritz observes that trains arriving at the camps, once Hitler knew he was never going to win, were unloaded with occupants marched into gas chambers immediately, they weren’t even assessed on skill, ability, gender or health in those last months. Fritz operates with intelligence, bravery and daring at the level of what I can only imagine to be the comparison to a wartime MI6 agent or major league resistance fighter; and he was a starving, frightened, child without former survival or sabotage training who faced the prospect of his own murder on a daily basis.
Naturally the story closes with the end of the war, and you, dear reader will find out for yourself what fate has in store for Fritz and his Papa, and the other members of the Jewish Kleinmann family. I spent many a moment throughout the book gasping with my hand over my mouth, or feeling relief or wanting to yell out in anger or joy. I was relieved to find a ‘What Happened After’ chapter - written by the author on Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2022. In this, Dronfield talks about his interviews with a survivor of the Kleinmann family and we find out that some featured in the book then went on to live long lives into their 80s and 90s. Dronfield then lists a timeline at the end of the book, which is incredibly useful for digesting the reality of what happened in the context of major events during the war. There is also a brief section before you reach the back cover entitled ‘Notes for Parents, Guardians, and Teachers’ which is essential reading.
Know this. The testimonies of those persecuted and murdered at the hands of the those who were loyal to Hitler’s Nazi regime - both civilians and soldiers - will continue to be shared. Their legacy… monuments in their honour bearing their names, museums, films, photographs, books, teaching in schools, personal appearances by survivors and their descendants, the prosecution of Nazis who are still found to be alive… is that as human beings, from the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of World War II, we take these memories and knowledge of those who suffered and renew our compassion and understanding of the past so that hateful ideologies and atrocities are never able to poison human life again.
Concentration camps featured in the book:
L to R Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Mauthausen
Further reading and research
Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany
Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland
Mauthausen concentration camp, Austria
Find out more about Holocaust Memorial Day
Jewish Museums in the UK
Both have school resources available and have school visits
London - https://jewishmuseum.org.uk
Manchester - https://www.manchesterjewishmuseum.com
About the creators
Jeremy Dronfield (author)
Jeremy Dronfield is a biographer, historian, novelist and former archaeologist. His recent non-fiction titles include Beyond the Call and Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time.
Author Jeremy Dronfield says: “Ever since The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz was first published, I’ve had readers tell me how deeply affected they’ve been by the story of Fritz and Kurt and their family, and that they want their children to be able to read it. When I first saw David Ziggy Greene’s cartoon work, I knew I’d discovered the key to making a children’s version a reality. It was important to me that this must be a completely new telling of the story, not just a simplified edition. I revisited my original research, uncovering new information and fresh insights, explaining things that had been mysterious before, and truly unlocking the experiences of two boys sent along such different, traumatic courses. David’s illustrations have helped bring a new heart and soul to the story, which is wonderful and amazing. I can’t wait for everyone to have a chance to read this book.”
David Ziggy Greene (illustrator)
David Ziggy Greene is a children’s illustrator and former reportage cartoonist for Private Eye.
World War II
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Publication date: 19 January 2023
A retelling of the Sunday Times bestselling The Boy Who Followed his Father into Auschwitz, a Daily Mail and Sunday Express book of the year:
'Shattering, astonishing' Daily Mail
*reviewed from proof via advance reading copy provided by the publisher
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