Acts of Resistance

  • Review
By – August 16, 2023

While some believe that Holo­caust nar­ra­tives have been overem­pha­sized in young-adult lit­er­a­ture, there are many sto­ries of vic­tims, sur­vivors, and res­cuers that have not been ful­ly told. Dominic Carrillo’s Acts of Resis­tance chron­i­cles the unusu­al his­to­ry of Bul­gar­ia, where strong resis­tance to Nazi per­se­cu­tion enabled most Jews to sur­vive the war. Based on doc­u­ments from the Bul­gar­i­an Nation­al Archives, which were sup­pressed under Com­mu­nist regimes, the nov­el alter­nates between the per­spec­tives of three char­ac­ters liv­ing in intol­er­a­ble circumstances.

Lily is a young woman employed by the Com­mis­sari­at for the Jew­ish Ques­tion, a gov­ern­ment office as omi­nous as its title sug­gests. Hav­ing ini­tial­ly believed pro­pa­gan­da that she was involved in sav­ing her coun­try from inter­nal ene­mies, she real­izes that she has become an accom­plice to mass mur­der. When she wit­ness­es the depor­ta­tion of Jews from Mace­do­nia, which has been occu­pied by Bul­gar­ia, Lily under­stands that an alliance with the Nazis has made her and her fel­low cit­i­zens com­plic­it in their crimes. Peter, mean­while, is a high school stu­dent with Jew­ish neigh­bors and friends. He is at first incred­u­lous to learn that these inno­cent peo­ple are fac­ing the immi­nent threat of death. And Misho, a Jew­ish boy liv­ing under the archbishop’s pro­tec­tion, is ter­ri­fied by his prob­a­ble future. How­ev­er, unlike most of East­ern Europe and the Balka­ns, when the gov­ern­ment began to imple­ment the Final Solu­tion in their coun­try, Bul­gar­i­ans resisted.

The nov­el com­bines his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters with fic­tion­al ones. Lily works for the noto­ri­ous Alexan­der Belev, an eager col­lab­o­ra­tor with Nazi ter­ror. She must bal­ance her instinct to sur­vive with her sense of oblig­a­tion to her own moral code. Carrillo’s devel­op­ment of her char­ac­ter is con­vinc­ing, allow­ing for nuance rather than a sweep­ing descrip­tion of hero­ism. Arch­bish­op Ste­fan is por­trayed as deeply com­mit­ted to help­ing Jews: he even pres­sures the monarch, Tsar Boris III, not to com­ply with the Nazis. The author suc­cess­ful­ly relates how a range of fac­tors led to Bul­gar­i­an resis­tance — includ­ing the fact that the coun­try was more con­cerned with sav­ing their own Jews only after those from Mace­do­nia had been killed.

Because the cen­tral dilem­ma involves tak­ing risks in order to pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble, Jew­ish char­ac­ters fig­ure less promi­nent­ly in the nar­ra­tive than non-Jew­ish ones. Rab­bi Daniel Zion, a leader of his com­mu­ni­ty, is depict­ed as sec­ondary to Arch­bish­op Ste­fan in the move­ment to save Jews. Also strange is the moment in which Rab­bi Zion quotes the Chris­t­ian Lord’s Prayer.” It would have been appro­pri­ate for the author to men­tion Rab­bi Zion’s belief that Jesus was the Jew­ish mes­si­ah — a belief that alien­at­ed him from oth­er Jews and led to his cen­sure by the rab­binate in 1943. In a nov­el like Carrillo’s, the ten­sion between Jew­ish pow­er­less­ness and Chris­t­ian hero­ism dur­ing the Holo­caust demands seri­ous atten­tion. Rab­bi Zion’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Chris­tian­i­ty should have been con­sid­ered as part of this dif­fi­cult contradiction.

His­tor­i­cal excep­tions encour­age us to ask ques­tions. In this absorb­ing nov­el, young-adult read­ers have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to find some answers.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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