Fac­ing the Ene­my: How a Nazi Youth Camp in Amer­i­ca Test­ed a Friendship

  • Review
By – June 4, 2024

In the years pre­ced­ing World War II, there was an active pro-Nazi move­ment in the Unit­ed States, led by the Ger­man Amer­i­can Bund. They estab­lished a net­work of sum­mer camps in which chil­dren were indoc­tri­nat­ed in Nazi ide­ol­o­gy. Bar­bara Krasner’s nov­el-in-verse traces the frac­tured friend­ship of two boys, one Jew­ish and one of Ger­man ances­try. It’s writ­ten in both for­mal and free-verse forms. Chap­ters alter­nate between the voic­es of Ben­jy Put­er­man and Thomas Anspach as world events — and parental respons­es — attempt to sep­a­rate them.

The book begins in 1937. Ben­jy and Thomas both live in Newark and are ready to enter the city’s Wee­quahic High School in the fall. Known for its aca­d­e­m­ic excel­lence, the school has a high per­cent­age of Jew­ish stu­dents, whose fam­i­lies are close­ly watch­ing the men­ac­ing turn of events in Europe. Thomas’s par­ents have enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly decid­ed to send him to Camp Nord­land, a train­ing cen­ter for future fol­low­ers of Hitler. There, the poi­so­nous val­ues espoused by his par­ents will be rein­forced. In one poem, Thomas shares that his father has rede­fined cit­i­zen­ship as a way to cov­er up one’s past in a for­eign coun­try.” Grad­u­al­ly, the increas­ing gap between the world he sees around him and his father’s dis­tor­tions will make life unbear­able for him.

Benjy’s fam­i­ly is lov­ing and sup­port­ive, but a stub­born strength under­lies their com­pas­sion. His father is a proud mem­ber of the Newark Min­ute­men, an orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to fight­ing Amer­i­can Nazism. Jews were well rep­re­sent­ed in box­ing in that era, and Benjy’s father is a for­mer pugilist him­self. Even Jew­ish mob­sters — such as the noto­ri­ous New Jer­sey native, Longy Zwill­man — pro­vid­ed the move­ment with lead­er­ship and mon­ey. Krasner’s nar­ra­tive is most suc­cess­ful when it fea­tures the uni­fy­ing metaphor of the fight. In one poem, Let’s Get Ready to Rum­ble,” Ben­jy nar­rates the thrilling 1933 match between the Jew­ish Max Baer and Ger­man fight­er Max Schmel­ing in Yan­kee Sta­di­um. He cap­tures the excite­ment of Jew­ish Amer­i­cans: Baer wins!/Technical KO!/A win for the US of A/​and for Jews everywhere.”

Thomas’s father relies on puni­tive par­ent­ing meth­ods and fails to under­stand his son’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. The two boys are ini­tial­ly pow­er­less to do any­thing about the destruc­tion of their bond; but, as the sto­ry pro­gress­es, Thomas becomes aware of the con­tra­dic­tions in his father’s life. His intro­spec­tion stands in con­trast to the con­stant aggres­sion of both his home and Camp Nord­land. Ben­jy and his fam­i­ly live under the cloud of anti­semitism, yet their assertive­ness lends them a pow­er that the Anspach fam­i­ly can nev­er attain.

There are many his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in the book, includ­ing New York Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Sam Dick­stein. A role mod­el for Ben­jy, Dick­stein took a coura­geous polit­i­cal stand against Nazism. In the poem Big Mouth,” Ben­jy express­es his con­vic­tion that Jews can­not cow­er in the face of attack. As his father told him in grade school, All you need is a big mouth,/a plat­form in Congress,/and a reporter.”

Through­out the sto­ry, Kras­ner sug­gests that his­to­ry has an impact on per­son­al rela­tion­ships, injus­tice can be coun­tered with bold actions, and Amer­i­can and Jew­ish val­ues need to be fear­less­ly defend­ed. The events in Fac­ing the Ene­my may be unfa­mil­iar to young read­ers, mak­ing the book a wel­come intro­duc­tion to a proud chap­ter in Jew­ish Amer­i­can history.

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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