Kacer’s protagonists are a sister and brother, Helen and Henry, living in France during the 1940s, who are brought to a convent by their mother after their father has disappeared and is presumed arrested. Their mother has heard that the sympathetic nuns are willing to hide Jewish children to ensure their survival. The two youngsters finally begin to settle into convent life among other Jewish children in hiding when they are informed by the Mother Superior that Nazi soldiers stationed in the area are becoming suspicious and they must now be moved to Switzerland to a more secure location. Marcel Marceau, famed mime and performance artist, called “the clown” by the children, has been a frequent entertainer at the convent, distracting them from their fears and becoming a beloved confidante. Marceau is assigned to guide Helen, Henry, and their friend through the forest as they set off on their journey toward the border. As they navigate the challenging and treacherous journey, Marceau informs them that he is also Jewish and is a member of the underground Resistance. He assures them that he has smuggled people across the border before and he gains their trust, due to his sensitivity and understanding. He uses his miming and acting skills to amuse them and keep them calm enough to persevere and remain steadfast in completing their mission in spite of some close calls. He has taught some of these skills to the children who use them creatively to help them succeed in their escape.
The concept of using one’s wits to survive dangerous situations is a recurrent theme in recent Jewish children’s literature, especially stories set during the Holocaust. It presents today’s children with important messages about the value of self-reliance, faith, and hope. This story has an additional important motif: the many faces of silence. For example, Henry is mute out of terror, quiet is shown as a necessary component of a daring escape, and secrecy and misdirection are vital as well to ensure survival. Marceau’s talent as a mime reflects the value of silence, tying the themes together in a graceful and artistic manner.
This book is one of four in a series by Kacer called The Heroes Quartet, which features courageous and daring rescues during World War II. The book serves as an excellent introduction to the Holocaust for younger children, who are not ready to read about some of the more graphic horrors of the time. Kacer uses crisp, clear narration and has a gentle sense of drama, helping the reader experience the suspense along with the characters.
Those who may have heard of Marcel Marceau may not know that he is Jewish or that he played a significant role in the French Resistance. An appended author’s note tells more about Marceau’s life and his own escape from Nazi persecution as well as his later world-renowned and highly acclaimed career as a mime. Marceau is known to have been modest and unassuming regarding his heroic wartime exploits. His role in the Resistance is only recently being written about in greater detail and he is now acknowledged for his heroism.
Masters of Silence deftly blends fact and fiction, resulting in an engaging story which will appreciated by children, parents, and educators.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.