Yanek Gruener is a ten-year-old boy living in Krakow, Poland in 1939. He adores being with his extended group of cousins, aunts and uncles and daydreams about moving to America and becoming a movie star. When the Germans invade Poland and take command, Yanek mournfully listens to the church bells of the Wawel Cathedral ring out in alarm and knows his life will never be the same. His father encourages Yanek to be strong, but new laws are put into effect that make life difficult for the Jewish population such as the rationing of food, a nightly curfew of 9 PM, and the closing of Jewish schools. Even Yanek’s wise father is speechless when the synagogue is set on fire burning the holiest of books and a wall is slowly erected around the city to create a ghetto. The Gruener family does their best to survive in their new cramped quarters and finds comfort in just being together, even managing to provide Yanek with a secret bar mitzvah when he turns thirteen. Finally, after many local deportations, Yanek’s parents’ luck runs out; they are taken away and, on the brink of adolescence, Yanek is left to survive on his own.
For a short while, Yanek manages to avoid the round-ups by the Nazis and he finds work as an assistant tailor but in 1942, he is loaded onto a truck and becomes a prisoner at Plaszow Concentration Camp. During the next three years, Yanek is transferred to ten different camps, tattooed with the number B‑3087 at Birkenau, and experiences daily humiliation and a nightmarish existence as he fights for his survival. Told in first person, this harrowing tale seems almost surreal, yet it is based on the life of Jack Gruener, an Auschwitz camp survivor, who shares his experiences with children today so the generations that follow will never forget. The language, sparse yet provocative, draws the reader in and, like Night by Elie Wiesel, poignantly shows the darkness of the Holocaust with always the possibility of hope and survival. Recommended for ages 12 and up.