Misha, almost a teenager, lives with his close-knit family in Warsaw and has taken for granted the joys of swimming in a public pool, the freedom of shopping in any store or the pleasure of meeting up with his friends. In 1939, when the Germans march into Poland and systematically change everything, life as Misha knows it fades away and is replaced by a living nightmare. A wall is erected around the city and Misha learns what it means to be Jewish. He is forced to wear an armband, is plagued by daily hunger, and must live in crowded, dirty quarters where he is an eyewitness to cruelty and constant death. Misha, positive by nature, stubbornly clings to a will to survive and becomes part of an underground resistance movement. Led by the passionate Mordecai Anielewicz who will not let the Jews of the ghetto be taken “like sheep with no will of their own” to their death in a concentration camp, an uprising unlike any other is secretly planned. Misha realizes how great the odds are against survival but he is honored to be part of a movement “that will shake our people awake and the eyes of the world will be on us.” For several days, this small band of hopeful resistant fighters bond together, hiding out in fortified bunkers and rooftops, until the last safe place, the sewers, are saturated with kerosene, and few are able to climb out alive. Like a cat with nine lives, Misha is one of the handful of survivors and is determined to begin a new life of peace far away from the atrocities of the ghetto.
This hard-hitting saga will remain in the reader’s mind long after the close of the last page. Told through the eyes of Misha, the language is simple yet poignant as he describes the demise of the world around him and the suffering of family and friends. Black and white stylized ink drawings on larger white backgrounds capture the raw emotional turmoil — a pair of hands gripping a barbed wire, a tired young man with bony arms pulling a heavy cart, a Rabbi with his head bent down in sadness. A white page is often followed by a page with a black background and the text, usually limited to a phrase or word, is highlighted in white print. This technique is very powerful as it regulates the pacing of the story and makes a very difficult subject, the Holocaust, more palatable to grasp.
Audiences who have been moved by The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Boyne, 2004) and Night (Wiesel, 1955) will gravitate towards this title. Highly recommended for ages 14 and up.