In the story of the Holocaust, the fate of Jewish children was a horror of unimaginable proportions — one and a half million perished. The Kindertransport project succeeded in saving the lives of ten thousand children, bringing them to safety in England from their homes in Germany, Austria, and other European countries before the Final Solution became inescapable. The rescue of so few from the terror engulfing Europe’s Jews reflects both the helplessness of their communities, as nations and individuals turned away in indifference, as well as the commitment of determined individuals to respond to the children’s plight. Deborah Hopkinson’s We Had to Be Brave provides middle-grade readers with a serious approach to the complexities of this experience.
One of the most notable of the book’s qualities is its completeness. Historical events that transformed life for German Jews, the development and realization of a plan for escape, the inadequate response of world leaders, and the emotional distress and adaptation of the children involved all unfold in an accessible format. Hopkinson integrates her own voice into the firsthand accounts of survivors, providing facts, interpretation, and context. She also includes commentary and pragmatic advice for readers encountering antisemitism and other forms of hatred, avoiding a didactic or simplistic approach to these issues. By focusing mainly on three individuals, Hopkinson maintains the narrative’s momentum as readers follow the impact of world events on their previously ordinary and comfortable lives. Other participants in the Kindertransport also present their perspectives, broadening the book’s scope.
The author achieves the difficult balance required when teaching about the Holocaust to this age group. We Had to Be Brave is neither an unrelenting list of atrocities nor a falsely comforting story of human strength, although it includes both atrocious and ennobling revelations about human nature. The survivors are eloquent in painting their lives before the racist Nuremberg Laws of the 1930sand the crisis of Kristallnacht. German and Austrian Jews who had been accustomed to living in a society ostensibly governed by rational principles observed the rapidly increasing assault on their rights with disbelief. In the book’s introduction, Hopkinson invites readers to imagine themselves in this world and, throughout the book, she builds a structure of information and analysis which allows them to meaningfully do so. Her tone assumes that young readers can appreciate nuance in explaining difficult and multicausal processes. In her overview of Hitler’s rise to power, she does not reduce his beliefs to psychopathology, instead focusing on how he exploited weaknesses in political institutions and appealed to deeply rooted and endemic antisemitism.
No book about the Holocaust can minimize the collapse of decency which allowed Germans to become active collaborators in the Nazi’s program of genocide. The survivors who tell their stories repeatedly emphasize their identification with German culture. References to its beauty are poignant reminders of how unprepared the Jews were to understand their new identity as pariahs — they were convinced that their gentile neighbors would ultimately accept them as Germans once again. In one anecdote, a woman relates her first day of school and the national custom of parents filling large cardboard cones with candy and presents for their children. Hopkinson remarks parenthetically that this practice continues today, giving readers a sense of the ironic continuity of some customs even as others were shattered. Details such as these help to convey the disorientation which affected children psychologically as well as physically, although accounts of physical brutality also form part of the survivors’ memories. Hopkinson never minimizes or rationalizes; readers learn that 90 percent of the children rescued on the Kindertransport would never see their families again. Her distinguished book tells a story of suffering and resilience with sensitivity and respect for the truth.
This highly recommended book includes text boxes with links to websites as well as an appendix about the survivors and rescuers, lists of historical sources, a glossary, and a timeline.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.