by Aline Sax
Laura Watkinson, translator
Caryl Strzelecki, illustrator
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Back Cover: Misha and his family, like the rest of Warsaw’s Jews, are harassed and humiliated by the Nazis, and eventually crowded together into a single tiny ghetto, every day more people die from disease, starvation, and violence. Misha has no way to protect his parents and sister, and no reason to hope—until one day he meets a group of brave young people who have decided that they will not give in to despair. Together they make one final, daring stand.
Drawing on the actual events of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Aline Sax’s spare prose and Caryl Strezelecki’s striking images tell a powerful story of incredible courage amid brutal oppression.
Opening: “It was September 1939 when the Germans invaded our country. A month later, they marched into Warsaw and took up residence as if they would never leave. The war seemed to be over. But after the dust of the bombings had settled, a very different war began . . . a war against some of us.”
About the Story: The story centers around one family: Misha, his sister, and their parents. Misha’s father was a doctor and the Nazis needed doctors. For this reason, the family stayed in Warsaw, rather than be sent away, as many had been. The Nazis told the people they were relocating to a beautiful “Eden” up north. In reality, the Jewish people went north to concentrations camps for extinction.
The rationed food was below everyone’s needs. People began dying of starvation, including Misha’s mother. With no other options, Misha secretly left the walled off section of the city Jews lived in and entered the rest of Warsaw, taken over by the Germans. He stole what he could so his mother could eat. Misha’s little sister followed him one day, saw him go into a manhole and later return with food. In time, the Germans caught on. They took blowtorches into the sewers. One night, Misha’s sister decided to cross over for food. She never returned.
Misha was losing his family and his hope. Then he met a group of young Jews who were fighting back. They made dings here and there, mostly keeping the Germans on their toes around the ghetto. Thanks to a young German soldier, the group found out the ghetto would be permanently emptied—as a present—for Hitler’s birthday. The group readied for one final battle.
What I Thought: I was prepared for The War within These Walls to be a depressing story. It is, but could have been much more so. Mostly, the author tells things in the straightforward voice of Misha. There is violence, escalated with time, visible in the mostly black illustrations. The stark images bring the pain to the forefront, never forgotten—lest it never should. The story hits you hard when combined with the illustrations, or just a “poster” telling you what you mostly cannot do. Some middle grade kids are not going to be ready for this material on their own. (note: This is a young adult book, for kids age 14 and up. These older kids will have no trouble handling the material, as it was written specifically for this age group. Reviewing as if a middle grade book was my error. I apologize for any confusion this causes.)
The war is centered on the small walled in area of Warsaw where the Germans allowed Jewish people, not sent north, to live. Many there had a family member whose skills the Germans needed. Still, no one received fair or humane treatment. Food and medicine was scarce. The War within These Walls is one of the few WWII stories that made the war real for me; someone who was born nearly two decades after the war ended.
The War within These Walls is best at showing the forgotten life of the Jewish people. It was not yet realized the extent to which the Nazis hated the Jews. Between the illustrations and the sparse text, sometimes just a sentence or two, the horrors the Nazis caused are forever etched within our minds. Children looked at full bakery windows, but not allowed even a small piece of day-old bread. Hunger was not the worst condition, yet claimed many lives.
I found the story asked more questions than it answered. The biggest being, what would I have done? If I were starving, would I steal food? Would I steal for a starving loved one? Would I join a resistance group, knowing the odds of survival was nearly zero? These questions, along with the sheer atrocities caused for reasons incomprehensible, are why I think The War within These Walls is a story needing told and why teachers—or parents—need to help kids through the story.
Teachers will find this book most useful. The small walled off area of Warsaw highlights one major goal of the war—the elimination of the Jewish race. The other major goal, of Hitler taking over Europe, meant little in these walls. Without basic needs and security met, the people could not think of anything else. Nothing else mattered.
The text is short, easy to read, and difficult to put down. The illustrations are all black and white, with most dominantly black, much like the spirits of the walled in people, and the outward hearts of the Nazis. No one was safe from unwarranted brutality for brutality’s sake. The War within These Walls helps explain the inexpiable to a new generation—lest they forget.
(note: This is a young adult book, for kids age 14 and up. These older kids will have no trouble handling the material, as it was written specifically for this age group. Reviewing as if a middle grade book was my error. I apologize for any confusion this causes.)
Caryl Strzelecki, illustrator wiki
Age 14 and up
© 2013 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, used with permission
Text © 2011 by Aline Sax
Illustrations © 2-11 by Caryl Strzelecki
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers is an imprint of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial (pauleisen.blogspot.com)