This story of a Jewish family’s life in Budapest during the Second World War is superbly told in graphic format. Words and pictures are skilfully combined and, from the start of this first person narrative, young readers will identify with Peter. He was mischievous, friendly and sometimes, like other children, bored; his favourite things were ‘playing football and eating cake’. But new laws started to impinge on the lives of Jewish families like Peter’s. Young readers will understand his dismay at having to wear a yellow star and not being allowed on buses or trains. It got worse – we see men in uniforms with guns ordering the family to move far away to live in a cramped house with other Jewish families. It is the detail that is so telling- ‘we could take only one bag each’. When Peter’s father buries a box of papers in the garden before they leave he asks Peter to remember where the box was buried ‘just in case…’ Peter wonders ‘just in case what?’. Readers will sense that it was the uncertainly that was so hard to endure.
The pictures with their strong line are arresting throughout, showing people and buildings with great clarity. A restricted palette emphasises the grey and grim surroundings in the cellar of The Jewish House where families sheltered when bombs fell on the city. And there was never enough food. But Helen Bate includes some happier things. For example there were other children to play ‘button football’ with and Peter’s little sister, Eva, made friends with a girl who taught her ballet ‘and they danced for hours’. There are some acts of kindness too- neighbours looked after the family’s possessions and a Russian soldier offered a gift of bread.
The family were remarkably resilient in the face of the constant need to move to keep safe. The full page panel of The Secret Place Above the Office shows how difficult it was for them to stay silent in the shabby area in the roof of the building so that office workers below did not hear them. It was the times when the children were separated from one or both of their parents that were most dispiriting. When they moved to ‘The Children’s House’ Peter worried that ‘we might never see Mum and Dad again’. Our Last Hiding Place was ‘dreadful’ but somehow his mother had managed to get hold of a book for his birthday full of stories about castles, jungles, explorers and knights – ‘it was like entering a magical world’.
Some final pages tell us about the life of the family after the war and there is a photograph of Peter with his children and grandchildren showing that for this family life went on.
An engrossing true story for children to read themselves, this could also be read aloud to a class or group and the larger picture panels shown and discussed. It will, I feel sure, prove to be an excellent resource for the over nines learning about the Second World War.