For Holocaust survivors, their survival often hinged upon a small piece of luck, a singular twist of fate. For Liz Kessler’s ancestors it was a serendipitous moment, a chance meeting that enabled a visa to a place of sanctuary, England. Tying her fictionalised story with a photograph from a chance meeting, Kessler presents a particularly rare graphic account of the events leading up to a genocide in her portrayal of three children during the Holocaust, and their ensuing, sometime devastating fate.
Leo, Elsa and Max are best friends in Vienna, 1936. Celebrating Max’s ninth birthday, they take a ride on the Riesenrad with Leo’s genial father, and have a chance meeting with an English couple, who then accompany them home for sachertorte. But this event is the last happy memory. Soon, Max’s father prevents his relationship with the others, Elsa’s family flees, and Leo’s father is arrested. Elsa and Leo are Jews, and peril awaits in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Although the children are separated, Kessler weaves together the threads of the three children’s stories to create a tapestry of events and coincidental encounters, exploring their emotional responses to individual situations: being forced into a ghetto, working as a guard at a concentration camp, being incarcerated in one, or simply escape to safer lands and the survivors’ guilt that comes with it.
Kessler’s fictional account may seem contrived at times, as she seeks to bring in many of the changes the Nazis made to Jews’ lives before the outbreak of war, and the horror during the war, but the children’s reactions are so heartfelt and authentic, and genuinely devastating, that it is essential reading. The reader is invested in their fates, and yet will be disturbed at the distinctive cruelty and evil of the Nazis, at first just discriminating against, but gradually making life unbearable for Jewish people, before carrying out the ‘final solution’ – the extermination of all Jews.
Told from each child’s point of view, Kessler cleverly chooses her tense and voice to suit the narrative. Elsa is present tense first person and the horrors of her situation are immediate and stark. Leo too is first person, although his story is told looking back, and it is with him that the story ends. Max is removed from the reader – his Nazi youth status is told from a third person perspective, although the reader is made to understand some of his base motivation for his collaboration in the persecution and dehumanisation of Jews. His chapters are no less powerful for this distance, but in contrast with the others the reader may feel strong distaste in the absorption.
Overall, this is a hard read, even for an adult knowledgeable about the Holocaust. For a young Jewish reader, some of the details may be distressing. But the book is both compelling and necessary.
Fiction on the Holocaust is a tricky area. Although reams are written (mainly for adults), usually the horrors are kept removed. It is hard to write such unbearable truths. Yet Kessler has managed to present this historical truth, all the while creating authentic empathetic fictional characters in her dramatic rendering, particularly poignant for the children’s innocent views of events. Kessler manages to get to the heart of the issue, showing the true nature of Nazi terror whilst engaging the modern reader.