CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 18. . . . January 12, 2017
It’s almost impossible to conceive of the inhumanity the Nazi apparatus established to eliminate anyone the Nazis considered inferior Jews, gays, Roma, other minority groups, the handicapped and anyone identified as political opponents. Teaching children about this frightening time in history is a delicate task. While children did experience the horrors of the The Final Solution, those people would not want today’s generations to have nightmares from learning about it.
These stories must be told, however. The hopes coming out of World War II and the Holocaust were that racism in all its forms, nationalism and fascism, would be defeated forever haven’t materialized as the current situation in the world proves today. As Hitler and his minions did in their time, today’s recruiters for hate groups target youth to carry out their campaigns of intimidation and marginalization. It’s imperative the education system teach young people the lessons of history and arm them with critical thinking skills and the ability to discern facts from propaganda.
Children identify with peers and their experiences. The Promise tells the true story of two sisters, Rachel and Toby, whose parents gave them three gold coins hidden in shoe paste (polish) before the Nazis arrested all the adults in their town and took them from their children’s lives forever. The parents admonished the girls to use the coins “only if you have to,” said their father, and from their mother: “You will know when the time is right.”
Two years later, Rachel and Toby were prisoners in Auschwitz. Slave laborers with other children and on the verge of starvation and illness, they were brutalized and beaten by the guards. Death was around every corner. The slightest virus tipped the fragile balance of their health; if the guards saw a prisoner was sick, that inmate disappeared.
When Rachel became too weak to work, she was removed from the overcrowded, filthy barracks and slated for death. But Toby risked her own life to bribe a guard with the coins, her only chance to rescue her sister from her fate. That the guard released Rachel could not have been predicted; that both girls survived the war also could not have been foretold.
Not only did the sisters live, but each had daughters of her own. Those now adult women have honoured their mothers in a sensitive, sophisticated picture book that can be used for older children as well. Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe have captured both the sense of terror the children lived with every moment as well as the reservoir of devotion and courage that enabled Toby to stand up to a guard.
Illustrator Isabelle Cardinal draws haunting images. She recreates that inhuman time with figures that are not quite human. The children are emaciated, skeletal, unchildlike, not quite human anymore, the guards distorted and threatening, armed with vicious dogs and whips. Cardinal uses shades of brown and grey to represent the darkness of that time in history, but muted colours suggesting hope break through in the scarf Toby wears and the faint blue sky that awaits outside the camp gates.
The Promise tells a terrible story, but one that ends optimistically. It can be an important part of a teaching unit on The Holocaust, World War II, human rights and children. It should be added to classroom collections and school libraries to help children learn about the past so society does prevent the rise of racism, nationalism and fascism as those who experienced the horrors of World War II intended.
Harriet Zaidman is a freelancer, a book reviewer and children’s writer in Winnipeg, MB.