CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 16 . . . . April 15, 2005
Canada accepted just over one thousand Jewish teens that lost their families during World War II. They were scrutinized by doctors and officials before gaining admission to Canada and were then sent to live with host families across the country.
These youth had lived adult lives during the war, surviving against all odds. But as refugees, they were again considered children by all authorities. The families who welcomed them were often unaware, as most people were unaware, of the extent of the horrors they experienced in concentration camps or in hiding. The tenor of the times was that people did not speak about bad events. The psychological trauma they experienced, the world from which they came, the people they had lost, were not spoken about. The teenagers were expected to appreciate the charity they were receiving and adapt immediately to life and the habits of Canadians. As a result, the adjustment for many of the teens was difficult.
Myra Paperny, winner of the Canada Council Award for Children’s Books in 1984 (now the Governor-General’s Literary Award) for The Wooden People has fictionalized the experience of some of these children in The Greenies. A “greeneh” is Yiddish word to describe a new immigrant, someone who doesn’t know how life works in the new country and who is often embarrassed by the impolite reaction of native-born citizens.
main character is Lilly, a girl who watched her mother and younger
sister being marched off to die and who was separated from her other
sister because the refugee process disallowed anyone who turned 18
before it was completed. She is alone, but she has ambition. Other
characters are Kurt, Danny, Sylvie, Sophie and Max, all who have their
own stories of survival and their own hopes and dreams.
The other refugee teenagers have a variety of experiences. The teens meet regularly to swap stories and assist each other in figuring out their new lives. Sylvie is welcomed in her new house and loves it there. Max is loved but can’t adjust to losing his family, and a crisis results. Danny wants to become independent and so opts to work and put off his education until he can provide for himself.
The difficulties the teens face range from being acknowledged for their abilities and experiences by their new families to being accepted in the Vancouver Jewish community, especially by their peer group. Although they had been educated in the refugee camps, they had missed out on years of school, and so for some it was difficult to fit in at school. Their European accent is the object of mockery by some, and in Lilly’s case, by a teacher. The different customs in Canada clash with what the teens are accustomed to, from eating corn flakes for breakfast to not having to carry government-issued identification on the bus to bowling.
The problems of the children are finally sorted out. Life will not be easy, but most find a degree of comfort and happiness. Lilly finds friendship, something she sorely missed and is surprised to find it with a Canadian-born girl. Her future seems brighter, and hopefully she will be able to achieve her goals.
Hindsight and maturity as a nation has taught us that immigrants and refugees from war torn countries deserve acknowledgment and recognition for their experiences. Society has evolved to assist people who are making wrenching linguistic, cultural and physical shifts in their lives. Those who did without this aid struggled mightily and accomplished amazing things out of the force of sheer will. But that does not diminish what should have been done to help them, nor the shame that those who looked down on them should bear.
Paperny’s story is sensitively told. She goes into the minds of the characters and recalls the memories they have of their parents and siblings as well as the terrors they faced under the Nazis. Today’s youth are far more interested and understanding of the struggles of newcomers. While some of the Vancouver teens seem a little too snobbish, that is perhaps how they were perceived by the refugees.
Her depiction of society at the time is accurate and informative for today’s teens. She has some difficulties in creating dialogue that is representative of immigrants learning English, however. Some of them are fairly eloquent in English very quickly. It is not clear at times if they are speaking in Yiddish, which would then make fluency acceptable.
This book will appeal to students who enjoy historical fiction and who want to understand how people felt and reacted to events in other times. It can be used to augment studies about the immigrant experience, about Jews during and after the Holocaust, and as a comparison to the way refugees are treated when they arrive in Canada today.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.