CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 9 . . . . December 22, 2006
When 14-year-old Jutka Weltner thinks of the word ‘Kanada,’ she imagines Mounties, snow, and the freedom she has seen in a picture book that was sent to her by her aunt in Ottawa. Unfortunately, freedom for Jutka is as far away as the country of Canada itself - she and her family, as Jews living during World War II, are under fire in their homeland of Hungary. As the country’s Jews swiftly lose their freedom and are deported to concentration camps, Jutka must fight to stay alive and to distinguish her dreams from her nightmares and fantasies. At Auschwitz, Jutka learns about Kanada, the bitterly ironic moniker given to the series of storerooms at the camp. Although she is offered one chance to remain in the relative safety of Kanada, Jutka turns it down in order to endure the war together with her friends. As World War II is ushered to its end, Jutja is faced with a life-altering choice about her future. After her many nightmares, which dream should she choose: Eretz Israel or Canada?
In the vein of Eva Wiseman’s previous novels, such as My Canary Yellow Star and No One Must Know, Kanada is a deeply moving portrayal of a Jewish teenager’s experience of the Holocaust. Jutka’s dream of Canada is affecting, especially in light of the fact that Canada rejected Jewish refugees during World War II. The novel is made still more poignant by the fact that it is based on the author’s parents’ own experiences of the Holocaust, as Wiseman indicates in her acknowledgements.
Kanada provides an absorbing exploration of the alterations made to people’s humanity in the face of dire circumstances. In particular, the changes in Jutka’s character are surveyed throughout the narrative as she transforms from an innocent, pleasant girl into a mature young woman who has seen far too much. Although Jutka’s personality seems a bit nondescript at first, Wiseman begins to develop the protagonist’s vibrancy with Jutka’s perversely humourous act of dropping her body lice onto her Kapo’s uniform and hair. Then, her character matures almost dreadfully so when, after the war’s conclusion, she is involved in the stoning of her former Kapo officer: “I remembered her leer when she condemned Eva to die. I remembered and remembered. I knew that I could never, would never, forget. As if in a trance, I bent, picked up a stone, and threw it. It hit her arm.” Jutka’s evolution in character, at this point, becomes frightening, particularly when she states that she is unsure about whether she could have stopped herself if no one had intervened. In another example of changed humanity in the face of terror, the character of Tamas stands out. Tamas, who is Jutka’s first crush, joins the enemy Arrow Cross; as a result, he swings from a peaceable and fun-loving young man to a creature filled with an unreasonable hatred for all things Jewish, even Jutka, whom he esteemed before the war came to Hungary. The novel’s exploration of character change in the time of war and hatred is compelling, as it paints examples of those whose true colours show, for better or for worse, in times of crisis.
Particularly compelling is the account of Jutka’s survival tactics as Prisoner A10234 in Auschwitz, especially when she concedes that God is “not listening.” Having rejected an offer to remain in Kanada, despite its guarantee of greater protection and more food, she must seek ways to keep living wherever she can find them. The novel provides several examples of strategies used by Jutka and her fellow prisoners in order to remain alive despite the constant threats of starvation and death. For instance, a most compelling approach is the prisoners’ unwillingness to surrender their faith in God. Despite Jutka’s denial of a listening God, she cannot help but participate in a spontaneous community recitation on Rosh Hashanah, despite its calamitous consequences. Such strategies as this, which are well illustrated by Wiseman, offer an indication of how life went on in the death camps.
Instead of ending with the conclusion of the war, the narrative goes on to depict Jutka’s continuing battle to resume her life. By doing so, the narrative struggles with the notion of Jewish recovery from the Holocaust, especially when anti-Semitism does not collapse with the end of the war. The novel asks: how can a recovery truly occur when the impossible has happened? Jutka does her best to heal as she falls in love with a Jewish boy named Sandor and attempts to regain her own humanity. However, she feels that her journey toward wholeness is stalled because of her liminal state: “I wasn’t a girl and I wasn’t a woman. I was no one’s daughter or sister.” Although she learns that she is stronger than she ever imagined, she wonders how she can ever regain the right to feel happy after all of the horror she has experienced. Yet, incomprehensibly, she does.
As Jutka agonizes over her memories of her old life, Kanada encourages the reader to wonder what the concept of ‘home’ truly involves, particularly in our age of so many displaced people around the world. Jutka feels that her home and her country, along with her identity, have been eradicated. Similarly, Sandor concedes that his home has vanished. Hungary is no longer a possibility for them. Sandor copes with this loss with his belief in the new homeland of Eretz Israel, where he will “never be a stranger again.” Jutka is torn, however, between Sandor’s dream of a Jewish homeland and her own vision of snowy Canada. Although Jutka desires to emigrate to Canada, the reader is led to wonder whether it is a Canada that truly exists, or is it only in her imagination? After all that has happened to her, will she ever feel at home anywhere? The open-ended conclusion, which features Jutka simultaneously wiping away tears and expressing her hope for the future, leaves room for future exploration of these poignant questions.
Kanada is a notable contribution to the genre of Holocaust literature for teens because of its interesting perspective of a Jewish-Hungarian teenager longing for Canada, despite the country’s disinterest in her. Canada’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the fate of European Jews will appeal to Canadian adolescent readers, particularly those who are interested in historical fiction, and who can manage the graphic content of this unique piece of Holocaust literature.
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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.