CM . . . . Volume XV Number 9. . . .December 19, 2008
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2009.
243 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Blood accusation-Europe-Juvenile fiction.
Trials (Murder)-Europe-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Harriet Zaidman.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
…everybody knows the Jews killed my sister. I overheard my master tell my mistress that even some of the newspapers in Budapest are accusing the Jews of killing Esther for her blood, she said stubbornly.
I went with Rosie to their Jew church once. They do strange things there. And
they speak in gibberish. You can't understand a single word they're saying.
The false accusation of blood libel against Jews is a tool that was used over the centuries to whip up anti-Semitic fervour among the masses; the fear and loathing it inspired resulted in pogroms, deaths and persecution and kept Jews isolated in European society.
Sadly, the myth persists, even today.
What is blood libel?
It's the notion that Jews kidnap young Christian children and murder them in a ritual manner, draining their blood to bake matzo, a cracker made of flour and water that is used on Passover.
Because the ruling classes and the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant church oligarchies needed scapegoats for their own corruption and neglect of their citizenry. It was, and is, useful
to demonize a group of identifiable people when a problem arises. The blood libel came in handy when a child went missing or was found dead. History records many instances of mass hysteria and attacks against Jews and Jewish property, bogus trials and executions, but there was no
atonement by the authorities or the churches when a child was later found alive or a death explained.
The blood libel and the last trial of Jews for the death of a young girl in Hungary in 1882-83 is the subject of Eva Wiseman's latest book, Puppet. Wiseman writes important books for young
adults; her previous novels, A Place Not Home, My Canary Yellow Star, No
One Must Know and Kanada, address the scourge or anti-Semitism and the murder of millions of innocent people by the Nazis, through the experiences of ordinary young girls.
In Puppet, it is a Jewish teen who is the accuser, thereby adding 'credibility' to the prosecutors' case. Morris Scharf is beaten into saying that he witnessed his father and other members of the local synagogue snatch a servant-girl off the street, hold her down and slash her neck, collecting her blood in a bowl.
Wiseman tells the story through the eyes of a non-Jewish girl, Julie. She is impoverished, her mother dies, and her abusive father separates her from her younger sister, forcing her to work as a servant in the jail where the imprisoned Jews are being held. Julie knows that Morris's accusations are false, but she is intimidated by her violent father and by society's attitudes into holding her tongue. Her own fears of losing her job and having nowhere to turn tear at her conscience.
Julie's work allows her to make herself invisible; no one pays attention to the bedraggled waif scrubbing a floor. She uses her position to learn that Morris is being isolated from his family and brainwashed by the prosecutor and the priest. As well, she learns of the plans for the trial. The
trial is proceeding as predicted – sentiment is mounting against the Jews despite evidence that the girl was seen after she was supposedly abducted and even though Morris&apops;s testimony is found to be invalid.
The crisis comes when Julie must decide what she should do. The threat of beating and possible death at her father's hands and her worry over her younger sister's fate weigh heavily on her. It's a no–win situation for the Jews; they have fled the town. The synagogue has been wrecked. If the
men are convicted, they will be attacked in retribution, and, if they are acquitted, there will be vengeance for the 'injustice.'
One of Wiseman's strengths is the frank way she depicts the way people lived and how they thought. She uses common terms, such as
Jew church and
Jew butcher, jarring expressions that add a pejorative tone to a description. Esther's sister Sophie, who works for a Jewish family and is friends with their daughter, is convinced that:
They killed Esther, she whispered.
They killed my sister for her blood. They wanted her blood to make their Easter bread.
Sophie has been indoctrinated that people who practice a different religion must be engaged in some sort of witchcraft – her own experiences with a family that treats her well cannot convince her otherwise. Julie's father is also typical:
I had some work this morning. Rosenberg needed help on his farm. That dirty Jew, he has so much money he doesn't know what to do with it.
Those people steal money of the pockets of God-fearing Christian men.
From whom Rosenberg is stealing is never mentioned. Why Pa got decent wages from Rosenberg is never considered. If the wages had been lower, it would be the dirty Jew who is trying to get rich off his labour. If the wages had been higher, then the Jew is too rich and should pay even more. Why Rosenberg shouldn't earn money from his farm is also not examined – these questions would require a conscience and self-reflection. Even Teresa, the co-worker who urges Julie to do the right thing, is tainted:
You know that I don't have much use for them Jews, Julie, she said,
but if Morris won't tell the truth, you'll have to.
It's important for young people, especially those brought up far away in distance and time, to
understand that these attitudes were common in Europe and heard daily in the course of people's lives. How else to make sense of the atrocities that took place then and the senseless slaughter that was organized in a methodical, cold-blooded fashion in World War II? If children are not
taught positive ways of interacting with people, then racist attitudes are carried forward through the generations.
Such attitudes were common in Canada when Europeans first emigrated here. My parents
grew up in the milieu of the North End of Winnipeg where Jews, Ukrainians, Poles and Germans lived side by side. They talked about having friends with whom they would play and walk to school, but that the parents of some of these children would forbid them to associate with Jewish
children on Passover. They were sure that the same Jewish neighbours, with whom they shared tea and cake at other times of the year, were going to drain their sons and daughters of their blood. After Passover, the 'danger' somehow ended for another twelve months.
I remember being told that I
must be rich simply because of my ethnic background. Although these foolish notions have diminished in number, myths and deliberate misconceptions have not disappeared in regard to any group in Canada – Jews, Muslims, First Nations, Asians, Catholics, etc. Name the group and a stereotype exists.
And what of Morris Scharf? His name, according to Wiseman, is synonymous with the word 'traitor' among the Jews of that region. In trying to save himself, Morris became immortal.
Puppet would be very useful in a study about racism, anti-Semitism or negative stereotyping.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
To comment on this title or this review, send mail to
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.
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