CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 36. . . .May 17, 2013
The Last Train: A Holocaust Story.
Toronto, ON: Owlkids Books, 2013.
142 pp., hardcover & ePdf, $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-926973-62-3 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-926973-71-5 (ePdf).
Arato, Paul-Childhood and youth-Juvenile literature.
Jewish children in the Holocaust-Juvenile literature.
Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)-Juvenile literature.
Bergen-Belsen (Concentration camp)-Juvenile literature.
World War, 1939-1945-Children-Juvenile literature.
World War, 1939-1945-Concentration camps-Germany-Juvenile literature.
Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.
Review by Liane Shaw.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Oscar and Paul watched from a dusty street corner as trucks rumbled by. Tall men with guns slung over their shoulders stepped past them. Their faces were hard; their eyes looked straight ahead. Wide-eyed, Paul munched on a piece of matzo as they passed.
"Oscar, who are they?" Paul asked.
"They look mean. I don't like them."
Oscar cupped Paul's mouth. "Don't let them hear you say that."
Five-year-old Paul and his 10-year-old brother, Oscar, know that something frightening is coming when the German soldiers march into their home town of Karcag, Hungary in 1944. Already separated from their father, the boys and their mother discover that they must now leave their home, and they are forced to live in a tiny house in a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. This is only the first step in an escalating life of constant fear as the family is next moved to a labor camp in Austria and then to the horrifying Bergen Belsen camp in Germany. Daily life in the camp is a mixture of terror and boredom, and Oscar finds himself trying to care for his increasingly ill mother while, at the same time, keeping tabs on his restless younger brother. In the spring of 1945, the boys see British planes flying over the camp and hope of a rescue begins to stir. But instead, they find themselves forced back onto the same type of train that had brought them to the camp, a boxcar that was nothing more than a "dark, stinking hole". After they spend four desperate days trying to survive conditions "so bad that it was hard to tell who was alive and who was dead", the train makes another of its many stops. Oscar's fears that the soldiers are finally going to kill them are quickly overcome by the realization that the train has been discovered by a battalion of American soldiers who free them and help them to safety and eventually back to their home town.
Many years later, Paul, who has done his best to bury the horrible memories of his past, sees a photograph of this same train as it is being liberated. He writes to the man who posted the picture, setting in motion an opportunity to meet his rescuers at an emotional reunion in New York.
The Last Train is written by Paul's wife, Rona Arato. Arato spent over a hundred hours interviewing survivors in order to present an accurate portrayal of the experiences of her husband and the many, many others who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust. She presents the story within a clear historical perspective, giving enough detail to educate the uninitiated on the events of the time, but never interfering with the emotional impact of the real life experiences of individuals involved.
The story is told in a straightforward, deceptively simple fashion, making it feel very much as if we are seeing the events through the eyes of the two young boys. The simple, unembellished descriptions of unimaginable horror make them painfully real...no longer unimaginable at all. The slow erosion of Paul's innocence is masterfully constructed as he goes from happily celebrating his own birthday in the first camp, to witnessing the shooting of a young boy whose only crime was looking too happy on his birthday in the second camp, to eventually being able to walk past a trench filled with dead bodies where "Every day now there were more bodies. Some were in trenches; others stacked in piles After a while they didn't frighten Paul. They were just part of life here."
While The Last Train is clearly developed for the younger audience, this is an important story for anyone to read, with historical and social significance that would make it an appropriate teaching tool at many levels, reaching well into the high school grades. The Last Train is an accessible, yet heart-wrenching, account that will hopefully help to educate a new generation.
Liane Shaw is a retired teacher and educational consultant now working as a novelist near Renfrew, ON.
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