After the War.
Grades 7 - 9 / Ages 12 - 14.
I creep from behind the couch and move to the window. The crowd is beating some of the occupants of the house, using bricks, sticks, or stabbing them over and over with knives, all the time screaming, "murdering Jews, filthy Communists, child killers...."
Finally the mob disperses and the soldiers come in. We move the wounded to mattresses on the floor that aren't ripped or blood soaked....
There is nowhere that is safe. But somehow I've survived again. I don't know how to stop.
After the War is Carol Matas's fictional account of Ruth Mendenberg, a fifteen year old Holocaust survivor, who finds personal self-renewal in the courage and love of the Jewish people. After the War is also a fact based account of the great post-World War II Jewish migration to Eretz Israel, the land of Israel.
Ruth's days and nights are haunted by the memories of life and death in the camps. At times she wonders if the ashes of her mother and sister drifted down from the chimneys of the Auschwitz crematoria onto her, as she was marched off to the slave labour camps. Although alive, Ruth's soul and spirit are mere ashes: she has been psychologically destroyed in the crucible of Nazism's burnt offerings. She believes that love and happiness can no longer exist for her. After what she has seen and experienced, survival is more of a punishment than a blessing.
After her release from the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Ruth returns home to the Polish town of Kielce. She hoped to find at least one surviving relative; tragically, she is told that none have survived the Nazi horror. She meets a Zionist organizer from Palestine, who tries to convince her to migrate to Israel and help build a new Jewish state. Before she makes a final decision, however, the Jews of Kielce are caught in a murderous pogrom: a slaughter of Jews.
Nazism's defeat, in 1945, and the world wide recognition of the Holocaust's horrors did not ensure that Europe's surviving Jews were safe from anti-Semites. On 4 July 1946, Jews in Kielce were accused of kidnapping Christian children and slitting their throats. Witnesses said that the Christian blood was used in strange barbarous Jewish rituals and that a rampaging mob murdered dozens of innocent Jews in the slaughter that engulfed the town.
The Kielce pogrom was not an isolated incident. The Jews had been invited back by the government, but they were being attacked, beaten and murdered throughout Poland. It was the Kielce murders, however, that became the catalyst for the brichah - the flight of Eastern Jews to Palestine.
Brichah agents in Europe planned escapes for thousands of fleeing Jews. It was very secret, very dangerous and very illegal. The stateless Jews did not have proper papers to cross the borders of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Italy, and the British had closed the borders of Palestine to further Jewish immigration. Some border guards could be bribed, but others shot to kill, and any Jew caught would end up in a detention camp.
In the story, Ruth agrees to join the illegal organization and to shepherd a group of younger children on the journey to Palestine. She has no conviction to the cause; she is just alone and, as the brichah organizer told her, she had nothing else to do with her life and nowhere else to go.
Throughout the terrifying adventure she risks her life for these children, just as other young Jews risked their lives for her. During the journey, they encounter drunken murderous border guards, hunger, sickness, and the cold brutality of the British navy.
As Ruth goes through these experiences and listens to the children's and other young people's stories, her despair is slowly transformed through a tortuous metamorphosis. These young people's courage in the face of unthinkable atrocity, their deep fears and their hidden hopes open her eyes to new possibilities. Through knowing these children, she begins to face life, find love and comes to terms with her sadness.
Ruth's and the children's stories are terrible testimonies to human evil. Matas does not spare a young reader's sensibilities. The horrors the Jewish people faced and suffered under the Nazi autarchy are brutal in their honesty. Matas clearly believes that these stories must be told and re-told. Unfortunately the world does not learn much from history, but at least it must not be allowed to forget the evil that is Nazism.
It is also important that Matas has not forgotten the courage of the brave Poles who helped Jews, at the risk of their own lives, during the war. Those heroes who hid, fed and protected Jews are rightfully remembered.
If there is a fault in After the War it is a somewhat artificial and cumbersome treatment of opposing Jewish political attitudes to the issues of peace, land, and security. Young readers will not be attuned to these political elements. It is an addition that diminishes the human elements of Ruth's story, which is the focus of the book and unnecessarily removes it from its vital historical context. A sequel would be a better place to explore these important elements.
Carol Matas has written a very good and important book. I hope that teachers and librarians recommend After the War to their students.
Ian Stewart works at Lord Nelson School in Winnipeg and at the University of Winnipeg library.
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Copyright © 1996 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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