Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
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It doesn’t take much looking to find shelves and shelves of Holocaust books — countless eloquent, moving books, all depicting the horrors of one of history’s darkest periods.
So — why publish another one?
The first time I paged through The War within These Walls, I was looking at the Belgian edition, in Dutch. I had a rough translation of the first hundred or so pages — but as it turned out, I didn’t even need to read the text for the book to capture my attention. I knew this was something unique.
A fictionalized account of the 1942 Warsaw ghetto uprising, The War within These Walls was striking from the very first moment I opened it. Somber blue-grey art pulled me in, drew me along through the story. This is a book that tells its story as eloquently through the art and layout as it does though the text. It’s brilliantly paced, alternating between text and illustration, in some spots placing just a single word or a sentence on an otherwise dark page: “I had never felt so Jewish before.” “They’re taking us to camps to murder us.”
This dramatic pacing is perfectly suited to the book’s subject. It depicts a grim event, and it isn’t afraid to be honest about the atrocities that took place when the Nazis confined nearly a half million Jews to an area of less than two square miles. It’s a dark story, with more than its fair share of pain, hunger, desperation, and violence — and though I hate darkness, pain, and violence as much as the next person, I knew from my first reading that this was a story we had to share.
Yet as easy as it was for me to see that this book was something special, actually sitting down to edit it was an altogether different proposition. This project was one of the hardest I have ever worked on. Over the course of weeks, I forced myself to read and re-read every brutal line, assaulted each time by the realities of this dark moment in human history.
After spending an afternoon editing this book, I would want nothing more than to go home, curl up with a cup of tea, and think about something — anything — else. I’ll admit that there were points when I asked myself, even if the book does offer an incredibly compelling, important narrative, is it really necessary that we keep revisiting this painful subject matter? Do we really have to do this? Do I have to do this?
It’s easier to look away from difficult stories. It’s easier not to risk having to carry the images they leave in your head forever after.
But then I started doing some research. What started as simple fact-checking turned quickly into my reading firsthand accounts of the uprising. As it happened, while we were working on the book, several of the few remaining actual survivors of the uprising passed away. I read their obituaries, mesmerized by how similar their stories were to the story Aline Sax had created.
There was Vladka Meed, who smuggled pistols and dynamite to the Jewish fighters in the ghetto. And Isreal Gutman, who protected a bunker where wounded fighters were taken. And Boruch Spiegel, who was on guard duty the night of April 19, when the uprising began.
And there were so many others. One of the most striking things about those who fought in the uprising was how young they were. Mordechai Anielewicz was only 23 years old when he took command of Jewish resistance forces in the Warsaw ghetto, and many of the other fighters were around his age. In other words, they weren’t much older than many of the readers of The War within These Walls — but they were willing nonetheless to fight and die for their cause.
This book may be fiction, but it captures the truth of both the suffering and the bravery of Warsaw’s Jews. The atrocities that Mischa experiences in The War within These Walls represent a small fraction of the horrors that these people saw. And like Mischa, even though they knew their cause was probably hopeless, they chose to keep fighting — to be a bold witness to the courage of the Jewish people. It seems to me that as we lose the original eyewitnesses to these events, it’s even more important for us to keep their stories alive.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once declared, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Protest injustice: that is exactly what the resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising did.
It is my hope that this book will help give young readers the courage and conviction they need to stand up and protest injustice wherever they may find it in a world still unaccountably full of atrocities — even, perhaps especially, when resistance seems most futile.
Click to order The War within These Walls, written by Aline Sax, illustrated by Caryl Strzelecki, and translated by Laura Watkinson.