Each year, International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th prompts us to remember the horror of man’s inhumanity to man. But for the remaining 364 days of the year, there are many books which can keep this appalling event in our minds as a warning. From the fact - like The Diary of Anne Frank - to fiction - such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - young readers are offered many insights into life for children from Nazi-occupied countries during World War II.
However, rarely is a childhood memoir so powerful that it stays with you forever afterwards. Somewhere There is Still a Sun (Aladdin) is such a book. This is Michael (Misha) Gruenbaum’s own story, recalling the events eighty years ago, when he was a nine-year-old Jewish boy living with his family in Prague and Nazi troops invaded Czechoslovakia. These events led, three years later, to his father’s death and Michael's own incarceration in Terezín, the Nazi ‘model Jewish settlement’ (in reality a transit camp/ghetto housing Jews preparatory to transportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau). Here he was separated from his remaining family, and spent the next three years in Room 7, a dormitory of forty teenage boys, among whom is Franta. Franta has realized that they will all mentally survive the conditions better if their lives are organized around lessons, keeping their room clean and tidy, and ensuring their football team is the best in the camp.
Although Misha sees his mother and sister regularly, it is the Nešarim – the Eagles – of Room 7 who dominate his narrative, and whose influence will be lifelong. Starting in Prague on March 11th 1939, and finishing, again in Prague, on December 17th 1945, Misha’s story unfolds through 300+ pages of present-tense day-long narratives which immerse the reader in the everyday life before and during the Gruenbaums' incarceration. Contrary to the Nazi propaganda, this town, with its former military barracks, housed 5,000 inhabitants before the war, but now 55,000 Jews were crammed into its increasingly decrepit, unheated, verminous, disease-ridden spaces. When a Red Cross inspection was ordered by the Allies, thousands were transported to Birkenau in order to make it appear that all the remaining inhabitants were happy and healthy, with the buildings cleaned and repaired, gardens planted, and shops filled with food. This and other ruses worked, and it wasn’t until Terezín was liberated by Soviet troops that the truth began to emerge.
Misha's co-writer, Todd Hasak-Lowy, worked Gruenberg’s memories into a cohesive narrative, superbly achieving his aim, expressed in the ‘Afterword’:
'I didn’t want this book to read like a story about the Holocaust, I wanted it to read like a person living through those events at that time.'
His writing creates an immediacy which places the reader beside Misha as events occur; from the nine-year old’s counting game whenever he crosses the Cechuv Bridge in Prague, through taking part in Brundibar (the children’s opera performed by the prisoners in Terezín), all the way to his liberation as a fifteen year old. Until he left Terezín, Misha was unaware of the fate of those transported onwards to Birkenau. Because Hasak-Lowy so carefully maintains this ‘innocence’, he sustains great immediacy of action, in which the reader feels totally and personally involved. This device should successfully engage younger readers more than is often possible with many Holocaust stories. Complete with a selected bibliography and illustrated with many family photos - images from Misha’s Nešarim Memory Book, and his mother’s secret Terezín scrapbook - this is a truly unmissable book which should be in every school library, and perhaps part of the History/PSHE curriculum.