Red-haired, freckle-faced, green-eyed Markus worries about things that bother many middle-school boys: When will my body fill out? When will my voice lower? When will I grow body hair? He wants puberty to hurry up and do its job so he can hang with the cool kids. He doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about his grandmother's experiences during the Holocaust. But when three of the A-listers ask him to work with them on their social studies Holocaust project, he sees his chance. He knows they want him on their team because of his ailing grandmother, who has a tattoo on her arm from her time in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. He reluctantly decides to talk to her. When Markus asks her about her time in Auschwitz, she violently refuses to discuss it. Her over-the-top reaction shocks Markus, and he's torn between his loyalty to her and the peer pressure at school. No matter what, though, he doesn't want to miss his chance to improve his social status. When a classmate announces that his project will prove that the Holocaust never happened, Markus pictures his old, sick grandmother in the nursing home, and he vows to disprove the student’s claim. A voice from the past accuses his grandmother of crimes during the Holocaust, and Markus’s world quickly spirals out of control. Then, because of Markus's well-intentioned effort to find someone who knew his grandmother during the war, a stranger who knew her in Auschwitz surfaces with shocking and mysterious secrets, and Markus has to come to an entirely new understanding of what the truth actually is. Suddenly, the Holocaust is not just a chapter in his history book...it's his life.
To date, thirteen year old Markus has never had a strong interest in hearing his Oma's (grandmother) stories regarding her Holocaust experiences. She's never gone into much detail about that time in her life anyway, tending to hesitate or change the subject whenever the topic is broached. But when three of the most popular kids in school ask him to team up with them on their Holocaust project, Markus is suddenly looking at Oma in a new light! Being a newly minted teenager, Markus has been having a tough time on the puberty front. Already battling through years of ridicule for being a ginger, now he's got the fun of voice cracking on top of that. But if he gets in with the popular kids, his school rep might have a chance at being saved.
He runs into a problem though: when Markus approaches her to start what he believes will be a series of in-depth sit-down conversations, his grandmother is now tight-lipped. In fact, Markus is shocked at her downright violent response when he puts forth a question about Auschwitz.
Some days later, when Markus informs Oma that one of his classmates is planning on doing a denier stance (arguing that it never happened) on the Holocaust, she decides it's time to face these skeptics once and for all and share her story. Additionally, Markus finds an online support group for Holocaust survivors and gets the idea that he might be able to track someone down who knew Oma (Sarah Goldberg) during that time, offering additional support & credence to the details of her account.
Things get progressively more and more sticky the more time Markus spends on the online support group. His inquiries get a hit and culminate in the arrival of a mystery man who shows up at the nursing home where Sarah lives, claiming he definitely remembers her from Auschwitz. This progresses into the US Justice Department getting wind of this meeting and sending federal agents out to investigate. Now the agents are suspicious that Sarah is hiding some incriminating truths about her past. Because there is no statute of limitations on war crimes, these are serious allegations indeed. Soon enough, the media gets involved, which then leads to protestors parking themselves outside the nursing home, picketing and yelling that their good town is harboring war criminals!
It is at this point in the story that the reader, through the actions being described to them, is asked to ponder on the dangers of history repeating itself, the potential ruination that can come to a person's life if you put more faith in what you HEAR versus what you KNOW to be true. These scenes also offer strong social commentary on the power of media in general, a topic that is all too relevant in todays' world! Think about it, how much spin is put on the news stories being presented to you? What facts are conveniently left out to further one side's agenda? What's the possibly irreparable damage someone's life might suffer as a result of this selective presentation of facts?
After awhile, Oma Sarah has just had enough. All of a sudden she takes on this mood of "Fine, you want to know the story, HERE IT IS" and just lays everything out there. Getting her number tattoo. How her face became permanent scarred on one side. Why all the secrets and shadiness around her story.... the last 50 pages or so of this book felt just chock full of twists and turns and revelations!
There may be readers that don't agree with or aren't satisfied with the truth of Oma's story, the decisions she made that helped her to survive. Still, her story brings forth an important message that all readers will benefit to take in. It's presented with a Holocaust theme, but the reader can connect with it a number of different ways... and that's the topic of how we personally identify ourselves (or what we identify with) and the complexity of that. The lifelong journey behind it. Oma explains to readers that an identification number is just that --- a number --- it does NOT define your soul's identity. You are an individual, full of unique dreams, goals, interests, loves... not a number forced upon you with the calculated intent to make you feel blurred, lost in a crowd, easily forgettable. As one line in the book says, "It's what we DO with our lives that gives us identity."
I saw some similarities in theme and feel between this book and The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, mostly through the involvement of a teen getting to know their Holocaust-surviving grandmother on a much deeper level. Though both novels might incorporated similar themes and settings, they are each unique in their storytelling presentation.
I struggled some with connecting with Markus, particularly with the way he treated his "uncool" friends -- a gay guy and a black girl. I was definitely taken aback with his comment about his female friend, "I defended her and her stout behind all these years."... whoa, wait, so did he think he was doing them a FAVOR, being a friend to "the gay guy and the token black girl"... what was that about?! Speaking of the kids in this book, I was a little disappointed with the dialogue in general. The story is supposed to take place in a modern day school setting for the most part, but the choice of wording for the school kids had them sounding more like some 1970s kids movie rather than today's world. Outside of the school setting though, Markus and his mother had a very sweet, lighthearted mother-son banter between them that was fun to read.
A note to parents and educators: though this is marketed to the middle-grade and YA reader, there is healthy dose of profanity throughout the book, so you may want to do a discretionary read-through if you have concerns about such things.
FTC Disclaimer: Reading Addiction Book Tours kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.
* I highly recommend checking out the documentary Prisoner Number A26188: Henia Bryer (Holocaust Survivor Documentary) by Timeline World History Documentaries, currently free to watch on Youtube. Tragic story but the film is SO well done!