A Journey of Empathy

Refugee, by Alan Gratz (2017)33118312

Opening line: “CRACK! BANG! Josef Landau shot straight up in bed, his heart racing.”

Guys, I’m so excited to be blogging about this for multiple reasons: First: This book just came out last week, so I’m actually relevant! I feel like I’m usually at least a year behind publication dates when I blog, which most of the the time feels like too little, too late in terms of making a difference in sharing what’s new out there. And now, even though Mr. Schu has been talking this up since about February, I am at least in the realm of recently published, so hooray! Second: Alan Gratz is coming to my school in October and this is one of those books that I think every one of my students (and teachers) should read!

From the title, you can guess the content. This is book is simultaneously three stories of three separate refugee crises and one story of humanity that we need to pay attention to. The first character we’re introduced to is Josef, who is living in Berlin in 1938. His father is captured by the Nazis for continuing to practice law after Jews were forced to quit many lines of work. After several months in Dachau Concentration Camp, his father is released with the understanding that he and his family must leave Germany immediately. And so, they embark on the MS St. Louis, which is transporting hundreds of Jews to Cuba to escape Hitler.

The second story we get is that of Isabel’s, whose family is living in 1994 Havana, Cuba, under the oppressive rule of Fidel Castro. With little money and next to no food, they are barely surviving. After a particularly violent public uprising, Castro lifts his travel ban, allowing any citizens to leave Cuba without punishment. Isabel and her family quickly decide it’s time to take the risk and join their neighbors in a small makeshift boat in a desperate journey to Miami.

Finally, we meet Mahmoud, living in Aleppo, Syria in 2015. Things have gone from bad to worse in Aleppo, and when their apartment building is hit with a missile, completely destroying everything, Mahmoud’s parents decide they cannot stay in Syria any longer. With little money and nothing more than what they can carry in two small backpacks, the family of five set out to journey across nine countries to Germany, who has recently announced they are accepting refugees.

If you were paying attention there, you might start to see how these three separate stories might connect, despite the 77 year and 7000 mile spread. Gratz shifts from story to story at just the right moment, leaving us anxious to keep reading so we can get back to whatever character we just left (and that happens every. time. I never had a good chance to put in my bookmark and leave it for later! Which is why I finished it in less than 24 hours…). Each refugee crisis is brought to life with the lives of these families, and you cannot read them without wanting to change something. While two of the stories are historical fiction, one is still very much a reality for many families. In his author’s note, Gratz provides the websites for two of the organizations he suggests to look into if you too are inspired by Mahmoud’s story: UNICEF (which will receive a portion of the proceeds for every copy of Refugee that is sold) and Save the Children.

The power of books is to build empathy, and this book does just that. 3 stars

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A scandal of creation

Night, by Elie Wiesel (2006, orginally pub. 1958)

A couple days ago, I finally sat down and read Night. We all know of Night, whether or not we have read it. Last year, a friend of mine who was interning in D.C. got to meet Elie Wiesel and received a kiss on the cheek from him and I thought, “Aww, good old Elie Wiesel.” I felt like I knew him, even though I had never read anything he’s written. He’s one of those authors. We all know him, and we all know Night.

Night was one of those books that I always felt I should read, but never got around to it. Perhaps I was sub-consciously putting it off. I mean, who wants to read about suffering so great that death seems preferable? If I read Anne Frank or Devil’s Arithmetic in middle school, do I still need to read this? What will “one more book about the Holocaust” do for me?

But I found a copy of it at my local library’s FriendShop (where books cost between $0.50-$1.50), and thought, “It’s time.”

So one evening last week, I cracked open Night. I am a before-bed reader, always have been, but as I started to read it, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before going to sleep. It isn’t a restful read. Only 115 pages, broken into short one-or-two-page sections, it’s hard not to read Night in one sitting. I had to stop reading only a little way in, for fear of horrifying dreams I would surely have. I had to finish it the next day, with the sun shining through the windows.

For those of you who don’t know, Night is Elie Wiesel’s memoir chronicling his  time spent in Auschwitz, the famous Polish concentration camp, as fifteen-year-old boy from 1944-45. The story starts in his small village in Transylvania, Sighet, where Wiesel and his family lived. Assured that the rumors they were hearing would not find their way to Sighet, the Wiesels stayed in their home until S.S. officers came to their village and set up Jewish ghettos. Later, those in the ghettos were loaded onto cattle cars and unknowingly taken to Auschwitz. Upon getting off the cattle car, Wiesel and his father were shoved to the left, while his mother and sisters were shoved to the right, marking the last moment Wiesel would see his female relatives. The rest of the story follows Wiesel and his father while they work at Auschwitz III, the labor camp, their march to Gleiwitz (so as to avoid liberation efforts), and their final move to Buchenwald, where Wiesel’s father dies a mere three months before the camp’s liberation. Wiesel does nothing to gloss over what he saw and felt, including the flames of the crematoria, the stench of burning flesh, human waste, and decaying bodies, the life slipping from a child’s eyes as he hangs from the gallows, the pain of a running on a puss-filled foot, the temptation to let his father die…

As I was writing this, I ran across the interview that Oprah conducted with Elie Wiesel in 2006 at Auschwitz on YouTube (split into parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Watching Wiesel talk about his book and his experiences brought me some perspective. Why do we read Night and Diary of a Young Girl ? Why do we watch The Pianist and Schindler’s List? The “scandal on the level of creation” deserves constant recognition, Wiesel reminds us, because it is only then that when we see similar scandals, as we always will, we will “be there to shout, ‘No. We remember.'”

Somehow, I don’t feel right giving Night a rating. Did I absolutely love it? Am I angry that it is over? No, and no. But how can I give it anything but the highest rating? How can I rate a person’s experience?