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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Through Mother's Poisiealbum, Levy Makes Holocaust Personal

(Image from Indiebound)
For 12-year-old Jutta Salzberg, 1938 is a year of giggling with her classmates, exercising at the gymnastics club, and collecting messages from friends in her poesiealbum (like an autograph book). It's also a year of goodbyes. As Hitler's power grows, Germany's Jewish population diminishes, meaning Jutta's friends are disappearing one by one. Some escape to foreign lands, some simply vanish. While Jutta's family waits anxiously for clearance to travel to America, she turns to her autograph book for solace. Her friends may be gone, but she can still enjoy the sentiments preserved inside the pages of her album. The messages recall happier times, times Jutta hopes will come again soon.

In The Year of Goodbyes, children's author Debbie Levy uses real entries from her mother's poesiealbum to describe the older woman's experience as a Jewish girl coming of age in Nazi Germany. The story, told in verse interspersed with snippets from the album, captures the confusion, anger and abject terror felt by children grappling with a world that's become suddenly and horrifyingly hostile. The tale grows especially poignant when Jutta mourns her lost pals, not knowing that many of the girls are gone forever, brutally murdered in concentration camps. Equally as disturbing are the day-to-day occurrences suffered by Jutta and her friends - they are not allowed to eat at certain restaurants, patronize certain shops, play at some playgrounds or study at some libraries; they are segregated from their Aryan classmates; they are forced to change their names if they sound too Jewish; and, of course, they are forcibly removed from their homes, packed into trains and shipped off to certain death. Because Jutta avoids this grim fate, she's able to relate her history to her daughter many years later, giving us valuable insight into the plight of Jewish Germans during the Holocaust.
Still, because of the fact that Jutta and her family are able to flee Germany, escaping the kind of suffering that ripped others' hearts to shreds, her tale doesn't carry the same weight as, say, Anne Frank's. Compared to many Holocaust survivor tales, Jutta's is, in fact, rather anticlimatic. Still, the poesiealbum entries keep the account personal, reminding us of the delicate innocence the Nazis continually ground to dust under their shiny jackboots. Despite all that, the story also speaks of hope, of "feeling the Nazi hate/and laughing with your girlfriends anyway" (5). While the book didn't move me as much as other Holocaust memoirs, I found The Year of Goodbyes to be a quick, compelling read about friendship, fear and fortitude.
(Readalikes: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; The Hidden Girl: A True Story of the Holocaust by Lola Rein Kaufman with Lois Metzger; and Rutka's Notebook: A Voice From the Holocaust by Rutka Laskier)
Grade: C
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG; While stories about The Holocaust can never be rated anything less than R for senseless violence and abject horror, The Year of Goodbyes is written with a young audience in mind. It discusses mature themes, but they are described in a PG manner that should be suitable for children ages 8+.
To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Year of Goodbyes from the always generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thank you!


  1. Is it just me or does it seem like there is a new Holocaust book out every other day?
    I always liked Anne Frank, but I don't think I'd enjoy this much more than a "c" either.

  2. I agree with Jenna, there are sooo many Holocaust books out that it's become redundant to write one! This is unfortunate because the Holocaust was so destructive and criminal and horrendous that we must never forget it! Although there are holocausts going on today around the world, we tend to read about them and see them on tv and "sigh" and turn away and wonder what we could possibly do about it anyway. It's difficult to grade a book similar to Anne Frank's in that age of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews... I can totally understand that. We really can only pray for those who were there, who still feel its sting and trauma, and for those who are suffering now. Thanks for taking the time to review this book no matter what the outcome. Your choice put a spotlight on the issues.

    PS: And, thanks for stopping by my blog a week or so ago! I'm following you!

  3. There are tons of Holocaust books out there, something I like since it's a subject I'm interested in. No matter how many times I read Holocaust stories, I'm still amazed, disgusted and incredulous that something like that could happen.

    This book, though, just didn't really add anything new. Like I said, it was sort of anticlimatic. I feel bad saying that - I mean, I'm glad the people survived, it's just that storywise, it's not as exciting. Know what I mean?

  4. I thought the poisiealbum made this one unique, but you're right that it lacks some of the power because her family escapes. I'll link to your review on War Through the Generations.


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