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A true story of WW II Warsaw, this novel relates events so dramatic as to be cataclysmic. But the voice of its 14-year-old narrator, Marek, would be gripping given any plot, so candid that it tolerates admissions of less-than-exemplary behavior as well as a more-than-exemplary atonement. A Pole, Marek helps his stepfather smuggle goods into the Jewish ghetto, enduring trips through the foul sewers not from altruism but in order to reap lucrative profits. When two streetwise buddies decide to mug a runaway Jew, he helps: ``They will `shave' some Jew anyway, so what difference does it make if I join them?'' he tells himself. But Marek's mother finds his share of the loot and, appalled, explains that he has consigned his victim to certain death, then reveals that Marek's long-dead father was born Jewish. Marek, who has imbibed much of the local anti-Semitism, decides to use the money to help another Jew, and his actions lead him into the ghetto during the peak of the uprising. A survivor of that ghetto, Orlev neither demonizes nor glorifies, whether portraying Poles or Jews, fighters or collaborators. His refusal to exaggerate gives the story unimpeachable impact. Ages 10-up. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.
Gr. 6-10. From the first page, this story of a teenager in Nazi-occupied Warsaw grabs you like a thriller. But unlike Orlev's Batchelder award-winning Island on Bird Street [BKL Mr 15 84], a Warsaw ghetto survival adventure, the focus here is on character and moral conflict as well as action. Once again, Halkin's translation is masterly, both casual and dramatic. Through the maze of filthy sewers under the city, the boy Marek has to help his rough Polish stepfather, Antony, smuggle food and arms to the desperate Jews in the walled-up ghetto. Sometimes they smuggle people out to save them from "resettlement" in Treblinka. Antony doesn't really like Jews, not in the abstract, anyway; most of the time, he does it for money. Discovering that his own dead father was Jewish, Marek hides a Jewish fugitive medical student, Jozek, and comes to love him like a father. Desperate to be part of the ghetto uprising during the 1943 Passover holiday, Jozek begs Marek to guide him back through the sewers to the ghetto. Jozek is killed there in a fierce rooftop battle; Marek is trapped in the flaming bombardment; and his stepfather, Antony, comes through the sewers to save the "son" he loves. The story has none of the sentimentality that pervades so many children's books about the Holocaust. While Marek's first-person account is unequivocal about the evil of the Nazi genocide, the misery of the crowded ghetto, and the stirring events of the brave uprising, it also bears witness to the way hunger and fear affected individual behavior. The Jews weren't an amorphous group of victims and heroes--some were brave, some weren't, some were traitors. Many Poles were anti-Semitic, many were indifferent, but some transcended prejudice. The sewer labyrinth is stinkingly real, and it's also a metaphor. With dark humor, Antony mocks the 14 resting places in the sewer as the "Stations of the Cross," but there is resurrection in the many strands of the father-son story, and in Marek's wry, reluctant love for the stepfather he once despised. ~--Hazel Rochman
School Library Journal
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Gr 9 Up-- Based on a true story of a Polish boy living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw just before the 1943 uprising, this understated but very revealing fictional memoir follows 14-year-old Marek through some harrowing experiences as he is drawn into this Jewish battle for survival--on both sides of the Ghetto wall. Until his Catholic mother informs Marek that his father was a Jew and had been killed in prison because he was a Communist, the boy has extremely negative feelings about Jews. When he helps Jozek, a Polish Jew hiding from the Nazis and anti-Semitic Poles in Warsaw, he begins a series of events that ultimately results in Jozek's violent death at the hands of the Nazis and Marek's narrow escape from the beseiged quarter. Characterizations are vivid and finely drawn, even those of minor figures such as Marek's empathetic mother who is embarrassed by her countrymen's hatred of Jews; his crude, contradictory stepfather; and his grandparents, who treat Jozek as a family member, all the while hating Jews. This is a story of individual bravery and national shame that highlights just how hopeless was the fate of the Warsaw Jews as they fought alone and heroically against the Nazi war machine. --Jack Forman, Mesa College Library , San Diego (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.