Laura is thirteen, and has just a few weeks left before her Bat Mitzvah. She’s been going to Hebrew classes for almost a year, and is ready to stand up in front of everyone in the synagogue and recite the prayers in Hebrew. She’s even taken on an extra project to make the experience more meaningful to her, raising money for the African Well Fund to provide clean drinking water for children in Africa. Then her rabbi tells her Hebrew class that they are going to participate in a twinning project, and each of them will research the life of a Jewish child from the Holocaust who did not get to celebrate his or her own Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Laura is resistant at first, but quickly becomes drawn into the diary of thirteen year old Sara Gittler.
Laura is a super involved and committed kid, and is a bit too perfect and rational about things. Her point of view verges on being didicatic–in one breath, Laura is fretting over her mom insisting on dropping her off to visit Mrs. Mandelcorn, an elderly woman her rabbi has suggested she contact about the project, and in the next she is reminding herself to be grateful to her mother for how much she does for her and how often she drives Laura and her friends places. When a Jewish cemetary is vandalized, the crime conveniently fits in thematically with what Laura is reading, and of course, has been committed by the older boys bullying one of her best friends, Adam. And her other best friend, Nix, also conveniently, was a witness to the crime. The writing style is very prosaic, much better suited to a retelling of historical events than middle school fiction.
However, the historical portion of the book is much stronger. Sara’s diary is a stark and straightforward account of the life in the Warsaw ghetto. The diary format works well to establish the character’s voice, and to tell Sara’s story without getting too grim for the intended audience. The author contrasts Sara’s memories of her life before, whether it’s going to school or cooking with her grandmother, with the bleak, hungry realities of life in the ghetto. Kacer doesn’t shy away from showing the adults as powerless, either. Sara’s grandmother slides further into depression, her father becomes a shadow of her former self, and her teenage brother channels his anger and outrage into working with the resistance.
One of the high points of this book is the bits of nonfiction. Sara’s story is illustrated with actual historical photos, and the book concludes with short biographies of a number of the young heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and several real-life stories of modern Jewish kids’ experiences with Holocaust twinning projects.
Laura’s story is only there to function as a parallel to Sara’s, and really only works as a framing device. This would have been a much better book if it were historical fiction and nonfiction, like Barbara Greenwood’s Factory Girl or The Last Safe House. Kathy Kacer’s written some excellent nonfiction like Hiding Edith and the The Underground Reporters.
The strong historical story and the appealing nonfiction parts of the book make this a decent supplement to the plethora of Holocaust literature out there, and it’s an approachable book for middle school kids who are interested in the Holocaust, but Laura’s story pales in comparison to something like Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, or books by Marianne Watts or Eva Wiseman. For a nonfiction story of modern kids relating to the Holocaust, I’m still going to go with Hana’s Suitcase every time.