The rise of anti-Semitism that is occurring across parts of Europe and here in the United States is both troubling and disheartening. Throughout history, the Jewish people have been persecuted on the basis of their faith and during World War II, they were subjected to systematic extermination fueled by racist ideology and pseudo-science. Adolf Hitler’s quest for power and dominance brought death and destruction across Europe and nearly brought Germany to its knees before Allied forces. To this day, World War II is seen by many as the worst conflict mankind has ever fought. As the German Army rolled across Europe taking control of cities, towns and razing small villages, Jews were forced to flee for their lives or risk being sent to ghettos and concentration camps through the Third Reich’s “Final Solution”. Among the Jews that did flee was the Shwartz family which resided in Butla, Poland. This book is their story of their survival as they fled their home and traveled across Europe to escape the looming Nazi threat to everything deemed to be “Juden”.
Aviva Gat is a descendant of the Shwartz family and through a series of interviews regarding the family history, she was able to compose this inspiration story of survival during a very dark time in world history. By her own admission some of the story is fictionalize and I am inclined to believe that this in fact refers to some of the dialogue that may have taken place between the central characters. Regardless she does affirm that the experiences described in the book did in fact take place as the family moved from Poland, to Hungary and Romania where the book ends. And while the story does provide the typical “happy ending”, it does not end on a tragic note.
The story begins in the small village of Butla which remains largely shielded from the events taking place inside of Germany. They are aware of Hitler but have yet to see first hand the effects of the war. But when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, their lives changed forever and Poland was never the same again. The first visitors to Butla are Russian soldiers who make make themselves at home. But they are gone as fast as they came leaving the people of Butla wondering what will come next. They did not have to wait long as Ukranian soldiers arrive and commit an act of violence that brings home the reality of what is taking place. It becomes clear to the Shwartz family that their time in Butla is limited. The family is led by the patriarch who dies early in the story. Their mother is already deceased and is mentioned only briefly. The responsibility to care for the family falls on David, who leaves the town with wife Hinda, children Abi and Sarah, and younger sister Rachel. The other brothers Shlomo, Meir, Itzik, Zelig and Chaim had previously left the town. This small group embarked on a journey that is simply unbelievable and highlights just how dangerous it was to be Jewish in Eastern Europe during World War II.
As the book progresses, we are introduced to numerous characters who play crucial roles in the story. What I found to be very interesting is the sense of unity that exists among the Jewish characters in the story and it also shows that without this hidden network, many of them would have perished. And while the journey was not easy, there are moments in the book where the kindness of others shines brilliantly. But sadly, as refugees from Poland, they were subject to discrimination both in Hungary and Romania. And some of the discrimination was at the hands of other Jews. Those parts of the book were hard to read and the scene in which Abi finds a Synagogue might resonate with and infuriate readers who are Jewish. I personally stared in disbelief at what transpires between him and the Rabbis.
Because the book is centered around the family and their journey across three countries there is very little mention of what is taking place in the actual war. The main characters in the story do relay some things they learned as they were fleeing for their lives. Hitler’s name does come up but only a few occasions and none of the other notorious figures in the Reich make an appearance. This book is strictly the Shwartz story. However, towards the end of the book the war does become a bigger part of the story, in particular when Allied bombing raids come too close for comfort. The scene in which David is in the hospital shows how a moment’s notice and sheer luck sometimes meant the difference between life and death. The story is full of close calls, some of which will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Many guardian angels appear in the story at just the right moment, preventing certain death and a far more tragic outcome. Some characters in the story are cruel and take advantage of the Jews’ plight. However, the are far and few in between and unable to overcome the vast network of support that the Shwartzs and others have available to them. It is a classic example of how unity overcomes adversity.
The final act in the act occurs through the actions of Abi who grows up quickly during the war. His decision to reach Palestina as they know it, changes the lives of all for good. That part of the book is a story all in itself and the journey is one that many Jews were forced to take as they escaped the growing Nazi menace. Back in Eastern Europe, David makes the decision that he and Hinda will also go to Palestina while Rachel’s like takes a slightly different path albeit with the same destination. Victor emerges as a critical part of the story’s finale and helps to bring their struggle full circle. However in the epilogue, we learn some dark facts about the fates of the other members in the Shwartz family. I will not go into it here but will say that we all know what happened to many Jews who did not flee Europe. Their fates and that of the other Shwartz brothers provide the dark cloud that hangs over the story because of the subject matter. Further, the extermination of the Jews is a topic for another discussion at another time. But if you are in search of a good book about the costs that were paid to endure the nightmare that was World War II, this book is a good addition to anyone’s library.
ASIN : B07MZ2ZL56