Framing Violence

  • Eva Wiseman
    Puppet. Tundra Books
  • Shelly Sanders
    Rachel's Secret. Second Story Press
  • Kathy Kacer
    Restitution: A Family's Fight for Their Heritage. Second Story Press
Reviewed by Norman Ravvin

Books for young readers about Jewish historical catastrophe make up an increasingly varied and challenging genre. Acceptability and subject matter shift, as authors embrace the Holocaust, and, in more recent work, the pogroms that took place in Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine following the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, and into the post-revolutionary period. One of the notable shifts is the manner in which authors frame their material.

In Canada, three quarters of a century ago, Jewish children read about pogroms in Yiddish, in the specific context of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century political and military events. Jewish leftist political parties in the Russian empire supported anti-Czarist mass movements, so Jewish youth found themselves a part of key socialist, Zionist, and anarchist organizations. A 1932 edition of historian Simon Dubnow’s Idishe geshichte derzeilt far kinder / Jewish History Told for Children sets the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in which forty-nine were killed, hundreds wounded, Jewish businesses and homes pillaged, in this context.

Rachel’s Secret, a young reader’s novel by Shelly Sanders, tackles the pre-1903 period in Kishinev, and offers a dramatic and detailed depiction of the pogrom and its aftermath. In Sanders’ rendering, Jews are largely poor, ghetto-dwelling, traditional people against whom public ire has been raised by a blood libel. Sanders’ pogromchiks include groups of disgruntled young men in “long red blouses and tall boots,” the “uniform of mass hatred.” A few chapters are devoted to back room discussions between police and imperial governors, which suggest official machinations behind the violence. But these are not the main themes of Sanders’ narrative. She is intent on rendering pogrom violence graphically; she is deft at framing her narrative through the experiences of teenage boys and girls, but without a consideration of ideological or anti-imperial motivations. Her main character’s understanding of events is informed by her innocent romance with two non-Jewish boys, one of whom is the victim of a would-be blood libel killing. Through Rachel’s friendship with these boys, Sanders depicts righteous gentiles, and the capability of young people to recognize the faults in their parents’ world.

Eva Wiseman’s Puppet is a much weaker book dealing with similar themes. It is based on an actual blood libel trial, which took place in Hungary in 1882 and 1883 and gained countrywide attention. The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe highlights the groundbreaking role of forensics in the investigation of the libel accusation, but in Wiseman’s rendering, accusers and do-gooding defense lawyers shoot from the hip like characters gleaned from Gunsmoke. Small town non-Jews refer to the “Jew butcher,” and others express themselves using odd antique phrases: “Don’t be daft, girl. . . . What do you think I am about my dear?” A young reader could not take much away from Puppet regarding the specifics of Jewish daily life in central Europe aside from the notion that most non-Jews viewed their Jewish neighbours as something akin to space aliens.

Kathy Kacer’s Restitution: A Family’s Fight for Their Heritage Lost in the Holocaust is set in Prague before the Second World War and in Toronto in the late 1980s and early 90s. Although it recounts actual events, it does so using all the key elements of fiction—dialogue, flashbacks, character development, and suspense. Kacer is a prize-winning writer of books for young readers dealing with the Holocaust, but Restitution is presented as her first book on such material for adults. In fact, it is suited to both adults and advanced younger readers, because it tells an intriguing story well, but also because it strives to educate the reader about Jewish life in pre-war Czechoslovakia, the threat to Jews in central Europe under Hitler, modes of resistance and escape, as well as the experience of Jewish immigrants to Canada at the time of World War II. Kacer’s story follows a Czech Jewish family’s efforts to recover four paintings left behind as they fled Europe days before the outbreak of war. Her approach exemplifies the demands of historical writing, as well as the ability to educate while offering a thoughtful and suspenseful narrative.

This review “Framing Violence” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 170-71.

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