SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW|CHILDREN’S BOOKS
Stories of Resistance and Escape.
Loïc Dauvillier’s ‘Hidden,’ and More
My Jewish great-grandparents made the fortunate decision to leave Europe in the first decade of the 20th century, so my closest personal connection to the Holocaust was through my high school French teacher, Annette Berman. Annette was a 15-year-old Jewish schoolgirl living in Paris when World War II began. As restrictions and fear mounted during the German occupation, she and her family hid for weeks in her best friend’s apartment; then, using borrowed identity cards, they traveled to a remote village where Annette spent the next two years disguised as a Roman Catholic, delivering messages and explosives for the French Resistance on her bicycle. Reading the heart-stopping journeys of the child survivors in “Hidden,” “Hidden Like Anne Frank” and “The Whispering Town” drove home to me that Annette’s incredible story is far from unique.
The fictional account of the French child Dounia Cohen in “Hidden” is the most achingly familiar. “Hidden,” written by Loïc Dauvillier, is a graphic novel, and the vibrant and respected tradition of that genre in France is well represented here by the illustrator Marc Lizano’s exquisite attention to period detail and the subtle, complementary shading of the colorist Greg Salsedo. Dounia, who is about 6, finds herself suddenly shunned by teachers and classmates the first time she wears to school the obligatory yellow star identifying her as Jewish. After the police take her parents away in a frightening nighttime raid, neighbors hide her in their apartment. When that becomes too dangerous, Dounia escapes to a farm in the French countryside, where she stays for the duration of the war.
The ultimately hopeful story, translated from its original French by Alexis Siegel, is told in flashbacks by the elderly Dounia to her granddaughter, Elsa. Though readers may be tempted to race through to find out what happens, Lizano’s illustrations reward careful observation, as in a sequence in which a “photograph” of Dounia’s missing parents appears in the background of some of the frames on a page, bigger each time, until it fills an entire frame. It’s a quiet, moving depiction of Dounia’s increasing anxiety about their fate.
Also in translation — from Dutch, this time — is “Hidden Like Anne Frank: Fourteen True Stories of Survival,” by Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis, in which Holocaust survivors narrate their wartime experiences with straightforward and often heartbreaking honesty. The first account belongs to Prins’s mother, who inspired the collection. All these hidden children survived the war, but not all their families did, and there’s a tremendous range of emotion expressed here. Like Anne Frank’s, these few voices stand out and speak for the millions whose stories remain untold. Laura Watkinson’s nuanced translation makes each storyteller’s voice distinct, and the text is enhanced by photographs. My favorite is the picture of a wedding group taken on the day the war ended in Europe, showing all the people who had hidden in a single household, as well as the couple who hid them; the two resistance workers who helped; and the infant daughter of the bridal pair, who met while in hiding. These accessible stories, full of hard truths, are touching, thrilling and agonizing by turns. Be warned: Parents may find “Hidden” more painful to read than children will.
Rounding out this literary threesome of resistance and escape is “The Whispering Town,” a picture book written by Jennifer Elvgren and illustrated by Fabio Santomauro. The setting is a Danish fishing village, but one of the book’s charms is how little context you need to understand it: There’s a war, and Anett’s family is hiding refugees and sneaking them to safety by boat to neutral Sweden. Anett’s job is to bring food to the Jewish mother and child hidden in her basement, where she finds her way down the dark stairs by following the sound of their whispers. When Anett’s father worries that the refugees might get lost in the dark when they flee to the harbor, Anett suggests the whole village whisper directions to them as they go.
The publisher of “The Whispering Town” recommends the book for children ages 7 to 11, but it feels appropriate for reading to very young children as an introduction to the subject of the Holocaust. It’s definitely the least harrowing of the three books. The threat to the escaping mother and child is only hinted at in the bales of barbed wire that accompany the Nazi soldiers whenever they appear, in the worrying absence of the father in the Jewish family group, and in the villagers’ ominous, repeated warning: “Stay safe.” Santomauro’s thoughtful illustrations, with their restrained colors, subtly remind the reader of the village’s determined solidarity.
Reading these books, a few jolting truths hit me. The most shocking was that all the survivors were, at some point, simply lucky. Their hiding places were overlooked in a raid, or they weren’t home when it happened. Every one of them, including my French teacher, spent the war using a false name; I was struck by how seriously even the smallest children took their situation right from the start, and how smart and cooperative they had to be to make their disguises convincing. Those who were lucky enough to be reunited with their parents after the war faced the often difficult task of getting to know them again. The most memorable image from “Hidden” is the full-page portrait of Dounia’s mother on her return from a concentration camp. She’s utterly changed: shorn and emaciated, her eyes still wide with unspeakable horror.
During the war, hope sustained those who had reason to hope. Afterward, as life settled into a constant uphill battle against grief and loss — both emotional and material — there was often no respite in view. The final, tragic note running through these narratives is the reluctance many survivors felt about sharing their wartime experiences. Annette Berman was truly one of the lucky ones — someone who was not so damaged that she couldn’t bear to talk about her past. Because these stories must be shared. “Hidden,” “Hidden Like Anne Frank” and “The Whispering Town” are worthy additions to the library of remembrance.
Elizabeth Wein. The New York Times, le 6 avril 2014.
A Child’s Story of the Holocaust
By Loïc Dauvillier
Illustrated by Marc Lizano
Color by Greg Salsedo
Translated by Alexis Siegel
76 pp. First Second. $16.99. (Graphic novel; ages 10 and up)
HIDDEN LIKE ANNE FRANK
Fourteen True Stories of Survival
By Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis
Translated by Laura Watkinson
226 pp. Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. $16.99. (Middle grade; ages 12 and up)
THE WHISPERING TOWN
By Jennifer Elvgren
Illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
32 pp. Kar-Ben Publishing. $17.95. (Picture book; ages 5 to 8)
Elizabeth Wein is the author, most recently, of “Rose Under Fire” and “Code Name Verity.”
Au jour le jour