Wednesday 20 August 2014

Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn

Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn; translated by Jeffrey Shandler (first published as Emil und Karl in 1940; this edition Roaring Brook Press, 2006)

ISBN 1-59643-119-9

25 chapters; 186 pages with an Afterword

Subjects: World War Two, Austria, Vienna, USA, children, friends, Jews,  junior fiction (Year 5-8)

This is another book I had never heard of before and one that is unique in many ways. For a start, it is one of the first books to be written for children about what we now call the Holocaust, before people even knew what that really meant.

The story is set in Vienna, Austria, sometime before the start of World War Two. Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and many Austrian Jews tried to escape but often it was impossible for them to get out, or there was nowhere for them to go. “Incidents described in Emil and Karl, such as Jewish shops being looted, Jews being forced to scrub Vienna’s streets with their bare hands and to act like animals in a public park, actually happened and were reported in American newspapers" (from the Afterword).

Karl has been told to keep away from Emil because he is Jewish, but the two boys are left on their own, with only each other to rely on, when their parents are taken away by the authorities. (Karl is not Jewish, but his parents are Socialists, another category that the Nazis targeted.)  The story of what happens to them over the next few days is told in a quiet, matter of fact way but is absolutely riveting. Together, they meet good people who will help them, and some who suffer for helping them; they encounter cruelty and courage, desperation and generosity, horror and love.

“What makes them do it?” Karl asks after they have been forced to endure the brutality of the pavement-scrubbling scene.  But the book also reminds us that there were many ordinary people who did find the courage to stand up against the regime and fight for freedom, even when they knew that it would probably cost them their lives.

The story is told in very simple language but I think it could actually be quite frightening for younger children, because it is about what happens to two ordinary boys, just like them.

Text Publishing calls this book "A taut, gripping page-turner" and says that it "holds a unique place in publishing history as one of the first works published in any language about what was happening under the Nazi regime."

A Teacher’s resource kit is available here. 

This review in the New York times makes some interesting points about writing for children about war, specifically about the Holocaust: "Indeed, the story of the Holocaust has overwhelmed countless novels intended for adults. The challenge in a book for children is far greater — the risk of frightening them competes with the possibility that an overload of horror will leave them numb. It is perhaps surprising, then, that a writer working with no hindsight at all hit the mark so precisely."

About the author:
Yankev Glatshteyn (1896-1971) was born in Lublin, Poland. He grew up speaking Yiddish, which was the first language for millions of Jews in both America and Europe. When he was 18, he emigrated to the USA and studied law but became a writer instead of a lawyer. He was part of a group of writers who wanted to write poetry and fiction in Yiddish (which was what Emil and Karl was originally written in).

In 1934, Glatshteyn went back to Poland to visit his mother who was unwell. This was when he saw for himself what conditions were like for Jewish people living in Poland and other parts of Europe at that time. In the years leading up to World War Two, Jewish people were being discriminated against and attacked, both economically and even physically. 

Back in America, Glatshteyn wrote two adult novels about this situation as well as Emil and Karl, which was published in New York in February 1940. This was after Nazi Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939 but before America joined the war. In other words, the book was written at the start of the war when nobody yet knew what its ending would be. It was first read by American Jewish children who attended Yiddish schools (as well as their public schools) in the afternoons and weekends. 

Other books you might like:
The silver sword is another famous example of a book about children  being left to cope on their own in war-torn situations. 

The hare with amber eyes: a hidden inheritance by Edmund de Waal is not a children's book, but a fascinating memoir that paints a picture of Vienna at this time. You can read reviews of it in the Guardian and the Telegraph

Things I didn't know: Vienna
You can read more about the history of Vienna here and here

We find it hard to comprehend this at a distance but who knows how we would have reacted at the time, if we had been the cowed, frightened or equally uncomprehending onlookers? 

A travel blogger posted this sad depiction which features a bronze sculpture of an elderly Jewish man, on his hands and knees, scrubbing anti-Nazi slogans from the street surface with a toothbrush

No comments:

Post a Comment