Thursday, June 6, 2013

In My Enemy's House by Carol Matas

In My Enemy's House is a well written piece of historical fiction by Canadian author Carol Matas. This novel tells the fictitious story of a young Jewish girl during the occupation of Poland by the Nazis in World War II.

Marisa Gingrich is a 15 year old Jewish girl living in Zloczow, a city in Poland that had been initially occupied by the Russians for two years until they were driven out by the German push into Russia. Marisa, who is the oldest child, lives with her Mama and Papa and her younger siblings, Fanny, Sarah, Yehuda, and Moishe. Unlike her siblings who have dark hair and brown eyes, Marisa has blonde hair and blue eyes - features common to the Ayran ideal, which will help her survive in these deadly times.

Initially, it seems all the Germans want is to use the Jews for slave labour, for cleaning and working in the factories. However, the local Ukrainians have formed a police service and are beginning to round up Jews.

Prior to all this, Marisa was leading a normal life as a young teenager, going to school, and even developing a crush on her "cousin", Shmuel, who is the sixteen year old step-son of her Uncle Avraham. When she and Shmuel are seen holding hands, her father tells her that she mustn't do this. The next day when Marisa's Papa goes to speak with his brother, Avraham, about this situation, they are both taken by the Ukrainian police. Shmuel tells Marisa's family that he followed their fathers and saw them loaded onto a freight train. Marisa feels terribly guilty over her father being taken, because she knows he would not have been there that day, if she and Shmuel hadn't touched and also because her last words to her father were defiant. She directs her anger towards Shmuel, who tells her to recognize that it is the Nazi's who are at fault.

Meanwhile the Nazis begin separating the Jews from the Poles, whom they consider useless and stupid. Himmler closes all the schools, Jews are forced to wear a white armband with a blue star of David, and they begin conducting "actions" in which large numbers of Jews are arrested and removed from the city. Some Jews are simply taken outside their homes and shot in the streets. Marisa's family is saved again and again by the kind actions of their Polish neighbour, Mr. Kraszewski, who was in the Polish military. When the Russians attacked Zloczow, Marisa's family hid him. Now he has been returning the favour by hiding her family in his attic whenever the Nazis come rounding up Jews.

Because of her looks, Marisa is able to pass herself off as Polish and therefore, get into line with the Poles for food. As the food situation becomes more dire and the Germans decide to round up all the Jews and place them in a ghetto, Marisa's mother and Shmuel tell Marisa that someone from their families must survive and that she can use her looks to pass herself off as Polish and go to Germany to work.Once again Mr. Kraszewski steps in and offers Marisa the chance to use a friend's daughter's papers to get into Germany. The irony of her situation is not lost on Marisa; she must go to Germany to survive the Nazi mass murder of her people.

As the situation worsens and Marisa's indecision about what to do deepens, she struggles with thoughts of suicide and despair as well as struggling with her belief in God. Eventually Marisa goes to Lvov and then on to Berlin in the hopes that she will survive the war. Will she ever see her family again? Will she and Shmuel ever meet again in this life?

Carol Matas has crafted a well written short novel that explores the meaning of forgiveness and faith when the world around is succumbing to hate and chaos. When Fanny, Yehuda, Marisa and Shmuelare the only ones left, they are struggling to decide what to do. Fanny announces that she hates God, but Marisa tells her that faith is important to fight evil.

The best and most interesting parts of this novel though revolve around Marisa's stay with a Berlin family whose father is a highly placed Nazi officer. Marisa manages to get hired on by Herr Reymann who owns a large farm and has three children ages ten, twelve, and fourteen. Unlike other German families, the Polish workers are invited to eat around the dinner table with the Reymann family, and when Marisa becomes seriously ill, Frau Reymann tends to her in a caring manner, genuinely concerned for Marisa's health. Yet the family plays a game called Jews Out and show Marisa a picture of their uncle doing his "important work" which shows German soldiers murdering naked Polish men, women and children in front of an open pit. Marisa struggles to understand what she is experiencing,
"I couldn't understand the world I lived in. It felt like a type of dream where nothing made sense. The children seemed so nice. Their parents, too. They were the kind of people who would probably never cheat or lie or steal. They were "good" people. And yet they could murder, with no problem. I had to conclude then that they saw Jews as not even human. They had to believe in that lie so deeply that murder was no long murder; torture and cruelty no long held the same meaning."

Matas uses the Reymann children to demonstrate how an entire population of a country could be brainwashed to believe that one race is superior to all others. In a turnabout, Marisa creates a lie about how her family has Aryan blood resulting in Frau Reymann allowing her daughter, Carolyn, to take Marisa to some of the Nazi functions. At these functions she sees the practical Germans doing volunteer work mending clothes taken from murdered Jews and occupied countries to help those in Germany.

Both the Reynmann's and Marisa have to deal with falsehoods about each other. The Reymann childre for example, are taught that all Jews have slimy voices, ugly gestures, huge hooked noses and small beady eyes all the while unknowingly having taken in a beautiful Jewish girl. And Marisa must come to terms with her understanding of all Nazi's being evil as she struggles to comprehend Frau Reymann's motherly touches even though she is an evil Nazi. In a dream her father tells her that she must find the presence of God even in her enemies, echoing Shmuel's admonition to keep love in her heart rather than hate.

In My Enemy's House is to be highly recommend for its short treatment of a terror filled episode in 20th century history, incorporating the themes of the nature of evil, identity, forgiveness and redemption. As with many historical novels, maps of Poland and Germany would have been helpful to help young readers understand the geography of the story.

Book Details:
In My Enemy's House by Carol Tatas
Toronto: Scholastics Canada Ltd.     1999
158 pp.

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