Thursday, November 8, 2018
Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Jennifer A. Nielsen's newest historical fiction for teens explores the courageous fight by hundreds of Jewish resistance fighters as they make their last stand during the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.
The novel opens as Chaya Lindner, a Jewish teenager who has been working for the past three months as a courier for the resistance movement known as Akiva, attempts to lie her way into the Tarnow Ghetto in Krakow, Poland. Posing as Helena Nowak,she brings food, clothing and forged identification papers to the Jews imprisoned there, informing them of what is happening on the outside. The Tarnow Ghetto has been sealed since very early in the war meaning the people there do not know what is really happening. As a result the Jews in the ghetto were tricked onto trains, believing they were being relocated to work camps. In fact, they were being sent to death camps. The ghettos were merely a step in the German plan to exterminate the entire Jewish population.
Chaya's story flashes back to life three years earlier when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Before the German occupation, Chaya's father owned a shoe repair shop and their family, which included her younger brother and sister, Yitzchak and Sara, had a good life. With the Blitzkrieg, everything changed. All Jews were required to register, their homes were searched by German soldiers who took jewelry, foreign currency, and anything they wanted. National monuments were looted and synagogues burned. Jews were assigned to forced labour, and made to wear the yellow star of David on an armband.
In 1940, Chaya's father lost his business and her family sold most of their belongings to survive. Eventually they were forced into the Podgorze District where four families were crammed into each apartment. However, Chaya's name wasn't on the list of Jews who were to move into what would be called the Krakow ghetto. So Chaya's family sent her to live with her grandmother near the village of Kopaliny. On her way to her grandmother's home, Chaya remembered Shimshon and Gusta Draenger, the leaders of her Jewish scout group, Akiva who lived on a nearby farm. The Draenger's took her in and during the summer more Akiva scouts arrived. One of the Akiva leaders was a man named Dolek.
In the summer of 1942, Dolek brought Chaya devastating news: her sister Sara was taken by train to Belzec, a death camp. Yitzchak had disappeared. The story of Chaya's family was shared with the Akiva scouts leading Shimshon to tell them they must make a decision: they can wait until the Germans eventually come for them or they can fight back, join together with other resistance groups. The scouts chose resistance.
Chaya is asked to be a courier, a most dangerous job that would lead to certain death if she were ever caught. For the next ten months Chaya fights back against the Germans as part of the resistance. It is a fight that will lead her to the ultimate showdown as the Warsaw ghetto fights back against the German's final liquidation.
Nielsen's well researched novel, Resistance is an engaging, well balanced account of the final stand taken by the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto to resist the mass deportations to labour and death camps. The ghetto's liquidation or total destruction and removal of all Jews was ordered by Heinrich Himmler in October, 1942. The Jews in the ghetto had organized several resistance cells, ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa) the Jewish Combat Organization and ZZW (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy) also known as the Jewish Military Union. With a limited arsenal obtained from the Polish underground, home made grenades and Moltov cocktails and other weapons, the Jewish resistance held out for a month, led by Mordecai Anielewicz. In the end, all of the surviving Jews, over 40,000 souls, were deported to various concentrations camps, where they were murdered by the SS.
Resistance is told through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl, Chaya Lindner whose parents are trapped in the Krakow ghetto. With the certain death of her younger sister Sara and the disappearance of her brother Yitchak, Chaya's mother has lost her will to live. They refuse to use the false papers that Chaya brings them to save themselves, instead accepting their fate. The loss of her sister, motivates Chaya to fight against the Germans, eventually leading to her joining resistance fighters in the Warsaw uprising. Chaya participation escalates as she becomes increasingly determined to fight back against the Germans.
A subplot involves the relationship between Chaya and a new, inexperienced member of the resistance, Esther Karolinski. Chaya is convinced that Esther is not up to the task of working in the resistance and at first various situations seem to prove Chaya right. Despite Esther's mistakes, she does begin to learn, while pushing Chaya to rethink her own reasons for resistance. In the end, Esther courageously makes the ultimate sacrifice so that Chaya and her fellow fighters can escape the Warsaw ghetto as it's being liquidated.
One of the many themes explored in the novel is the meaning of resistance and how resistance might be different for each person. Esther feels compelled to challenge a Nazi sympathizer on the train, raising suspicions and almost getting them arrested. She tells an angry Chaya, "But isn't that the point of the resistance, to make the world notice us?" Chaya however has a different view of the resistance, "The point of the resistance is to save lives...Every single day, more Jews are dying. Our fight is to stop that from happening. Nothing else matters."
In the Lodz ghetto, Chaya attempts to help Avraham, Sarah and Henryk, three teens hiding out on the abandoned upper floor of an apartment building. They reject the option of working for the Nazis as a way to save themselves and have decided to give their lives to God. When Chaya offers to help them escape, Avraham refuses telling her "...No, we're choosing faith...The highest honor we can give God is to die in his name." Unable to understand, Chaya believes they are simply giving up but Esther explains, "No, Chaya. As much as the Nazis want to take our lives, they want to take our faith too. We fight for one, Avraham's friends fight for the other." When Chaya questions the importance of faith, Esther tells her, "We'll all die one day -- no one escapes that fate. Our only decision is how we live before that day comes. Our path requires courage, but so does theirs. Both paths, are ways to resist."
After their presence in the Lodz ghetto results in another Aktion, both Chaya and Esther struggle with the form resistance might take. They are challenged by the fact that their resistance so far seems to be ineffective and harmful whether it was the attack on the cafe or their trip to Lodz. Esther states, "We didn't stop the war or get the Nazis to leave Krakow. We can't even say that lives were saved because of what we did...What about in Lodz? All we did there was make things worse...we stole a weapon, lost food that could have saved lives, and ended up being the cause of an Aktion. Maybe what we're doing is as bad as the enemy!".
When Chaya and Esther arrive in the Warsaw ghetto she tells the resistance there that Akiva failed in it's goal of using resistance as a way to inspire other Jewish uprisings. However she hopes that the Warsaw uprising will inspire not only other ghettos such as Bailystok, Sobibor and Tarnow but also the Polish army and the Polish people to rebel against the Germans.
Their decision to make a final stand in the Warsaw ghetto gives Esther a sense of freedom which Chaya doesn't quite understand. " 'We've never been more free. don't you see? They don't control us anymore. Since we already know how this will end, they can't even use the fear of death against us. There is nothing more they can take from us, but today, we have taken their superiority, and the belief in our submissiveness. No matter how this ends, history will recognize today for its greatness.' "
Although the Jewish resistance lose the fight in the Warsaw ghetto, Chaya vows to fight on for the memory of her friend Esther, for all of Akiva, for Avraham, Sarah and Henryk and those who died in the Aktion in Lodz, for the kind man named Wit who sheltered Jews on his farm, for her parents and her sister.
"Historians might say that the Jews lost every uprising we attempted in this war, that every resistance movement failed.
We proved that there was value in faith. There was value in loyalty. And that a righteous resistance was victory in itself, no matter the outcome."
The novel's balanced approach helps young readers understand how people reacted differently to the Nazi occupation of their countries. While many people supported the extermination of the Jewish population, others did not and Nielsen highlights some of the ways Jews were helped. Chaya observes, "...there were three kinds of Polish citizens in the country these days. The first were those who endeared themselves to the invaders, who proudly allowed their homes to be assimilated into the German territory and their lives into the Nazi culture...The second group of Poles, the largest group, were merely surviving, trying to blend into the background. They might've moved into homes abandoned by Jews who were sent to the ghettos, and might've taken over our shops and our possessions, but they felt little joy in it. They didn't help us, but they believed that at least ignoring our situation caused no harm...the third group of Poles was different. They helped. They snuck close to the ghetto at night and tossed bread over the walls...they took Jewish people into their lives, into their homes, and offered them a place to hide, a chance to escape the fate that tens of thousands of us had already suffered." Nielsen incorporates a few characters into her story that fit the third group; Wit Golinski, an older man who intervenes to protect Chaya and Esther from a woman who is a Nazi sympathizer and who offers them a ride, food and money, and the Catholic nuns who smuggle arms to the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto and the Catholic priest who helps
Resistance is Nielsen's best historical novel to date. The novel's Afterword provides some detail regarding several key resistance figures and their fate. A map of Poland and of Krakow, Lodz and Warsaw would have provided some context to the setting for younger readers. Nevertheless, an engaging novel with a strong heroine and an interesting cast of supporting characters.
Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen
New York: Scholastic Press 2018