Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Light In Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron

The Light In Hidden Places is a fictionalized account of the real-life story of  Stefania Podgorska, a Polish-Catholic who risked her life to save her Jewish friends and neighbours during World War II.

The story begins in 1936 with Stefania living on her family's farm outside of Przemysl in Poland. Stefania or Fusia as most call her, doesn't enjoy life on the farm, with its smells and with her large, noisy family. At age eleven, Fusia had made an unsuccessful attempt to leave the farm and move to Przemysl where her older sisters, Marysia and Angia were living. However, two years later, at age thirteen, and with a bit of planning, Fusia succeeds in leaving.  In Przemysl, living with her sisters, Fusia begins working for a Jewish lady, Mrs. Diamant who owns a sweets shop on Mickiewicza Street. While Mrs. Diamant runs the shop, Mr. Diamant, who is not well,  remains at home convalescing. The Diamant's have four sons and a daughter. There is Chaim who is studying medicine in Italy, Izio who attends university, Max who is in an apprenticeship and a younger brother Henek. Their daughter is living in Lwow.

Fusia's job is to sweep the shop and wrap parcels but soon she is running errands to the market for Mrs. Diamant. Fusia becomes good friends with Izio. She begins spending more time at the Diamants, often eating supper with them in the evening, discussing politics and topics in medicine. When Angia moves to Krakow and Marysia moves to the far side of the city, Fusia is welcomed into the Diamant's home. Fuzia's friendship with Izio gradually blossoms into the beginnings of a romance.

Then in September of 1939, war comes to Poland when the Germans invade. While President Moscicki attemptes to rally the young men of Poland, the Diamant brothers flee to Lwow.  Fusia realizes they are running because they are Jews. However, the Russians and the Germans carve up Poland, taking over their part of Poland. Jews in the east part of Przemysl are safe but the Jews in West Przemysl are forced to flee to the Russian controlled areas of the city. The Diamant brothers return home but they have no idea where their sister might be.

Life returns somewhat to normal. Henek and Izio return to school, while Chaim works in the hospital and Max worka as a dental assistant in the village of Nizankowice. Fusia learns that her mother and younger siblings are safe at their farm, but her older family members are scattered throughout Poland. However, the respite is short. By June of 1941, their area of Poland is once again bombed by the Germans who take over Przemysl. While the Diamant boys flee, Fusia and Mr. and Mrs. Diamant travel to the village of Nizankowice where they stay with Mrs. Nowak, a Catholic who boarded Max. However, Fusia's belief they could safely stay in the village is shattered when she witnesses the hatred of the locals towards Jews. They quickly return to Przemysl where they discover their shop damaged and looted. The Diamants learn that their bank accounts no longer exist. The Diamant's sons return, revealing that the border with Russia has been closed.

In April of 1942, the Diamants along with all Jews in Przemysl are now ordered into the ghetto. Three weeks later, as they are preparing to move, the Gestapo storms into their apartment, removing all of the Diamant's possessions except what the family was able to hide in Fusia's room. As the Diamants walk to the ghetto, Fusia notes how people who once shopped at the Diamant's store, now abuse them.

Eventually a new tenant, twenty-three-year-old Emilika, a Catholic, moves into the room on the first floor. She soon becomes a constant fixture in Fusia's apartment. Then one morning, Fusia is stunned to see Max Diamant marching in the street with other Jewish men. Risking her life, she walks alongside him and learns that he is being sent to work and that they desperately need food in the ghetto, that there are eight families to an apartment. Fusia manages to self a silk scarf and buy eggs, butter, flour and a chicken. She is able to sneak into the ghetto and is horrified at the number of people crammed into buildings and the obviously starving children.The Diamant's are grateful for the food but warn her not to return to the ghetto. It is a promise Fusia will end up not keeping.

One night, Izio makes it out of the ghetto to visit Fusia and reveals to her that one thousand men are being sent to a labor camp in Lwow and that Max is on the list. But when Fusia next sees Max as he marches through Przemysl, he tells her that Izio went in his place. Devastated, Fusia sells as much as she can, travels by train to Lwow, and manages to get into the work camp to see Izio. He is starving and desperate to escape. He begs Fusia to help him and together they hatch a plan for his escape. But Fusia is unable to save Izio, after her train is delayed by German troops and Izio is discovered and executed.

Having lost the man she loved, Fusia decides to return to her family's home in country. She finds their farmhouse in ruins and her younger sister abandoned and starving. Her sister had been left in the care of an elderly neighbour Mrs. Zielinski, but when she died, Helena was left with the father and son who beat her. With her sister Helena in tow, Fusia returns to Przemysl hoping to just survive the war. But soon she realizes that it is up to her to save those she cares for even though it may cost her everything she holds dear.


Sharon Cameron's The Light In Hidden Places brings to young readers the story of Stefania Podgorska's heroic actions during the German occupation of Poland. Stefani or Fusia as she was called, was a young Catholic girl who was living with a Jewish family, the Diamants, at the beginning of World War II. The Diamants became a second family to Fusia. She also found herself falling in love with Izio Diamant. As the war progressed and it became apparent the Diamants as Jews were in grave danger, Fusia began helping them in any way she could. But while the Diamants seemed to be aware of the danger they were in, Fusia initially did not understand what was really happening. However, Fusia was soon to be educated in the ways of the world during the war.

Fusia's education begins with her learning about Jews. Because of her friendship with the Diamants and their kindness and generosity towards her, Fusia viewed the Jewish Diamants as simply people like herself. At Mass with her sister Angia one Sunday she "...thanked God for the Diamants. Moses was in my Bible, too, after all, and I felt certain that God like him." She eats dinner with the Diamants, works in their shop and evenutally moves in with them when her sisters move away. This is the first part of her education in Przemysl.

The second part of her education in Przemysl teaches Fusia that sometimes there is only yourself to take action. While leading Mr. and Mrs. Diamant out of Przemysl to Niazankowice and hopefully to safety, Fusia begins to believe the entire situation is ridiculous. "Mr. and Mrs. Diamant had to stop and rest about every forty-five minutes, even though I was carrying all our supplies in the knapsack...What was I doing? How could I take care of two people old enough to be my grandparents? Someone else should have been doing this job. Making these decisions. Only there was no one else. There was only me."

The third part of her education begins when leaving the ghetto Fusia witnesses a girl being beaten to death with the butt of a rifle. "But the SS man smiled while he did it, then left her body and her blood on the street." With this Fusia experiences "...the joy of hate. The happiness of causing another person's death and pain."  She finally understands now the evil she is facing. Just prior to witnessing this brutal murder, after having taken a great personal risk by sneaking into the ghetto, Fusia was warned by Mrs. Diamant about the evil they were all dealing with and she urged Fusia to be careful, not to underestimate it. "You are a good girl, ketzele,' she whispered. 'But you do not understand. How could you, when I did not understand? But you listen to me now.' She held my face and looked me in the eyes. 'They will kill you. And they will like killing you. Do not give them the chance.' "

The fourth part of Fusia education occurs when she is bringing Helena back to Przemysl to live with her. Helena faints due to malnutrition and exhaustion in the street. They are picked up by German soldiers and Helena is treated kindly by a German doctor, Dr. Becker who comes to the apartment the next day with food and medicine. Fusia realizes the one cannot categorize people. "It was wrong to paint all men the same color. Whether they be Jewish or Polish. Or even German. " It is a lesson she will have to keep in mind in the coming months and years, in order to survive.

Fusia states that ultimately her education in Przemysl had taught her "...that people like to divvy up one another with names. Jew. Catholic. German. Pole. But these were the wrong names. They were the wrong dividing lines. Kindness. Cruelty. Love and hate. Those were the borders that mattered."

Unlike many of her neighbours, Fusia is able to see the Diamants, not as Jews but simply as people like herself, for whom she has a responsibility towards. After learning about the conditions in the Jewish ghetto and how they need food Fusia decides to act. "...How was anyone in the ghetto supposed to live? Were the Nazis planning to starve every Jew in Przemysl? I put my clean feet into some socks and tied my shoes. Maybe they were. But they weren't going to starve mine."

After the first Aktion which claims the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Diamant and many Jews, the rumour of a second one makes Fusia act. When she tells Emilika that she is thinking of doing something to help Izio's brothers who are now in danger by hiding them, Emilika is critical. "Do you want to die? Do you think you've lived long enough....I won't throw my life away for some Jew I've never even heard of!" Emilika tells her, "These people, Fusia. It's awful. It's sad. But you didn't make these things happen, and it's not something you can fix. They're not your responsibility..." Struggling with her inner conflict as to whether to act or not, Fusia enters the cathedral to think and wonders, "If I live through this war, can I live with having done nothing, or will my life be poisoned with regret?....But who else is there to save them but me? Oh Great God. Lady Mary. Give me the answer."

The Light In Hidden Places certainly captures the inner conflict Fusia experienced in deciding to help the Diamants. What starts off as bringing food to the Diamants in the Jewish ghetto soon sees Fusia unsuccessfully attempting to rescue her fiance, Izio Diamant from a death camp. But even this heartrending failure doesn't stop Fusia. She ends up hiding thirteen Jews in the attic of the house she's living in while four Nazi's live on the ground floor, and the neighbour in the front apartment has  her son, an SS officer visiting. Their house is situated across the street from a German hospital!

Cameron watched Stefania Podgorska's oral history interview when it was aired on PBS in the early 1990's. It was something that she would remember. In 2017, Cameron, who never forgot Podgorska's story found her full interview on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website and wanted to tell her story. She was able to contact Stefania and Max's son Joe Burzminski (Max took on the new name of Ed Burzminski after the war) and was given access to Stefania's unpublished memoir.

Cameron portrays Fusia's intelligence, ingenuity and courage as she meets one challenge after the next. Her younger sister, Helena is no less resourceful and quick thinking. And despite the tragedy amidst so much evil, Cameron at times infuses her story with touches of humour. Stefania and Helena, by the grace of God and their own determination were able to save thirteen Jews.

The Light In Hidden Places is a magnificent testament to the human spirit's ability to overcome great evil. Stefania's story reminds us that we all have a responsibility to fight hatred, division and cruelty. Her story is timeless and for our time. Cameron has included an extensive Author's Note complete with photographs, that tell what happened to Stefania and Max and Helena after the war as well as the Jews who survived with them.

Book Details:

The Light In Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron
New York: Scholastic Press    2020
 377 pp.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas

Hua Mulan lives in a small town in the north with her father, her little brother Murong, their servant Auntie Xia and her thirty-year-old son Dabao. They used to live in the south, in a house on Lake Tai but left after Mulan's father was severely injured in a duel that left him paralyzed. Mulan's twin brother, Muyang died when they were infants, shortly after her father's injury. Mulan was recorded as having died and she took her brother's place and his identity.

Mulan's father began training her to fight when she was very young in preparation to fight a duel. The story begins with Mulan meeting her future adversary secretly at a cleared area near an abandoned shrine, three days after the Lantern Festival. It has been two years since they last crossed swords. Her adversary, Yuan Kai has been the one to arrange these meetings. He has brought his sword Sky Blade, but Mulan has only a cheap bronze practice sword and not Heart Sea, "the priceless family heirloom that is at the root of the enmity" between them. The two fight, testing each other's abilities until their lanterns blow out, ending the session.

Half a month later, Mulan and her father receive a letter from Yuan Kai stating that he will not be able to partake in the scheduled duel due to the impending conflict with the Rouran. Before Mulan and her father can decide how to respond, they learn that an imperial messenger will be arriving in the village soon and that every house must send a messenger to the marketplace. Mulan, disguised as a man, arrives at the marketplace along with the rest of the village men. They are informed by an Xianbei messenger that the Rouran are invading and that "each household is to contribute an able-bodied male for the realm's defense. No exceptions. Conscripts are to report tomorrow at dawn."

Suddenly Mulan is gripped with the realization that her family has no able-bodied male. Her father is paralyzed, her brother Murong is too young and Dabao has the mind of a child. She knows she will have to be conscripted. On her way home, Mulan quickly purchases the best horse she can find. At home she tells her family of her decision to volunteer. Mulan's father gives her several weapons including the family heirloom, Heart Sea.

When Mulan reports for the conscription she has them change the name on the list from her dead brothers, to her own of Hua Mulan. Mulan along with hundreds of conscripts being the long march in columns to an encampment containing thousands of other conscripts. She cannot help but wonder if Yuan Kai is among them.

Once in the encampment, Mulan hears talk about someone called "the princeling" having arrived. She also begins to realize being a woman in a large war encampment with thousands of men is going to make if very difficult to hide her sex. How will she escape being discovered. But then an unexpected opportunity presents itself.

When Mulan first sees the princeling, she is stunned at how familiar is his movements and mannerisms are to her. They remind her of Yuan Kai, but she tries to put this out of her mind. Accompanying him is a large man named Captain Helou who treats the princeling with great respect and deference. Suddenly, a soldier comes forward to request a chance to demonstrate his martial arts skills with Captain Helou. Helou of course easily defeats the young soldier. Mulan decides to challenge Helou, requesting that he shoot three arrows at her from a pace of fifty feet, which she will catch with her bare hands while blindfolded.

The first two arrows that Captain Helou shoots, Mulan easily catches. But on the third shot, Mulan discerns three arrows coming directly at her with great speed. Stunned, she yanks out her sword, Heart Sea, slicing through the arrows and catching one of the broken shafts. When Mulan removes the blindfold she discovers that it was the princeling on his horse using a more powerful bow who shot the arrows. Furious, she approaches the princeling who asks her name and inquires if she wishes to join them. Hua Mulan agrees, realizing that this will get her out of the encampment.However, little does Mulan realize that she has embarked on a journey with her long feared nemesis, the young man she is fated to meet in a duel. It is a journey of self-discovery, revelation about her family's past, of redemption, forgiveness and love!


Magnolia Sword, is a superbly crafted version of the Mulan legend/folktale.  Author Sherry Thomas has managed to blend history, romance and adventure into a captivating tale for teens and adults alike. Thomas, who grew up in China, writes in her Author's Note that she "chose to infuse it with elements of wuxia, a uniquely Chinese literary genre that explores themes of honor, sacrifice, vengeance and forgiveness through the adventures of almost mythically adept martial artists." And in this regard, Thomas succeeds beyond imagination!

Although the story is about the legendary female warrior Mulan, Thomas has created an interesting backstory that forms the basis of the plot for this retelling. Hua Mulan is fated to meet another highly skilled warrior Yuan Kai in a duel in which the winner will claim two special swords. Mulan's family has one sword, called Heart Sea, while her opponent's family, the Pengs have its mate, Sky Blade. The Hua and Peng families have been rivals for generations, fighting over the two swords.

Two generations earlier Kai's grandfather Peng hoped to end the duels by arranging a marriage between Mulan's father Hua Manlou and Peng's daughter. However, Mulan's father was in love with another woman. He refused the marriage offer and married the woman he loved, Mulan's mother.  This meant that the duel now had to be fought between Peng's daughter and Manlou. However, before the duel could be fought, Peng's daughter became very ill and her sister stepped in to fight Manlou. She won the duel, seriously injuring Manlou. When she approached Manlou to retrieve his sword, he acted dishonourably and threw two hidden weapons, poisoned bronze lillies at her. She died from the poison. Peng's daughter who fought Manlou was Yuan Kai's mother. So now that the children, Mulan and Kai are grown, they too must fight the duel to see who will possess the swords.

Mulan knows none of this until she is accepted into a special band of warriors led by a princeling whom she is certain is the opponent she must fight in the duel. She has met this opponent several times but their faces have always been covered so she cannot be entirely certain. The princeling takes them to his home where Mulan learns his real identity and the truth about the duel years ago from his aunt, the woman her father refused to marry.  Mulan now knows that the princeling is Yuan Kai. Mulan believes that the princeling does not know she is a woman.

However there are several twists in the story. Shortly after Mulan's father returned from the duel, Mulan's twin brother, Muyang died. Wishing to keep this a secret, Manlou had Mulan take over her dead brother's identity, training her to be a skilled martial arts warrior. What Mulan does not know is that Yuan Kai knows she is a woman disguised as a male warrior. He made this discovery years earlier when he travelled to Mulan's home on Lake Tai and witnessed a young girl in a boat who transformed herself into a young warrior.

However, most of this is revealed gradually throughout the story, drawing the reader into the story. What is the true identity of the princeling and does he know that Mulan is a girl warrior? As the story develops, from the warrior band's mission to scout out the movements of the invading Rouran to the discovery of a traitor in their party and the impending invasion of the imperial city, Mulan must make a decision.

When Mulan learns of her father's dishonorable behaviour during the duel years ago she is devastated and filled with shame. Her initial decision is to remain at the Great Wall in relative safety, feeling she has done her duty by enlisting and keeping her promise to her family to stay safe and return. However, this decision makes Mulan feel conflicted. She has not been trained "in yiqi, the code of honor and brotherhood that governs righteous conduct for men." After all she is a woman, expected to lead a life serving men. Her conduct is to be "judged almost entirely on her chastity, obedience, and self-effacement." However Mulan decides to continue with the princeling and his elite band, looking at herself as someone who is a person who has skills to offer. "Brotherhood might be unique to men, but loyalty, devotion to friends, and a sense of fairness are not."

Mulan expects Kai to be filled with a spirit of vengeance and is surprised to find he is not. When she questions Kai as to what made him no longer want to kill her father, he astonishes her by replying that he never wished to do so. "What would I have done, by killing your father, except make things worse for his family? And what would I have done, by wanting to kill him, except make things worse for me?"  Kai eventually reveals that once he discovered he was to fight Hua Manlou's daughter "in the guise of her brother", he wished that they "could have met under different circumstances." And so both Kai and Mulan put aside the old enmity between their families and work together to save their country. And ultimately to unite their families with forgiveness, compassion and redemption.

Thomas has done a superb job of crafting the characters of Mulan and Kai. Both are honorable, intelligent, disciplined and loyal. Their relationship develops and matures gradually over the course of the story, from two adversaries who do not trust one another to friendship and then to a delicate and tender love born out of forgiveness and mutual respect. Their story is timeless and the themes of forgiveness, compassion and repentance, enduring.

Magnolia Sword is a bright spot in young adult literature and might very well be the best book written for teens this year. This novel would hold up well as a screen adaptation.

Book Details:

Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas
New York: TU Books     2019
348 pp.