This book for young adults (and older) is based on the true story of the Stermer family, who were in the five percent of Jews surviving the Holocaust in the Ukraine, out of a total of between 1.2 and 1.6 million Jews. (Many Ukrainians died during the war period as well but they were not targeted by the Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi advance troops, whose mission was primarily to kill Jews in advance of the arrival of German troops.) A large number of Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, but Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – has some 2,600 Ukrainians registered as “righteous Gentiles” who helped save Jews. [N.B. the population of the Ukraine in 1939 was 40 million.]
In this story, the Slivka family is helped by some of those righteous gentiles, as was the case, in real life, with the Stermer family. It is difficult to see how anyone could have survived at all otherwise.
When the book begins, Hanna Slivka, the narrator, is about to tell her history to her daughter, so we know that at least she herself survived. She begins her story in 1941 when she was age 13, before the Nazis arrived in her small town of Kwasova in the Ukraine.
Hanna is close to an older gentile neighbor, Alla Petrovich, who lets Hanna help her make her pysanky eggs (what we call Ukrainian Easter eggs). Later, Alla helps the Slivka family escape from the Nazis, first by giving them a cross to put on their doorway, and later, by giving them what little food and monetary help she can give.
But the Gestapo are relentless, determined to make the area Judenfrei, free of all Jews.
Before long, Hanna and her family have to go into hiding, first into a crude cabin deep in the woods, and later inside deep and dark underground caves. There the Slivkas stay for almost 400 days, although the Stermers stayed even longer – over 500 days!
Throughout their time of both figurative and literal darkness, Hanna’s papa counseled them to keep hopeful, not to lose faith, and not to become like their oppressors. Hanna learned from him: “Life is not good, however you are living it, if you become like those who don’t value you.” And there was an additional important incentive to carry them through. When Hanna’s mama first saw the cave and muttered, “I have never lived on dirt,” Papa said to her:
“This is what those Nazis make us do, huh? Live like barbarians. But the best revenge, my Eva, is just that – to live….”
Discussion: This story that is set in the Ukraine rather than in the usual countries covered by Holocaust fiction provides a much-needed perspective on what took place in the Nazi vanguard into Russia early on in World War II. This is one of the most inspirational stories you will read, and is not at all depressing or scary in the way some stories about the Holocaust can be. Rather, it is a story of defiance and resilience, and about carving out a path not only for coping with evil, but managing, against all odds, to outlast it.
Evaluation: As the author said in her Historical Note at the end of the book about the Stermer’s experience, “their family story of survival and transcendence would not let me go.” Neither will Hanna’s story. The subject is difficult, but insofar as it really happened (though just not to these made-up characters) it is so important that people know about it.
The author also said:
“Little did I know that my agent and I would be submitting the final manuscript during a time in which the KKK and White Nationalists would march again and bring forth from the depths of an ugly, deadly history their rallying racist and anti-Semitic chants and their anti-Semitic acts, some violent, by an increase of 57 percent in 2017. I dream of a day when we will no longer need Holocaust stories to remind us to be kind to each other, and to be watchful of those who aren’t.”
Published by Mandel Vilar Press, 2018