The Choice: A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers
By Kathy Clark
Second Story Press
Although aimed specifically at young readers, The Choice by Kathy Clark is a book that could also aid adult readers in considering the nature of the Holocaust, as well as the role of choice and random chance in the lives of those who were affected by it.
The choice in the title is the one a young boy, approaching his bar mitzvah age, makes about his own identity.
His family hid its Jewishness during the Second World War and has been living as Catholic on the “Catholic” side of Budapest (Buda) for five years. The boy, Jakob, known as Hendrik to his friends, decides to visit his Jewish relations in Pest as he approaches Confirmation at his Catholic school. He does not fully understand why his family is hiding and rebels against the decision.
The book deals with the results of his visit: his deportation to Auschwitz, the arrest of his relations in Pest, the threatened arrest of his own family in Buda, and his sense of outrage and betrayal by his best Catholic friend, Ivan, in the way this happens.
Clark does an excellent job in describing the atmosphere in Hungary both before and during the war. While the Jews suffer and are discriminated against, the seeming protection of the Jews in Hungary from the worst excesses of the Holocaust in the first years of the war is wiped away in 1944 when the Nazis force a change in government and the Arrow-Cross movement takes charge. Suddenly, in addition to discrimination and harsh treatment, Jews were also being deported to Auschwitz in large numbers – the vast majority to be gassed on arrival.
Jakob’s experience in being arrested and deported by train, selected for a work camp, processed and forced to live in the disgusting and inhumane conditions of the camp are fully described. The author delves into Jakob’s growing awareness and understanding of what it means to survive. She shows what his experiences with others – such as Levi, a religious Jew, and Aron, a cynic, as well as the cruel kapo – teach him about surviving while striving to keep a sense of morality and humanity.
What keeps Jakob going throughout this period is a desire for revenge against his former friend Ivan, whose father was a leading member of the Arrow-Cross. It was this man who recognized him in Pest and arrested him. Ivan remained silent about Jakob’s arrest and, in fact, was sent by his father to organize the arrest of the rest of Jakob’s family. Jakob’s anger keeps him looking forward to his return to Budapest to even the score.
But there are other choices made throughout the book. With Aron, Jakob makes a friend with whom he is able to work to escape before the Russians liberate the camp. By helping Levi, he learns about the value of standing up to injustice, the basics of Judaism, and the consequences of maintaining one’s moral values in the face of hatred.
Above all, he learns of the choices that Ivan made, which, in the end, make his own striving for revenge meaningless.
Although there seems to be a superficially happy ending, Jakob is still left to struggle with what this all means on his own. In passing his 13th year, he comes to understand that no one but he himself can come to terms with these events and his own actions.
The book provides much fodder for discussion: conscious choices and apparent consequences, but also the crucial role of random chance, in meeting the right people or the wrong ones, in finding disguises, in escaping and finding hiding places, all shaped by pure luck as well as clever choices.
I would like to see the book supplemented by a discussion guide, dealing with the ethical questions noted above, but also making clearer the nature and irrationality of hatred against Jews or why Jakob did not understand the dangers to which he was exposing his whole family.
Otherwise, this was an outstanding book for anyone interested in the Holocaust and a gripping narrative.
Rubin Friedman is the author of Our Family Holocaust Chronicle – Parts 1 and 2.