Kramer, Clara. 2009. Clara's War: One Girl's Story of Survival. HarperCollins. 352 pages.
Loved, loved, loved this Holocaust memoir. If it was up to me, it would be required reading. (Come to think of it, there are a lot of books I'd have as required reading.) This all too true story is haunting and brilliant. Very powerful. Here's the description from the back cover--I've tried and failed to write one of my own, but I kept getting stuck:
What did I love about this one? The honesty and vulnerability of it. It's very straight forward. The truth alone--without embellishment, without drama--is enough to convey the emotional story.
Clara Kramer was a typical Polish Jewish teenager from a small town at the outbreak of the Second World War. When the Germans invaded, Clara's family was taken in by the Beck, a Volksdeutsch (ethnically German) family from their town. Mr. Beck was known to be an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a vocal anti-Semite. His wife had worked as Clara's family's housekeeper. But on hearing that Jewish families were being led into the woods and shot, Beck sheltered the Kramers and two other Jewish families.
Eighteen people in all lived in a bunker dug out of Beck's basement. Fifteen-year old Clara kept a diary during the twenty terrifying months she spent in hiding, writing down details of their unpredictable life, from the house's catching fire to Beck's affair with Clara's cousin, from the nightly SS drinking sessions in the room above to the small pleasure of a shared Christmas carp.
Against all odds, Clara lived to tell her story, and her diary is now part of the permanent collection of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
It had come to this for our family. The unthinkable. That some of our family would survive, perhaps not at the expense of the others, but with the knowledge that we couldn't save them.
The only thing that kept me sane was going to school. The churches had large libraries, as did some of the schools. There were also private libraries. Almost every day I made the rounds. The former nuns and Mr. Appel, the old Jewish man who ran the private libraries, expected me and saved books they thought I might like. This was the year of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens; and of course the great Russian novelists, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Gogel. I picked books by their length and their weight. The longer and heavier the better. More and more, I tried to shut out the world with literature.
In this way we learned that the Pole or Ukrainian who might turn us in would not be a stranger. They would know us. Their children would be our classmates, their fathers would know our fathers, and their grandfathers would have known our grandfathers. I suppose, in the end, it made no difference if you were betrayed by a friend or an enemy. It really only meant that your heart might break a little more in the moment before you felt the bullet.Obviously, this is a powerful story. It's a story about life and survival. It's a story about humanity--at its best and worst. The portrayal of the Becks--for better or worse--proves just that. What makes a man good? It's an emotional read--no doubt--with just as many losses as triumphs. (In one of the last chapters, the reader learns that of the 5,000 Jews living in Zolkiew, only 50 survived.) But it is a hopeful story as well. One of strength and endurance.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews