Saturday, January 05, 2013

Prisoner B-3087 (2013)

Prisoner B-3087. Alan Gratz. 2013. [March 2013] Scholastic. 260 pages.

If I had known what the next six years of my life would have been like, I would have eaten more. I wouldn't have complained about brushing my teeth, or taking a bath, or going to bed at eight o'clock every night. I would have played more. Laughed more. I would have hugged my parents and told them I loved them. But I was ten years old, and I had no idea of the nightmare that was to come. None of us did. It was the beginning of September, and we all sat around the big table in the dining room of my family's flat on Krakusa Street, eating and drinking and talking: my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and me, Jakob--although everybody called me by my Polish name, Yanek.

Prisoner B-3087 will definitely be on my best books of 2013 list. I loved, loved, LOVED this one. I think it's definitely Alan Gratz's best work, and I have absolutely loved some of his books. It is also one of the best holocaust novels I've ever read, and I've read plenty over the past twelve years. It is based to a certain degree on the true story of Jack Gruener, though it is a novelization. It is historical fiction set in Poland chronicling the years 1939-1945. It is a very compelling read.

What I absolutely LOVED about it was the writing. The narration was amazing: beautiful, haunting, simple yet incredibly compelling.

Yanek's secret middle-of-the-night bar mitzvah:
"Now we are ten men," my father whispered. He smiled at me. "And soon we shall be eleven. I'm sorry we did not have more time for your studies, Yanek. Just do your best."
The Torah scrolls were taken out and unrolled so I could read from them. My Hebrew was rough. Before the Nazis, I would have been at the synagogue once or twice a week ahead of time, practicing for this. But of course that was impossible now. I muddled through, and if God or man heard anything amiss, neither of them called me on it.
When I was finished, my father chanted a blessing over me in place of our rabbi, who had been killed by the Germans. He prayed in Hebrew, then spoke in Polish.
"Yanek, my son," he said, looking at me solemnly, "you are a man now, with all the duties of an adult under Jewish law. You are now responsible for your own sins, but also for your own goodness. Remember what the Talmud teaches: Life is but a river. It has no beginning, no middle, no end. All we are, all we are worth is what we do while we float upon it--how we treat our fellow man. Remember this, and a good man you will be."
"I will, Father," I said. I  had waited for this day, looked forward to it for years. Suddenly it didn't matter that we weren't in a synagogue, that we didn't have a feast waiting for us afterward. The smile on my father's face filled me with pride. (46-7)
Advice from Uncle Moshe to Yanek when he first arrives at his first (of ten) camps (work, concentration, death):
"Yanek, we haven't much time," he whispered. "Listen closely. Here at Plaszow, you must do nothing to stand out. From now on, you have no name, no personality, no family, no friends. Do you understand? Nothing to identify you, nothing to care about. Not if you want to survive. You must be anonymous to these monsters. Give your name to no one. Keep it secret, in here," Uncle Moshe said, tapping his heart with his fist... Your parents, Oskar and Mina. They are dead and gone now, Yanek, and we would grieve them if we could. But we have only one purpose now: survive. Survive at all costs, Yanek. We cannot let these monsters tear us from the pages of the world. (68, 70)
Other passages I marked:
We were lined up in row upon row while the Nazis checked the numbers on our uniforms against the tally on their clipboards. I realized then: They would beat us and starve us and shoot us like we didn't matter, but they would always keep track of us. (70)
By the time I got to the head of the line, I understood what was happening. We were being tattooed. I watched as the man ahead of me had letters and numbers carved into his skin in black ink with an electric needle. When it was my turn, the Nazi with the tattoo pencil grabbed my arm and started to write. The pain was awful as he dragged the vibrating needle over my skin, but I knew better than to cry out or beg him to stop. Besides, nothing could be worse than what had already happened to me. I had been in a gas chamber. I had looked up into a showerhead and waited for death to come, and it had passed me by. I was alive. A tattoo was nothing to me. Not in that moment. (131)
That night as I lay in the middle slot of my three-tiered bunk, I heard voices in the distance singing. I couldn't believe it, and I lifted my head to hear better. It was a lullaby my mother had sung to me when I was a child, but it sounded like it was being sung by a choir. Had I finally lost my mind? Was I going crazy?
"It's the women," the man next to me in the bunk whispered. "They sing when mothers and their children are taken to the gas chambers."
I listened to their song, distant and plaintive.
"How often do they sing?" I asked.
"All day," the man said. "All day, and every night." (154)
Not long ago, all these half-dead creatures around me had been people, I realized. Which of them had been doctors? Teachers? Musicians? Businessmen, like my father? Which of the boys had been students like me? Playing ball in the streets after school, laughing and calling to their friends? It seemed like a lifetime ago. Years. How many years? Like the days, I was beginning to lose count. Five years? Six? Had it been that long? (170)
Read Prisoner B-3087
  • If you want to read one of the best books of the year
  • If you are interested in holocaust books--fiction or nonfiction
  • If you are interested in reading about world war II
© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Anonymous said...

AMAZING book. It exceded my expectations. I thought this would be just like any other holocaust book, but it truly is mind blowing.

Samantha said...

Awesome! :) Thanks for the bits you added. I can't wait to read this!!

(PS Another good WWII book is Run Boy Run by Uri Orlev. It is about a little Jewish boy who survives WWII by living in the forests and with miscellaneous Polish families. And, he ends up surviving with only one of his arms. Amazing story!!)