Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Spokane, WA, Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH and Jean Schroeder, The IDEA School, Tucson, AZ
This week, Marilyn, Holly, and Jean discuss the harrowing story of Mira in 28 Days: A Novel of Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto by David Safier and discuss how even in the darkest of times, the smallest act of kindness can change things.
MARILYN: The title of this book focuses on the 28 days that the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II fought the Nazi soldiers who were trying to round them up to be transported to death camps. However, the story starts earlier when Mira, the protagonist in the story, risks her life by going outside the Ghetto to find food for her family. In one scene Mira has found food outside the Ghetto that will feed her family, but she is stopped by “hyenas,” the equivalent to bounty hunters. She could lose her life for being outside the Ghetto. But she is saved by a young man who comes along and pretends she is his girlfriend. That act of kindness is just one of the times in the story when people helped each other. There are many incidents in this historical novel when people were faced with overwhelming danger. Sometimes they put aside their own well-being to help each other. The whole idea of the Jews resisting the military power of Nazi forces was heroic. When the Jews finally fought back some were saved from death in the concentration camps and later were able to tell their stories of resistance.
Many of the kind acts in the story were also acts of incredible bravery. Mira’s whole existence in the beginning of the book is focused on caring for her family. Her brother, on the other hand, left the family and didn’t try to help them until conditions got very dire. Teenage Mira puts her own safety in peril as she strives to keep her family alive. In many instances, Hannah, Mira’s younger sister, was also brave in a different way. It was her talent to make up fantastic stories. It was an incredible gift to the family because those stories diverted their attention when hunger and pain were almost overwhelming. After her family is killed, Mira concentrates on surviving but also joins the resistance that went on for 28 days. During that time of terrible fighting, Hannah’s stories bring Mira comfort. In one tragic scene, Mira even is kind to a Polish soldier and lets him live Holly and Jean, why do you think this is an important story for young people to read?
JEAN: I have to say this book was a difficult read for me but totally agree it is an important read. I knew of the 28 days of resistance but had not read about it before. Despite knowing of the horrors of Hitler’s rule, this story brings a reality to it. It is exhausting. I began by warming to Mira in the first chapters as she worked to support her younger sister and mother, putting herself in danger to do so. But my take on her changed as I kept interpreting her decisions as self-centered. And she became angered by others who did not think as she did. I didn’t like her. I realize that her selfishness is probably what allows her to survive and I appreciate the fact that there seemed to be a change of heart by the end of the story. I also changed my opinion. I realize that there are two different definitions of “fighter” in this story. The first is the fight to survive the day to day challenges of food and shelter. The second is to pick up firearms and engage in warfare. Mira moved from one mode to the other. The question became was it a change of heart or a change in circumstances that made me appreciate Mira? Would her choices echo those she had expressed in the past depending on new circumstances? I think it is important for Mira to have something she cares deeply about. Her family was central to her choices. As this historical novel ends she has found a new family. I have to say I am in awe of Mira’s strength and courage.
HOLLY: What a harrowing narrative! And Mira! Her story is both inspiring and heart-wrenching. The story of the 28 day resistance of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII, this book was not only realistic, but deeply engaging. I could feel Mira’s emotions, and her hope. I will never completely know her fear, but I had a sense of it. That is due to the writing, which also gave a real sense of what a teenage girl might think and feel under the circumstances. This narrative is such a teachable text and helped me put together a lot of information, including the context of Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator who watched over 200 orphans in the Warsaw ghetto until they were shipped to Treblinka.
I read Mila 18 (1961) by Leon Uris when I was a teenager, and that story stayed with me. This brought the story to life again for me, and through the eyes of a young woman who was such a reluctant fighter. The book does a great job of showing how Mira was ready and willing to smuggle items into the ghetto to keep her sister and mother alive, but hoped not to fight or to die because of Nazi malice or Polish disinterest. She wanted to see New York city, making her such a relatable character, but also connecting the targeted audience to Mira as a person with dreams just like them. The acts of kindness are rampant through this text, similar to what we have seen in all the other novels we have discussed this month, but under the circumstances, the courage it took to be kind and to care for others could cost people their lives. Were there particular incidents that stood out to you in this book, Marilyn and Jean?
MARILYN: I also read Mila 18 when I was young. I was glad to read this book by Safier because it will reach another generation who may not know the true story of the Warsaw Ghetto. I was glad that the story of Janusz Korczak, who cared for the Jewish orphans in the Ghetto is part of this novel. His incredible love, kindness and bravery are a well-known part of the Warsaw Ghetto experience and having that account in this book continues his saga for another generation. The author also tells about how he led the children and young people he cared for with flags waving in a march onto the cattle cars that took them to a concentration camp. That account always causes tears on my part. That is something important about this book, that the dangers, sacrifices and pain the characters in this novel experience can be an inspiration. Books like this appearing in a challenging time like we are experiencing may inspire readers to contemplate how people in our past have weathered very difficult and sometimes overwhelming challenges. What will you two remember about this story?
JEAN: This book will linger with me for a long, long time. I think the determination to survive comes to mind as an important constant. Beginning with the acts of smuggling to the hours of waiting in the sewers. Survival is always central and influencing the directions the characters take – a constant underlying hope. The grasp of reality when survival was becoming less likely or impossible also was an important piece as it played with the hope. I was so impressed with Janusz Korczak and how he prepared the orphans for what was to come without dashing their hopes. I also kept thinking about acts of kindness throughout this read. They were there, sometimes hidden among the horrors, but there. Like the occasional chuckles and laughs, these brief moments were gigantic and built up the courage to survive.
HOLLY: I think I will remember Mira’s bravery. She had to grow into it, as many of us might, but she discovered she had it within her to fight for herself and those around her. And through her bravery, she was kind. She used her brave actions to help others, and when the situation became really harrowing, she stood up. She faced the circumstances and acted, but not without thinking and caring for those around her. This was another book that had me on the edge of my seat. Our novels this month showed us some horrible situations, and I wonder if that is when kindness really shines. It seems to me that we can always be kind when there is little to sacrifice, but in the books we read, it was in really dire circumstances that kindness just revealed itself through the actions of those not willing to look the other way. Some really terrific reads this month.
Title: 28 Days: A Novel of Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto
Author: David Safier
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
PubDate: March 10, 2020
Throughout December 2020, Marilyn Carpenter, Holly Johnson, and Jean Schroeder discuss how kindness shines through dire and horrendous circumstances. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!