Emil and Karl
Written by Yankev Glatshteyn,
Translated by Jeffrey Shanler.
A Neal Porter Book, 2006, 208 pp.
Yankev Glatshteyn ( Jacob Glatstein) immigrated to the United States from Lublin, Poland where he was born in 1896. Upon his arrival in the U.S. in 1914, Glatshteyn lived with his uncle and worked in sweatshops until he learned English. He attended NYU’s Law School before dropping out to teach, and then made a career change to journalism, writing columns about politics and culture. In 1920, he co-founded the In zikh, a literary school of thought where metered verse was rejected and non-Jewish themes were encouraged. The movement followed on the heels of the “Sweatshop Poets” and became known as the first true movement in modern Yiddish literature. Glatshteyn wrote on “exotic” themes and his poetry focused on the words and their sounds.
Glatshteyn’s 1934 visit to Poland radically changed his life and his work. After witnessing the advancement of anti-Semitism across Europe, he wrote Emil and Karl and two more novels. He became an activist with his works focused on Jewish themes, urging Jews across the world to take action against what was happening to European Jews. For the remainder of his life, Glatshteyn continued his writings in Yiddish, becoming known as one of the most important Jewish poets of the twentieth century. He died in 1971 in New York City.
Glatshteyn’s compelling story takes place just prior to the start of World War II. In an afterword, Shandler notes that many books have been written about the Holocaust, but the timing of this book makes it “among the very first books written about the Holocaust for readers of any age and in any language” (p. 187). He also explains that one of Glatshteyn’s purposes for writing this book was to help readers, “understand that what was happening to Jews in Europe had an impact on everyone living there, and that the future of Europe’s Jews depended on their relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors” (p. 194).
The story opens with terrified nine-year-old Karl, alone in his apartment. He has just witnessed “three big, hulking men” (p.3) drag away his mother, a Socialist. Karl tries to defend his mother but is punched “in the stomach so hard that he fell down, taking the chair with him” (p.3). Not knowing what else to do, Karl decides to go to his Jewish friend, Emil. Two weeks earlier, Emil’s mother had told Karl not to come over any more because Emil was harassed and beaten by other children for playing with Karl, a Gentile. Karl was also abused by other children because of his friendship with Emil. As Karl runs to Emil’s he reasons, “they’d have to let him in now. He didn’t have anyone else. Now he was a Jew, too. After all, he’d been punched in the stomach so hard that he could have died. They took his mother away from him. He was all alone in the world. How could Emil not let him in now?” (p.13).
When Karl reaches Emil’s door, he gives the special knock and waits. “Emil stood there, looking dazed. He didn’t say a word” (p. 23). Emil tells Karl his father has been taken away and killed; his ashes returned to them in a box. His mother has a complete break-down and is led away by the Rabbi and friends. The Rabbi tells Emil and Karl to wait, he will find homes for them both. They wait for a day, but hunger drives them back to Karl’s building. When they arrive at a neighbor’s, they find only her kitchen table left and decide to hide in the cellar for the night. The next morning, the janitor finds them. He and his wife feed them, telling them to stay there each night. On a bright and clear day, Karl talks Emil into going outside. As they walk through the streets, they are caught by a Nazi soldier, who takes them to an area where hundreds of people are on their knees and forced to clean the street with their hands. And thus begins Emil’s and Karl’s struggle to survive in this hostile environment.
While Emil and Karl are certainly victims of horrendous times and both boys struggle to understand why these events are happening, they also take action for themselves and encounter heroes with varying shades of kindness, including Jews, Gentiles, and Nazis. For example, on that first day scrubbing the streets, a Nazi overseer singles them out and escorts them away from the other Nazis. As Emil and Karl negotiate their days and nights, they must figure out who they can trust and where they can go for food and shelter, as one-by-one their helpers disappear, taken away by the storm troopers.
Eventually, Emil and Karl are taken in by “Uncle Hans” and “Aunt Matilda,” two underground workers. As the story concludes, Emil and Karl are waiting at the train station to leave Vienna. Matilda risks her life to give them notes Hans has written to each, “I will die so that Emil and Karl might be able to live together in peace” (p. 180). The train pulls up, chaos breaks out, and Emil and Karl are separated. Emil is on the train when the doors are closed, while Karl is left behind— hoping to get on the next train.
Emil and Karl was written as a cautionary tale, and so can be connected to allegorical picture books, such as Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting (1989) and The Little Boy Star: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Rachel Hausfater (2006). These picture books could serve as introductions or be the impetus for whole class discussions during the reading of Emil and Karl to make connections across the three books.
Since Emil and Karl focus on the experiences of two young boys experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, other companion titles might include the picture books Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti (1985) and I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Hana Volakov (1994). The first is about a young girl who discovers children in a concentration camp near her town; and the second, a collection of poems, stories, and illustrations written and drawn by children in a concentration camp. Two novels to include might be Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter (1987) and Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust by Allan Zullo (2005). The former is a similar account to Emil and Karl and the latter is a collection of biographical sketches.
In reading Emil and Karl, as well as these companion pieces, readers cannot help but make connections to current events in their own lives and the world today. How are children suffering from conflicts worldwide? Do we have an obligation to step in? Should we? How can we help? Like Glatshteyn’s decision to take action upon seeing the unfolding events in Europe in 1934, reading Emil and Karl and similar titles will help readers gain a global perspective in responsible citizenship and what can happen when one does not act against unjust events.
University of Alabama, Huntsville, Alabama