Written by Jerry Spinelli.
Scholastic, 2005, 208 pp.
the problem is no longer ‘never to forget’: it is how to remember
- – Bosmajian
there was not a Holocaust of six million, but six million Holocausts of one– Spinelli
Thankfully, Theodor Adorno’s famous quote that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” has not been taken to heart. Countless Holocaust memoirs and works of fiction have been written and put into the archives of a new collective memory of that historical event. Even considering the amount of literature written for and about children, the above quote by Jerry Spinelli, taken seriously, alters the landscape, allowing us to tell the small stories, making connection to the past easier for children (and adults) of many different backgrounds. Hamida Bosmajian recognizes the scope of the Holocaust genre which explores every aspect of the horrors and renders the stories either repetitive or desensitizes the reader to a dangerous extent. In Milkweed, Spinelli has used a child narrator/protagonist in order to look at a small but significant part of the Holocaust–the starvation, ghettoization, and eventual deportation of Warsaw’s large Jewish population. Spinelli, who is not Jewish, chose to write about the Holocaust because of his interest in the historical time period. He met a Holocaust survivor, but did not consider him a source for the book.
Warsaw is seen through the eyes of an unnamed street urchin (Spinelli thought of him as eight or nine years old) who is assumed by other street kids to be a Gypsy. Abandoned by parents he does not remember, the character lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Warsaw, eventually taking up with a group of orphans, who happen to be Jewish. As the situation gets desperate in Warsaw (mostly by Nazi decree), the group’s stealing becomes more systematized. The unnamed boy is given a history by Uri, an older teen who looks out for him, to be used in case he gets caught.
Misha, as he is now known, has a whole invented history that explains his present circumstances. Before long, he befriends a Jewish girl named Janina whose food he was going to pilfer, becoming a de facto member of their family when all the Jews are herded into the ghetto. The family depends on Misha and Janina to steal food because they are the only ones small enough to fit through openings in the wall to Warsaw city proper. In this story, the reader is exposed to many of the horrors of life in the Warsaw ghetto. We are sympathetic to Misha’s plight as a street orphan before the ghetto, but there is always food for the taking. After developing the characters during this period, Spinelli does not spare us the descent into mass starvation taking place before the Warsaw Jews were deported to their deaths.
There has been much academic discussion over the last twenty years about how much of the horror of the Holocaust children should be exposed to. Many of us have seen photographs or films of the death camps with their piles of bodies and shoes and glasses. These horrific visual records of the Holocaust beg questions about how much children should see and if there is any way to spare them from the goriest details. How the story is narrated, whose eyes we see the story through, will affect not only what we see, but how we see it.
Similar to Spinelli’s most famous protagonist, Jeffrey Lionel Magee, Misha (through no fault of his own) looks upon the world through a detached lens. Maniac Magee (1990) tackled the hot topic of racism, but Magee always seemed to be above the fray. His world was not black vs. white and, maybe naively, he saw all people as essentially good. Misha has the same reaction to many of the horrors in Milkweed. Gunshots are a normal daily sound, and death does not seem to faze him. Used to an extremely difficult daily life from the start, he takes everything in stride, only worried about how he will find his next meal. It is only when he is given the fake story of his identity that he slowly begins to show emotion. When his newfound Jewish identity is confirmed by his acceptance into Janina’s family, the boy finds a reason to keep himself and the others going. But there is still a level of detachment in his actions and observations of daily life in the ghetto.
What are we to make of a Holocaust fictional narrative that shows us life up close, but doesn’t ask us to feel? An initial reaction may be to recoil from the thought of a neutral Warsaw ghetto. After all, it was one of the most visible manifestations of Nazi atrocity and a testament to the fight of those resisters who stayed past the deportations. Roberto Innocenti, famous illustrator and author of the Holocaust story Rose Blanche (2003), discusses the artistic choices that are made when creating disturbing narrative (Myers, 2009). Innocenti purposefully maintains distance in his illustrations. He doesn’t show the raw emotion on the face of the characters during moments of crisis in order to shield children (and adults) from having to deal with it. This is both a strength and a weakness of Spinelli’s writing. From the Jewish perspective of this reviewer, the horrors of what happened to Jews usually take precedence over more general historical questions of people’s inhumanity to each other. However, when I step back, I see the value in allowing kids to get the facts while not being overwhelmed by the horrors. If Misha can be above the fray, so can the reader.
Another way that Spinelli keeps the reader a bit detached is by showing a character that never seems to grasp his own identity. We sympathize and maybe empathize with Jeffrey Magee and Misha because they are without the stability of home or parents. But their identity is rarely named by themselves. Misha’s potential loss of identity through his own mortality is not shown up close. The world would be losing someone unnamed. He declares himself a Jew, but the reader guesses this is a bit of whimsy to satisfy his own present desire for belonging because his Jewish identity is affirmed only by Janina and her father and the scope of Nazi racial policies. He is not disturbed by the specific persecution of Jews or, as his initial protectors assume he is, Gypsies. We can also see his lack of identity by his reaction to the Nazi soldiers, the “Jackboots,” when they occupy Warsaw before the ghetto. Misha dreams of being a Jackboot and is amazed by the shine and majesty of their uniforms. This is in stark contrast to the Jews who were “volunteered” to be policemen in Warsaw, looked upon as traitors by their fellow Jews. Their uniforms have no shine. One can imagine a naïve child taken in by the pomp and circumstance of the Nazi machine with their shiny boots and measured parades. Misha, as a targeted individual, is taken in to the same extent as German youth who became the members of the Hitler Youth. By restricting Misha’s identification with the Jews initially, Spinelli attains a measure of truth not seen in most Holocaust narratives. Misha is just a starry-eyed kid like any other.
The continuous tension between the unnamed detached protagonist living through the Warsaw Ghetto and the knowledge that we have today about the actual time and place provides us with a safer means to look at the Holocaust historically. We are reminded of the destruction and can critically examine larger issues of identity, discrimination, and even genocide while, at the same time, be comforted with a story that provides facts, yet doesn’t expose us so much that we get Holocaust exhaustion.
Although marketed to older readers than those of Milkweed, Israeli author Uri Orlev, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, has written two novel that can be paired with Spinelli’s book. The Island on Bird Street (1984) captures the desperation of the ghetto from a eleven year-old Jewish boy’s perspective while The Man from the Other Side (1988) looks at the situation from a Catholic boy’s point-of-view. While these are different cultural points of reference, they also offer comparative views of childhood and innocence. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne, 2006) is useful to look at with Milkweed, as it shows a more extreme form of naivete by the main character.
Myers, L. (2009). What Do We Tell the Children? War in the Work of Roberto Innocenti.Bookbird, 47(4), 32-39.
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ