Pieces of the Past

Buckle up, it doesn’t get much darker than this.

Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948, Carol Matas, 2013.

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I feel like Dear Canada’s normally-depressing books just weren’t depressing enough, so Scholastic said “let’s just go for broke and write a Holocaust book to really round it all out.” But how would they write a book about the Holocaust—which, as you’ll remember, took place in Germany—in Canada? Easy, they’ll write a book about a horribly-traumatized girl adopted out as a refugee to a Canadian family in Winnipeg! Too easy. (Spoiler: Nothing in this book is easy. It’s brutal.)

One of the things I like the most about this book is that Rose, our protagonist, isn’t really all that likable. This is something that YA and children’s books have started to steer away from now, but when I was growing up, it seemed like every protagonist of every book was fun and smart and kind and if not popular, still had a core group of amazing friends. There were not a lot of books about girls or boys who were mean or lonely or dumb or just kind of sucked. Not that Rose is any of those things—she’s not—but she’s severely traumatized and not really interested in making friends or socializing with anyone except the other orphans she knows. Which is a very refreshing point of view, if that’s not too strange of a word to use here.

Rose is the only surviving member of her family, apart from a distant cousin or two—out of sixty members by her count. After spending some time in a displaced persons camp, she applied to come to Canada and was sent to Winnipeg and is living in her third foster home after the first two rejected her. So her foster father, Saul, who is a psychiatrist, gives her a journal to write down some of her memories in the hopes that it will help her to clear up some of her mind—the whole rest of the book is in flashback/flash forward style, half in Winnipeg in 1948 and half Rose’s memories from Poland beginning in 1938, when she was very small.

Before, Rose had an older brother and sister, and her father was a teacher—but that was before the war began and they were all killed. In Winnipeg, she has her foster parents and a foster sister, Terry, who doesn’t particular want Rose there and doesn’t care if she knows it. It’s funny—both Terry and Rose are fairly bad-tempered and negative, but Rose doesn’t focus on how miserable they both are. She just notes it and moves on with writing about her school, and spending time with the other orphans at the YMHA. But it turns out that the reason Terry is so miserable is that Saul and his wife Rita had another daughter, Paula, who was very close in age to Rose, and who died a few years back. So automatically Rose thinks they just wanted a replacement for this Paula, and frankly it doesn’t seem like she’s too off the mark.

In the flashbacks—Rose’s home is raided by Germans, who take all of their valuables, and later are sent to the ghetto where they live in a two-bedroom apartment with another family. Typhoid sweeps through the ghetto, and it’s particularly awful because there isn’t enough food to go around and they’re already weak. Rose is very ill with it and has a vision where her uncle is in the afterlife waiting for her father to come and join them—and several months afterwards their apartment is raided and her father is shot by German soldiers and dies in their living room. Then two weeks after that Rose’s sister Sophie disappears on a bartering trip, trading their mother’s jewelry for food—presumed captured.

They begin to empty the ghetto, and Rose’s mother hides her underneath the floorboards of the apartment. They take Abe, her brother, but he manages to escape the transport train and return to the ghetto, only to leave again to fight with the Resistance. So now their family of five is down to just Rose and her mother, who escape the ghetto and pose as an ordinary Polish mother and daughter. After being turned away from a few homes of former friends, one of her mother’s former students is able to smuggle them to a safe house where they have to stay in a cupboard. For TWO MONTHS. After two months they need to leave again, since someone has leaked their hiding place, and they head into the woods and into the cellar of a farmhouse barn. They’re all covered in lice, but hope comes when they can send Rose to a different farm where she can stay and work.

She stays there, briefly, but alone—and her mother nearby in the woods—until one day they have to drop everything and run, since Germans are in the area searching. Off they go into the woods again, until they meet another resistance leader who’s able to lead them to what’s really just a hole in the ground for the night. They’re able to get to another hiding place the next day—it’s February of 1944 by this point—but it’s a warfighter’s hiding place and children really aren’t allowed to stay. Rose gets very sick again, and when she recovers her mother sends her to the farm of a Catholic woman, where Rose will pose as her niece. But she must go alone—“You must be stronger than your mother now, Rozia. She knows it is for the best to let you go, but this is the hardest thing she will ever have to do. You have to be grown up now and tough as a nail. Can you do that?” She is nine years old. Her poor mother has lost her husband and two older children and now she’s being asked to send her youngest daughter to the home of a stranger, knowing full well she may never see her again.

But Rose can only stay there for a few weeks before her mother comes to fetch her—they’ve been found out again, and again they go hiking through the woods. They get lost and run into German soldiers, and try to hide in the hiding place they were in before, where there’s a tiny crack in the wall only big enough for a small child—and they take Rose’s mother and they shoot her while Rose listens. She’s found by another Resistance member and taken to a family camp, where she manages to stay until they’re liberated by the Russians.

So—that’s Rose’s story. It’s no wonder she can eat and eat and eat and hide food under her bed, or why she isn’t interested in the same things as the other girls at her junior high, or why she doesn’t really care about the stupid problems her foster sister Terry has. Terry’s friends are mean girls—they tease Rose about needing a babysitter because Saul and Rita have asked Terry to make sure Rose gets to and from school all right. Instead Rose sort-of befriends a girl named Susan after they agree to tutor each other.

The only things Rose really enjoys about her new home are the food—she thinks Rita is a particularly good cook and loves it when they go out to eat—and going to the movies, and going to spend time with her orphan friends, Oskar and Jakub. In fairness—her foster parents are pretty distant, and Terry is mean, and the whole house is awkward and quiet and painful. And school is no better. So it’s no wonder she doesn’t have much to look forward to.

Terry’s friends at school make fun of Susan, too—calling her ugly and making fun of her hair. Rose knows that if she tattles, Terry won’t forgive her—and secretly she’s a little glad they’re not making fun of her—but still feels awful. She finally convinces Terry’s friends that if they do anything awful to Susan, she’ll hurt them—and then Terry throws a fit at her and stomps off when they get home. But it’s okay, because Susan asks her over instead, and Rose is OK with that as things aren’t going great at home anyhow.

Turns out Susan has four older brothers and lovely parents, and it makes Rose realize how sad and quiet it is at her house all the time. Of course, they’re grieving their daughter and things probably aren’t all that comfortable with their refugee child there, but still. Rose spends more and more time over at Susan’s house—and then Rita tells her that she’s pregnant, and Rose immediately begins to think they’re going to try to throw her out so the baby can have her room. Poor Rose.

But—Susan’s mother asks Rose if she’d like to come live with them. Rose, very bluntly, asks if the Boxers are trying to get rid of her, but Susan’s mother very diplomatically says they want her more. Rose wonders if things would have worked out if she’d been on better terms with Terry to start and they hadn’t lied about not having any other children—“On the other hand, Susan’s family haven’t known me for very long, have they? What’s going to stop them from wanting me to leave one day, too? The more I think about it, the more miserable I feel. Why did God leave me with no family at all? Not even one brother or sister or parent? Why did He leave me all alone in the world? He doesn’t care. He couldn’t care…”

This is all heartbreaking and awful, but it rings amazingly true. Rose’s musings on God and faith and what’s happened never venture into didactic or too-moralistic or anything like that. It’s all very sad, but very realistic, and you really feel for Rose but manage to understand why she’s so badly damaged by everything that’s happened to her.

So she goes to live with Susan’s family, and she’s quite shy at first, but they’re boisterous and welcoming and very blessed with good fortune, and suddenly she finds herself part of a large family with a big extended family as well. It does sound wonderful—they have a big rambling house and grandparents nearby and cousins, and the house is full of people and food and it’s so unusual Rose doesn’t quite know what to do with herself. She realizes after talking with her orphan friends that she’s been so concerned with being safe and secure that it’s taken over—and maybe she can make peace with the idea that she may never feel truly safe, but in the meantime all she can do is try to be good. “But I know I can try to be good. And I will.”

Rating: A. Ugh. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly enjoyable book to read—I mean, I was pretty depressed after it—but it’s good, and it’s satisfying. It’s particularly good to read that after all the tragedy Rose gets a quasi-happy ending. It tackles some remarkably major issues with grace—death, abandonment, philosophy—and they’re all age-appropriate. Nothing is too graphic or brutal, which is surprising giving the subject matter, but still nice to see in a Holocaust book aimed at the 9-12 age group. And I really enjoyed how it wasn’t a book about the concentration camps—there are already so many good books on that topic, and I like how this one was more focused on evasion and the Resistance, which isn’t so well covered. All in all, it was great, although hard and exhausting to read. It’s well-written (and I enjoyed the shout-out to Carol Matas’s other Dear Canada book, Turned Away, which is about a Jewish girl in Winnipeg and her efforts to bring refugee children to Canada and set seven years earlier) and well-paced and really my only complaint would be that I would have loved it to be longer.

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2 thoughts on “Pieces of the Past

  1. The Dear Canada books see much more layered than the Dear America books! Does this one have a epilogue at the end? I’m curious as to what happens to her.

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    • Layered is a nice way of putting it, and I think you’re right. They do seem to be more complex and mature, in theme if not in writing.

      It does! Rose lives with the Boxers all through high school, goes to university and studies philosophy, and eventually becomes a professor of philosophy and writes a couple of books on the Holocaust and religious theory. She marries another refugee, a friend she’d grown up with, and they have a few kids they name after Rose’s siblings.

      I really enjoyed how Matas didn’t go overboard in either direction with the epilogue–she didn’t give Rose a wonderfully super-happy glorious life afterwards, which can be tempting, but she also didn’t give her a life of unrelenting misery and depression. Fairly balanced! I liked it.

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