Sunday, April 6, 2014

Prisoner B-3087

Author:  Alan Gratz
Published:  2013
Timeline of WWII
 (*this is where this story begins)
 This story begins in Poland in 1939, when Jakob is 10 years old.  Jakob is called by his Polish name, Yanek.  Yanek is with his family enjoying a meal and showing his family a movie he has made.  This is a happy start to a terrifying story from WWII and what this boy endures for 6 years.

He says, "If I had known what the next six years of my life were going to be 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."  These are all of the things he misses throughout the next six years.  That very night, the night he is with his family, Germany reaches Krakow.  Yanek's father is always hopeful and Yanek believes him.  Yanek's father, says, the war will be over in 6 months, the war will be over in the winter, the war will be over by spring.  Yanek's mother and father do not live to see the end of the war, 6 years later.  By then, Yanek is a man.  He only has memories of laughter, of brushing his teeth, of sleeping and not being hungry, of his family.

"German soldiers filled the streets of Krakow. 
They marched in their smart gray uniforms with
their legs locked straight and thrown out in from
 of them the way ducks walk.  It was silly, but
 eerie at the same time." (p. 7)
Yanek is a smart young man who loves his family, American movies, and to read.  Soon after the Germans arrive in Krakow Jews are no longer allowed to go to school, the movies, or even the library.  The Polish boys would no longer play with him.  Wasn't he Polish too?  A wall is built around their city and all of the Jews are forced to live in the homes - sometimes four to five families in one small home.  He is no longer considered Polish, he is no longer even considered a human.  He is considered a Jew which is considered less than human, less than even animals.  "I was an animal to them, a pack mule...Working animals were expensive.  They had value.  I was a Jew" (p. 108). The vocabulary in the story refers to the Germans as their "masters."  I thought of my dog.  The Jews are herded from camp to camp, travel in cattle cars, and are fed warm water and old bread with maggots.  In the 6 years this book covers, Yanek works in 10 different camps and miraculously, his life is spared.  There were so many times that he should have died.  These 6 years were like a roller coaster ride I have never ridden on and hope to never ride.  He is hopeful and defeated and hopeful again within minutes.  "I vowed not to be killed without a fight.  My father, Uncle Moshe, the Jewish elders, they were all wrong.  We shouldn't be trying to survive, we should be trying to win.  Instead of waiting for the British or the Americans or the Russians to save us, we should be saving ourselves" (p. 109).

This story reminded me of The Book Thief in parts because Death seems to be a character in this book as well.  Yanek is surrounded by death and murder.  There is no reason for the deaths he sees and he becomes numb to the horrors.  "Death and I had become old acquaintances.  We knew each other when we passed on the street.  This man was dead, I was sure" (p. 155).  Yanek has a will to not just survive, but to win against the Nazis.  He faces death throughout his 6 years, but Death listens to his pleas and leaves him alone."  As Allies bomb the Germans, Yanek along with the other prisoners keep their heads down and wait.  Yanek was "whispering to death, pleading for it to pass me by yet again."  This is his 10th camp.  He walks out because in addition to Death fleeing, the Nazis fled and the Americans arrive.  Finally, an American soldier tells Yanek that everything is going to be all right and for the first time in a long time, Yanek believes that everything will be all right.

I have been noticing a lot of references to books not just in this book, but in other books we've had to read lately.  I don't think I had ever noticed before the importance of books and words.  I know books and words are important, but I had not noticed that books just flat out tell me.  Books and words are what save people.  The sticks and stones saying is so wrong.  Words can hurt and words can save.  Luckily, for Yanek he loved reading, "any and all books.  But especially books about America, and books about doctors and medicine" (p. 9).  He knew what he needed to eat to survive.  He knew what to trade so that he was eating what his body needed so he could avoid the Nazi clinics.  No one that went to a clinic ever returned. 

On the night he becomes a man (bar mitzvah) he must read from the Torah.  Yanek realizes that being caught with a book, especially the Torah, "he would never become a man, he would be shot dead on sight" (p.45).  A book is how Yanek describes his life.  His life is a chapter of a bigger book and he does not want the pages of the book to not include his life.  "We cannot let these monsters tear us from the pages of the world."  Yanek fights to survive and his words are not torn from the pages of the world.  His story is secure in the pages of this book, Prisoner B-3087

I do not like reading about people suffering and definitely not about history.  This story was about suffering and history, but it was definitely worth my time to read.  The suffering endured by Yanek, his family, and all of the prisoners during WWII is horrifying, but I was able to read about it in this book because Yanek was so hopeful.  He fought to survive and I cheered him on throughout the book.  He was a compassionate person even when those around him were not compassionate.  He tries to save his friend Fred when he cannot get up because Yanek knows he will be killed.  Yanek helps a young boy walk from one camp to another even though he himself does not have enough food to sustain himself or energy to carry himself.  Yanek even feels compassion towards animals who are mistreated by the Nazis.  At a time when he is seen as less than even an animal, he has compassion towards all life.  His compassion, his desire to live and to love others makes this book easy for me to read even though I fear these types of stories and the sadness they make me feel.  There is a lot of loss and death, but the will to go on is inspiring.

As I read I looked up words that were unfamiliar to me and times and places that were unfamiliar.  I learned that WWII didn't start with just Hitler and Germany, but Japan attacking China, Italy attacking Africa years before Germany starts its invasions.  I learned about the different concentrations camps and never realized that people could have struggled in camps for years upon years or that people were shuffled between camps for no reason at all except for physical and psychological abuse.  I knew that people suffered, but seeing it from Yanek's point of view, I can only begin to understand the terror, sadness, and the numbness he felt by having to witness his family taken and family and strangers killed.  I am amazed at how little reference there is to anger.  Yanek experiences the anger of the Nazis, but I do not hear about his anger.  We are so quick to anger and to react without thinking.  Yanek had six years to think, but he if he was angry, he had to control it or he would die and others would die too. 

I look forward to sharing this book with my boys.  This is definitely a book for middle school and high school children.  Children exposed to this type of literature would love learning about history and would also learn about compassion and empathy.

The Afterword in this book tells us that Yanek was a real person and his story is true, but this is historical fiction.  The story was written with Jack Greuner's (Yanek's American name) blessing. 

Video of Jack and Ruth Gruener


Savannah Weaver said...

I've been wanting to read this book!

Sya LaManque said...

I'll bring it if you'd like to borrow it. I really learned a lot from the book. I'm reading one about the Vietnam War now, Inside Out and Back Again. I think this is another good one.