Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson
On August 25, 2000, 93 headstones and monuments were damaged in the Jewish section of Rose Hill Memorial Park in Tulsa. One of the young men who was arrested was heavily tattooed in swastikas and other Nazi symbols. Now again we are hearing that one of our synagogues in Tulsa has received threats of violence. And Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia recently were damaged, with more than 100 headstones in each cemetery desecrated.
There are many books in our library using the Holocaust as background for fiction, and many books in our non-fiction section which discuss the persecution of European Jews during World War II. Many survivors of concentration camps have written their stories for our young and old to read and learn from.
Two fairly new books are particularly timely – one fiction and one non-fiction.
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit is a beautiful book. Suitable for 8th grade into adult, this book follows the fictional journey of a young girl and her protector through the Polish countryside. It is 1939 and Anna (or sometimes Ana), aged 7, is waiting for her father to return from lecturing at the University. Unknown to her, he has been arrested in a roundup of university professors and lecturers, and will eventually die on the way to Dachau. Her father is a linguist and she has learned a variety of languages from him. As she wanders the streets, unable to return to her home since she has no key, she encounters the Swallow Man.
The Swallow Man is a shadowy figure who can fade into any background or command attention of the most respectful kind. He advises her, “Stay out of sight, for as long as you can.” And, doing so, she begins to follow him until they are united in eluding German soldiers searching in the dark. And throughout the book she follows him, crisscrossing Poland and cleverly avoiding capture at checkpoints and in cities for more than a year. Readers never learn all there is to know about the Swallow Man, except that he saves Anna and sends her to safety across what we assume to be the Baltic Sea. And we sense that in saving her, he has offered himself to be lost.
The second book, The Boy on the Wooden Box, is a memoir of one of Schindler’s Jews – Leon Leyson or Lieb Lejzon “ as was his given name”. Schindler’s Jews were a group of nearly 1200 Jews saved by industrialist Oskar Schindler. Schindler was able to move the workers in his factory out of Germany and into Czechoslovakia in order to save them. His story is seen in the movie, Schindler’s List. (available in the Adult dvd section)
Leyson was a true resident of Krakow as a child, moving there at 8 from a small village in the Polish countryside. When the Nazi army drove through Poland in 1938, Leon and his family continued safely for some time – until the night the Gestapo came to their home, beat his father and arrested him. Upon his release, Leon’s father quietly worked doing odd jobs. He was called one day to a factory taken over by Nazi sympathizers. The owner watched him do the job he had been called for, then offered Leon’s father employment. The owner was Oskar Schindler.
Because his father worked for Schindler, the family remained safe from deportation, even though they were impoverished and subject to the irrational behaviors of German soldiers. In 1941, the family moved into the newly constructed ghetto in Krakow. Life continued to deteriorate as neighbors and friends were rounded up for transport to concentration camps. Schindler was granted permission to build a sub camp next to his factory as a time saving ruse – and after months of separation from his family, Leon and his mother were placed on a hire list from Schindler’s factory, and the family was reunited. The rest is history – Schindler miraculously managed to protect his Jews until the end of the war.
The title reference is understood when we learn that Leon was so small (at age 12) that he had to stand on a wooden box to do his job at the factory – and was saved because his small hands were needed to do tedious cleaning of gun barrels that an adult was too large to do.
Both of these books, one fiction, and one not, set in Poland in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s demonstrate the terrors of the Nazi vendetta against the Jews. Each recounts the careless disregard of human life which results from the separation of populations into “us” and “them.” – Review by Jan Cravens, Youth Services assistant