After the Train, by Gloria Whelan;
HarperCollins: New York, 2009; $15.99
Picture this: you are thirteen years old and living in Rolfen, West Germany, ten years after WWII has ended. All your history teacher talks about is the war and how big an impact it had on history, along with how horrible it was for the Jewish people. You know all this already and you think everyone should move on and live in the moment. Of course you have sympathy for all the people who suffered and died, but right now your biggest concerns are playing summer soccer with your two best friends and helping your father rebuild the town’s church in your spare time. This is Peter Liebig’s life in a nutshell, until he discovers a treasure trove of letters that had been exchanged between his mother and father during the war.
While their country fought, Mr. Liebig, an architect by trade, built barracks in the prison camps. At home Mrs. Liebig, eager to play her part in the war, worked as a nurse at the Red Cross organization, treating mild wounds and making care packages for the soldiers. She saw the trains shipping off thousands of Jews to concentration camps but chose to ignore it all. The couple was happy helping the cause and blissfully unaware of the terrors going on around them. That all changed when a desperate woman held a baby out the window of a train and begged Mrs. Liebig to take him. The small child, later named Peter, had changed the Liebigs’ lives forever.
Peter, now grown up, had always assumed that he was the son of his parents, just as anyone would. But when he discovers his Jewish heritage, his world is flipped upside down and he scrambles for anything to hold onto while he gets his head around this newly discovered information. When Peter talks to one of his father’s Jewish friends and starts attending some of their religious services and dinners with him, he finds it easier and easier to come to terms with his past.
I thought I knew everything about my family and my past, but two years ago, when my father told me how my great-grandfather and great-uncles survived Auschwitz, I was astounded! They had lived in Poland and were helping Jews escape persecution. But the Nazis caught onto them, and they were sent to one of the worst prison camps created. Luckily, they all survived, but not without injuries. I was most certainly not in the same predicament as Peter, but I could relate to him and his sense of astonishment.
Peter is a good role model, and easy to relate to. He has the mind of an adolescent, making his thoughts about soccer and friends easy for the young reader to understand, but he is also a very kind boy with a logical mind and a generous heart. He is curious and works hard, as evidenced by the sections of bricks he carefully and dutifully laid while learning the trade with his father. He helps his friends with their crazy ideas and is respectful and polite to his parents and other adults, making him my favorite character in the book.
Because it is short in length, I found this book to be slightly predictable and some parts repetitive and slow moving. Overall, however, I enjoyed it. The book is a wonderful example of how learning about your past is not always a bad thing, and can be a grounding experience.