Isaac Milman's Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free)
Book review by Monica Friedman
A Hidden Child Visits Auschwitz, Where His Parents Died in the Holocaust
Some tales demand that their authors set them down in print, and this nonfiction book for middle-grade readers is such a one. Isaac Millman, who survived World War II as a hidden child, travels to Auschwitz, where his parents were murdered by Nazis. Accompanying him are his two grandchildren. The younger child, twelve-year-old Milo, narrates the story.
In reality, the foreword explains, Millman took this journey with his adult sons, but, in the interest in writing a children’s book, he has “taken liberty,” and replaces them with the younger companions. This creates a stark, deliberate perspective in which the child is able to experience the journey and report what he has learned with little judgment or philosophy.
Illustrations make up the bulk of the work, with warm watercolors showing the grandfather and his grandchildren holding hands as they venture through unfamiliar landscape. Snapshots of the past, such as the crematoria and the latrines, are rendered in charcoal to create distant imagery. The most tangible artifacts of the journey—the boy’s Eurorail pass and the death certificate of Millman’s father—are sharp scanned reproductions, an interesting contrast with the book’s dream-like landscape.
Review continues below.
Children are eased into the subject matter through the medium of the family’s train trip from Paris, France to Krakow, Poland, during which time we are introduced to the grandfather’s pain as he explains, “Auschwitz was the largest Nazi death camp during World War II and the site where hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered.” The boy’s internal monolog adds texture to this pronouncement, as he thinks “of Grandfather Isaac, all alone at the age of nine…. I consider the thousands of Jewish children who lost their moms and dads in the war. I know in that moment how lucky I am to have parents.”
Milo’s perspective is Millman’s perspective, as the boy’s musings give voice to Grandfather’s internal conflict in a way that children do not often express. These discordant moments serve as a bridge for Grandfather to communicate his own difficult emotions. When a German border guard checks passports, the text reports, “I sense that the unpleasant harsh sound of German makes Grandfather dislike him.” Later, as they pass under the iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate, “I sense Grandfather’s anger at the cynicism behind the meaning of ‘Work Sets You Free’.” This is, perhaps, the text’s major flaw. Rather than forcing a child to tell his story, Millman could have created a more powerful work had he chosen to write from his own perspective, telling his story to a child, in his own voice.
Auschwitz, as a place and as an experience, is, for the author, one of hopelessness and confusion. When Milo asks, “Why did Nazis hate Jews, Grandfather?” Grandfather says, “A difficult question and one impossible to answer.” Grandfather did not come to Aushwitz for answers, but rather to mourn the past. In a field behind the freight cars, “We dig a hole, 4 inches by 7 inches by 6. And then, amongst the white daisies and the flutter of butterflies, in the freshly dug hole, Grandfather buries a photograph of his beloved parents.” They recite Kadish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and return home.
The bright colors of the present day and the dim, sketchy quality of the past delineate two worlds. The sepia-toned photograph Grandfather places in the hole provides thoughtful contrast against the bright green grass. For the boys, reality exists in colors, and the past is held in grainy black and white images and in the words of their elders. The text, rendered entirely in Comic Sans, might serve as another indicator of the vast gap between the generations, or it might simply be a poor layout decision: every line is centered on the page, creating an awkward effect. This book could have benefited from an editor’s touch: a good one would have vetoed these choices and might have suggested reverting to the Grandfather’s point of view for a more honest and believable story.
As it stands, this book could serve as a decent introduction to Holocaust studies for the very young, or for an older, reluctant reader in search of a simple story on which to base a book or history report. However, it also serves as a testament to Millman’s parents and a gift to his family, along with others who lost their lives in Auschwitz, and remains extremely personal and heartfelt. For Millman, the reality of this story, and his parents’ memory, will always live through the medium of the text.
For the Grandfather, the colorless images hold their own reality. On the last page, in black and white, the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate is depicted again, this time with Milo giving voice to Millman’s hopes: “When my brother and I become parents, we will tell our children…. In turn their children will tell their children and their children will tell theirs.” Millman shares Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free) because he must, “to ensure that their lives, their struggles, their triumphs and the final journal will live on in us.”
Also by the author: Hidden Child.
Read more of Monica's reviews.
Webmaster's note: The reviewer received a copy of the book from the publisher.
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