Book reviews

The Young Survivors by Debra Barnes

The generation of Holocaust survivors who are still alive to tell their stories were, in large part, children during the 1940s. Their formative years, which ought to have been times of education, safety and growth, were instead blighted by terror, loss and brutal oppression. Many went on to have children who only came to an understanding of their parents’ terrible experiences later in life. Debra Barnes, whose Jewish mother survived the Holocaust as a young girl in wartime France and chose not to talk about it as an adult, has taken the childhood experiences of her relatives as the starting point for her debut novel, The Young Survivors (Duckworth Books).

Debra Barnes (Photo – Adam Soller)

Barnes tells the story of the Laskowskis, a Jewish family living in France but with Polish roots. As the story opens, in 1938, brothers Pierre, Samuel and Claude welcome their baby twin sisters Henriette and Georgette into their lives. The two are born into into a community of observant Jews, who come together to mark religious occasions and who respect their rabbi’s wisdom, but they enter too a world in which antisemitism is rife, as Samuel (one of three narrators) describes early on in the story:

Even though we were always well dressed, the bully boys called us dirty Jews. Anyone could see they were a lot scruffier than us. Too often they waited for me, in groups of three or four, to come out of school alone. I would run home through narrow, cobblestoned streets, the sound of their feet close behind. They usually gave up after a few blocks, throwing stones at me before turning back for their next victim and leaving me to catch my breath.”

Samuel and his family flee their home in the French city of Metz as the sounds of war approach from the east, ultimately finding themselves caught in Nazi-occupied territory near the Demarcation line which split France between Nazi rule and the jurisdiction of the collaborationist Vichy government. There’s a strong sense in the book of a hostile net being thrown down around the family and slowly tightened, but it also seems random and impersonal, as this description by Pierre of the arrest of some of the family demonstrates:

“The Germans just ignored me; my name was not on their list and so they had no interest in me. It was inexplicable – why weren’t the rest of us on their list? Maman walked silently out the front door with the girls in her arms. The policemen nodded towards the back of the waiting truck. Maman lifted my little sisters, one at a time, onto the vehicle before she climbed on herself and disappeared behind the tarpaulin.”

Inherent in Barnes’s telling of the story is the difference of perspective brought with the differing ages of the narrators. Pierre, the eldest, crosses into adulthood during the war, and he grapples with becoming something like the head of the family as its members are scattered across France by the Nazis and the collaborators. Young Georgette, whose voice is heard from mid-way through, sees things very differently, having never known peacetime or settled contentment. Her viewpoint is more immediate and matter-of-fact; each new situation is accepted as a new kind of normality.

Barnes has constructed these varying viewpoints with care and given her young-adult readers an insight into the ways in which survival shaped the childhoods of elderly people now in the 80s and 90s. Her own mother passed away some years ago, and Barnes considers in the acknowledgments whether she would even have wanted to read the novel. The book has, though, allowed the author to bring clarity to those unanswered questions that hovered around her own family’s story, and bring into focus the years of pain and destruction that tore apart many others like them.

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