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Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy is the true story of Sylvia Perlmutter Rozines, one of only twelve child survivors of the Lodz Ghetto. Most of us think we know about the horrors perpetuated by the Nazis on the Jews of Europe in the concentration camps, but the treatment of Polish Jews in the ghettos is less well documented in popular literature. I visited the Warsaw Ghetto on a city tour more than ten years ago so I knew quite a lot about what had happened there, but I was interested to know more about other Polish Ghettos. When this came up on offer as an Amazon ebook, I bought it and started reading the same day.
The term 'ghetto' tends to be used these days for any area of a city where people of similar ethnic background tend to gravitate and live together. Historically though the word apparently has an Italian origin and is very old. Back in the Middle Ages, many European cities had areas where the Jewish population was segregated from the rest of the population either by choice or by persecution, sometimes choosing to live together and sometimes forced by circumstances or regulation to occupy the same area. In the Second World War the Nazis established ghettos as a way to keep all their 'undesirables' together to make them easier to control, to abuse or to exploit as a labour force.
When Hitler's forces marched into Poland in 1939 the soon started to round up Jewish citizens and force them to live in restricted areas of the country's major cities which were called ghettos. The ghetto in Lodz was Poland's second largest and at its most full, it was home to over a quarter of a million Jews and Roma who were incarcerated in a small area surrounded by barbed wire. Under the 'leadership' of a Jewish council run by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the inhabitants of the ghetto worked so hard and were so productive that the place was kept going long after other ghettos were cleared and their populations killed. More than 270,000 people were squeezed into less than 32,000 apartments, forced to work, fed so little that they starved, and periodically shipped out of the ghetto to the death camps.
Six years after the invasion of Poland the war ended and just 800 people were left in the ghetto including twelve children. Sylvia - then known by her childhood name of Syvia - was one of those dozen children and had spent over half of her young life inside the ghetto. She was just ten years old when she and her parents stepped out of the place that had been both their home and their prison.
~Life after Lodz~
Syvia and her family moved to the United States and rebuilt their lives. The survivors didn't talk about the war and their experience, keeping their horrifying secrets to themselves. Jennifer Roy is Sylvia's niece and when her aunt agreed to tell her about what had happened, she made tape-recordings of Sylvia's story. She tells us that the survivors' motto was "Never forget!" but those survivors had never told her what it was that she was supposed to be trying to remember. Sylvia gave her those memories and the responsibility to decide what to do with them and how to share them with others. It wasn't an easy responsibility to bear. She tried to write a straight historic record, then a story in the third person but neither worked. And then she realised that the real voice that would make people stop and pay attention was Syvia's voice, the voice of the young child in the ghetto. She rewrote her manuscript as if she, the narrator, were Syvia herself. She gave it the simplicity of a child's observations, the short almost poetic lines, the lack of analysis and left in all the gaps which we as readers can easily fill. Through the recollections of one young girl, Roy pays tribute to the dead of the Lodz Ghetto in a way that packs a mighty punch and personalises a story which belongs to so many different people.
It's not a long book but it doesn't need to be. There's no excuse to not find the hour or two that it would take even a slower reader to get through this book. It's superficially an 'easy' read and you'll fly through the pages, but the content is not easy to stomach and will stay with you long after you've finished reading.
~A Childhood of Fear~
At the start of Syvia's story we join her and her family fleeing to Warsaw to escape from Lodz but nobody will give them a place to stay so they have to return. She tells us how she hates the yellow star sewn to her best coat:
"yellow is meant to be
a happy color,
not the color of
Syvia's story is always told in short, chopping, lines with each sentence spread over many lines. It looks like poetry and is an interesting presentational device and it flows surprisingly well. Part of me expected to be irritated by the layout, but I soon got used to it.
Syvia's concerns and observations are those of a small child. She frets about getting locked in the outside toilet and wonders if Polish women outside the ghetto are really big because her mother and sister work in an underwear factory and some of the undies are 'very, very large'. When the Nazis build a fence around the ghetto her mother says "Now we are protected from the Poles" whilst her father observes "Now we are at the mercy of the Nazis". Syvia's father is a brave and very wise man whose ability to read the signs and pick up the atmosphere enabled him to protect his family. Many were not so lucky and Syvia tells us about going to funerals. She also reports the daily life of not being able to start kindergarten and having to learn the alphabet from her sister, about surviving on starvation rations, about her best friend going missing, about her father having to sell her doll. They are often small, sad things but they build up together to form a clear picture of the hardest of childhoods.
In 1942 the family hear a new announcement that all the children must leave the ghetto, to go to a "place where they will have food and fresh air". Some parents are told they can keep one child and they have to choose which one. Syvia and her father sleep out in the cemetery every night until the deportations finish and she goes into hiding. She learns that to survive she has to master the art of being invisible.
The survivor's mantra of 'Never Forget!' is behind every word of this short book. Syvia/Sylvia's life is one of we should be aware and whilst she represents the 'lucky' ones who survived, her testimony bears witness to the far greater number who didn't. The mixture of dull, everyday life in hiding combined with sharp periods of horror leaves us with a sense of what it must have been like to live through a life on the edge and to deal with never knowing what might come next.
When the war ends and the ghetto falls, the few survivors find little sympathy from the Polish neighbours who lived around the ghetto. The end of the ghetto is not the end of danger and after a few months in a detainment camp Syvia's family move to Paris and then on to the USA. Their lives moved on, they got jobs, the young ones got married, some of the older family members died. Nobody talked too much about the past. After talking to Jennifer, Sylvia worked with Holocaust history groups to keep her memories alive. Jennifer brings us up to date with the rest of the characters from the ghetto, telling us who survived and who didn't. And then finally she tells us that every single evening her aunt said Kaddish - the prayer for the dead - for all her friends and family who didn't make it through the war.
Too many biographies of people who had extraordinary lives are spoiled in the telling but Jennifer Ray was already a published author and her skills and good judgement brought Syvia's story to life. The presentation and style keeps your reading, page after page, horror after horror, because Ray makes the reader really care about what happens. Of course we know from the very beginning that Syvia will make it through to tell her story, but that makes the story no less compelling.
Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy
Available on Kindle ebook - 99 pence or free loan for Kindle Prime members through the Kindle Owners' Lending Library.