Lessons In Small Print: The Warring World
I write this on a morning that makes me think more than usual. It is 9 May, exactly seventy years after World War II ended in 1945. It seems apt, then, to talk about a pair of stories for kids that make an incredible introduction to Holocaust literature for the young: The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.
Some of our book club children had read Morpurgo’s other stories for kids on the theme. After all, few authors tell tales of the World Wars as compellingly as he. And when they are as beautifully illustrated
as by Michael Foreman in The Mozart Question, it raises their appeal to another level. Foreman’s visuals combine with Mopurgo’s text to render a tragic-tender subject more potent than ever.
In this story, told with stunning simplicity, Lesley, a reporter, is sent to Venice for a coveted interview with acclaimed violinist Paulo Levi on his fiftieth birthday. She is warned she can ask him anything except the dreaded “Mozart question.” But before long, Paulo himself chooses to reveal the unmentionable truth. His Jewish musician parents were forced to play Mozart concerti for the enemy that imprisoned them in a concentration camp.
We found ourselves gathered over Morpurgo’s gem of a book in an unusual way. To make the most of a sunny day, we decided to meet outdoors. Kicking off our shoes to feel the grass beneath our feet on the lawn of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, we got ready to talk. Thanks to exam fever, only a fistful of kids turned up that afternoon, which was disappointing; a larger group means more voices and views, more heft and heart. After chatting desultorily about the book, we digressed to discuss the ‘Mozart Effect’ (a term coined in the 1990s suggesting that the sonorous complexities of music from a composer genius like Mozart enhances brainpower) and even The Mozart Conspiracy, the Scott Mariani thriller.
Just then, life and luck took over. Quite by chance we watched rows of kids file into the theatre beside us, each clutching a violin under an arm. We followed them in and soon sat listening to an enjoyable strings concert performed by pupils of the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation. From nowhere, the children’s no-show segued into a superb show!
But the irony of applauding Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, after reading Morpurgo’s story, hit us when one girl whispered, “I wonder what tunes the Jews were made to play to entertain the forces they must have hated?” Her friend remarked, “It must’ve been light music. The cruel Nazis were happy to have captured prisoners.” She said she knew Mozart wrote light music because a doctor had advised her pregnant mother to hear his soothing melodies.
My mind went back to the other quietly emotional book on the subject that we had discussed with a different group of middle school kids. John Boyne’s book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is charged with subtle power till its killer-punch end, which had the Observer reviewer conclude: “This book will not go gently into any good night.” Indeed, with lilting lines formed by words so implicit that readers are slowly shocked by the underlying truth, this account of secrets and lies causes intense distress. Where does innocence stand in the face of monstrous evil? How far can the horrors of war sustain the best of friendships? Would the Holocaust be the worst madness the world was doomed to suffer at the hands of a despot?
Though riveted by the story’s naïve, narrative voice, the children did think it implausible that 9-year-old Bruno, raised in Berlin, believes Der Fuhrer is “The Fury” and Auschwitz is “Out With.” As ludicrous, he does not get it when his father, commandant of a fenced camp, informs his family they’ll be there “for the foreseeable future.” Yet, curiosity getting the better of him, the German boy explores the desolate new environment and meets Shmuel, whose lot is the dramatic opposite of his.
While agreeing the plot is far-fetched, critics have argued that Bruno’s innocence may symbolise the wilful refusal of adult Germans to look at what went on under their noses. They filtered out those atrocities “in the constant presence of death.” Adding to the fable-like tone of the text, said a Rabbi, is a basic inaccuracy—Auschwitz never had 9-year-old Jews like Shmuel; the Nazis immediately gassed those not old enough to work for them.
That fact chilled the children further. They wanted to know more about Holocaust phrases like Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass.” We tried explaining the terrible intensity of the anti-Semitic pogroms of November 9-10, 1938, throughout Germany, when Hitler’s Stormtroopers left the streets strewn with glass from savagely attacked synagogues, homes and shops.
“Have you ever been to a Nazi camp?” the kids asked. I replied saying I’d had the chance to visit Dachau in 1989 as a journalism student in Europe, but declined. We talked a little more about the camps – the terrible conditions, the way they’ve been preserved as a lesson to mankind – before talk turned back to the book.
Unlike the several months of writing Boyne typically takes to write his books, he wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in little more than two days. Gratified by the tremendous response to this effort, he went on to see the saga’s screen adaptation in 2008. When we watched the film version together, the kids declared it a spoiler from the starting credits. Though exquisitely shot, they felt it needn’t have furled forth the SS banners and flags right away in the opening sequences—not for a book that slips slowly from gentle to grim scenes.
Boyne’s closing lines ring particularly poignant: “Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.” It’s a sardonic line, meant to stir thought and reflection, and it did—more than we knew. Months later, during a discussion of the controlled, genetically homogenous society of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, it was with a lump in our throats that we heard one boy reference The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and say, “It’s happened again; it always will. Nothing stops history from repeating itself.”