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The Importance of History: Part 2

Deborah Hallford continues to explores translated historical fiction from ten authors writing about France, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands and Turkey during the First & Second World Wars

 Importance of History: Part 2, July17


Part two continues to explore translated novels and how books from other countries can contribute to our understanding of history through different perspectives.

Two compelling stories from the First World War could not be more different - Candles at Dawn, translated from Turkish and Lines of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier, a more recent graphic novel from France.

Candles at Dawn  by Turkish author Serpil Ural, published in Australia and translated into English by Betty Toker, provides an important testament to the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

Australian teenager Ellie and her mother Sandra travel to Turkey to attend the dawn ceremony at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli.  For Sandra it is a chance to see where her grandfather Frank fought; for Ellie it is an opportunity to gain answers to her questions on the validity of war.  They stay at a boarding house run by Emine and her daughter, Zeynep. A friendship develops between the two girls, who are drawn together when they discover that their grandfathers fought on opposite sides of the same war.

Ural weaves historical facts with fiction to describe in vivid detail the lives and deaths of the young Australian, New Zealand and Turkish soldiers. Through the questions posed by both girls the concepts of war, peace, friendship and freedom are explored. Ural’s novel is an important contribution to historical fiction because no campaign of either world war has aroused more controversy. 

Turkey had made an alliance with the Kaiser. The British and French allies wanted to open up the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul), and open a Black Sea supply route to Russia.  Troops from Australia and New Zealand, who were still part of the British Empire, were dispatched to Gallipoli.  The ill-fated battle at the Gallipoli peninsula lasted nine months before the evacuation of the last Allied troops in January 1916. The campaign was an abject failure with heavy casualties of 250,000 on each side. 

The Gallipoli campaign was the first major battle undertaken by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).  Anzac Day, which takes place annually on 25th April, remains the most significant commemoration of military casualties and Veterans in Australia and New Zealand, with the dawn ceremony at Anzac Cove attended by veterans and their families from both sides of the campaign.

In Turkey, the battle is perceived as a defining moment in the history of the Turkish people and the struggle laid the foundation for the Turkish War of Independence and the creation of the Turkish Republic eight years later under Atatürk, himself a commander at Gallipoli.

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier by contrast, is the poignant diary of an unknown French soldier that was discovered by illustrator Barroux in the rubbish while out walking in Paris. Rescuing the notebook Barroux subsequently illustrated the soldier’s words. It appeared in English in 2014 translated by Sarah Ardizzone.

The diary covers the first two months of the war from August – September 1914. What makes this book such a powerful historic testimony are the soldier’s descriptions of the often mundane daily existence of army life: from sheer exhaustion to endless marching until his feet bled, the night-time watches and worry of not hearing from his family back home or the fear as he comes ever closer to the fighting.  The horror of being confronted with victims fleeing from bombed out towns riddled with bullet holes and the scattered dismembered limbs to his own personal suffering when injured in battle.  There are uplifting elements too, of the camaraderie and compassion the soldier experiences.
The casualty totals in the First World War were unprecedented, soaring into the millions. In the introduction to Lines of Fire Michael Morpurgo says:

“Wilfred Owen called them ‘the mouthless dead’. Most were indeed ‘mouthless’, but some did speak out, some did tell it down in their own way.  We have their witness statements.  They were there”.

This is a story silhouetted against that backdrop, a witness statement of an unknown soldier. We know nothing about him or what became of him. All we have are his words brought vividly to life by Barroux’s extraordinary, distinctive and expressive, comic-style sepia pen and ink illustrations.
The remainder of the titles featured are set in the Second World War.


The Boys from St. Petri by Bjarne Reuter provides a snapshot of what life was life in Denmark under Nazi occupation.  Written in 1991 it appeared in English, translated by Anthea Bell in 1996.

In his introduction Reuter says:

“On Tuesday morning, 9 April 1940, the people of Denmark were awakened by the drone of German military planes flying low overhead.  The planes were scattering leaflets proclaiming, in poorly written Danish, that the German army had come to protect Denmark and Norway from England.  The British, the leaflets said, planned to make a battleground of those two Scandinavian countries, and therefore the German army was immediately taking over the important military installations in both. So the flat little country of Denmark, only half the size of the state of Maine and with a population of less than four million, was occupied by the Nazis overnight.  Hardly a shot had been fired.”

Set in 1942 Lars and Gunnar Balstrup are the sons of the local minister of St Petri’s Church.  They form the core of a small group of Danish teenage boys, who meet secretly in the loft of the church to plan mischievous pranks of resistance against the occupying German troops. To begin with the boys puncture their tyres, steal license plates, caps and street signs, but the stakes rise dramatically when the street-wise Otto, possessor of a stolen German luger, is recruited into their secret organisation.  The level of sabotage escalates when they steal explosives from an airfield and plot to destroy a German arms train.

Reuter incorporates other elements into his story, such as the plight of the Danish Jews highlighted by the presence of Filip Rosen, the Jewish church organist at St. Petri's who is an adopted member of the Balstrup family; the teacher who turns out to be a collaborator, and the sinister Gestapo man who is always on the prowl.

Reuter explains at the beginning of the book, that although the characters are fictionalised, the story is based on a true story.  Initially the occupation was ‘peaceful’ but the Danes were immediately conscious of their loss of freedom. Nazi soldiers were everywhere and most people felt helpless and hopeless.  In 1942 a group of boys in the city of Aalborg on the Jutland peninsula began harassing German soldiers.  They carried out secret operations that verged on sabotage, and their activities sparked the beginning of a wider and more cohesive resistance movement.

Although it has all the elements of a good adventure story, Reuter manages to provide a true sense of what was happening in a wider context.  The Danes led fairly free lives during the war until they attracted the attention of the Gestapo – as the boys eventually discover.

In August 1943 Denmark was placed under direct military occupation, although both the Government and King remained in the country in an uneasy relationship with their occupiers until the Danish government stepped down in a protest against the German demands to institute the death penalty for sabotage. There was relatively less loss of life in Denmark during the war compared to other occupied countries and an effective resistance movement was developed with most Danish Jews rescued in 1943 when the German authorities ordered their internment.

The Boys from St. Petri won the Mildred L. Bachelder Award in 1995.

In France the German occupation began in 1940 in the northern zones. The French government departed on 10 June moving to Vichy headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain.  Following the Allied landings in French North Africa in November 1942, southern France was occupied, although the Vichy government remaining in existence but only as a de facto state of Nazi Germany. Paris was governed by the German military and by French officials approved by the Germans.

The Empty House (1989) and Fighting Back (1991) written by Claude Gutman, who was born in Israel but moved to France, appeared in English translated by Anthea Bell in 1991 and 1992 respectively.  The two novels follows David, a Jewish boy living in France during the occupation.

Thirteen-year-old David’s father believes that Paris is a safe place for Jews; it is after all the land of liberté, égalité and fraternité. Then Paris is occupied by the Germans and all Jews are forced to wear a yellow star. On 16 July 1942 the Jews are rounded up by the French police on the orders of the Germans. Forewarned, David’s parents arrange for him to stay in the flat upstairs with the Bianchottis, a non-Jewish family. Despite the devastating impact of watching his parents being taken away early the next morning David is determined to survive.

“I’ve decided to live at any price.  It’s not a deliberate decision.  It’s some kind of force coming up from deep, deep down, and even stronger than grief”. 

David rants against God and tries to understand the madness that is happening around him. Madam Bianchotti takes David to her brother, the Father Superior at a school run by monks in Montreuil-sur-Mer but he rebels against their attempts to turn him into a good ‘Christian’. Once again, arrangements are made for David to move on.  Eventually he finds himself in a home for Jewish children in the southern Vichy zone where for the next two years he has some sort of ‘normal existence’. 

Now aged fifteen, David narrates his story as he sits alone in the empty house that was once full of laughter and children, the only survivor of a round-up of Jews by the Germans when they occupied the Vichy region in 1943.  David is still free, but alone.

Fighting Back continues David’s story.  Provided with shelter by the kindly local policeman, Monsieur Rigal, David is still ‘an angry young man’ who rebels against everything; guilty that he is still free and obsessed by a desire for vengeance. Taken under the wing of the Maquis, French Resistance fighters operating in the remote and mountainous areas of Southern France, where David learns to fight and takes part in the liberation of France.

When David finally returns to Paris he discovers strangers living in his apartment.  Madam Bianchotti is delighted to see him and provides him with a home once more. He never loses hope of seeing his parents again until the day he walks into the Lutétia Hotel in Paris, used as a repatriation centre for displaced persons, prisoners of war and returning survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.  Only then, does he finally learn their fate.

Gutman’s two novels adeptly convey the agony of loss, the fear and courage of those who were prepared to help David survive.  The Empty House received the Prix Sorciéres for best young people’s novel in 1990.

The next six novels cover different aspects of the occupation in the Netherlands.


War Without Friends by Evert Hartman was written in 1979 and appeared in English, translated by Patricia Crampton in 1982. As with Sobibor featured on page 12, Hartman also writes from the perspective of collaborators of the Nazis. 

The Netherlands was occupied by the Germans on 10 May 1940 and controlled by a civilian governor, Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart. A policy of ‘enforced conformity’ (Gleichschaltung) was implemented and all non-Nazi organizations were systematically eliminated. In 1941 all parties were forbidden with the exception of the Dutch National Socialist party (NSB) which was set up in 1931; its ideals mirroring the beliefs of the Third Reich for the glorification of the Germanic race.  After initial electoral success in 1935, the popularity of the movement waned rapidly, reaching a low point during the war as a result of help the NSB gave to the occupiers and later, their cooperation in propaganda, terrorism and collaboration.

Fifteen-year-old Arnold is torn between his longing for a normal existence, his father’s fanaticism and his own awakening conscience. Arnold’s father is a member of the Dutch National Socialist Party (NSB) and Arnold attends the Jeugstorm – the youth organisation of the NSB. The price he pays for this is that he is ostracised, bullied and beaten up by his classmates, while his teachers won't do anything about it. 

Arnold’s father had told him that he must make sacrifices for the Movement, for the Fatherland, and the Führer so it shouldn’t matter that he is suspected of being a Nazi informant.  But somehow it does.

Your family will curse you, your friends will avoid you, your colleagues will pretend you don’t exist”, said the spokesman for the Dutch National Socialist Party.  “But you must be ready to sacrifice everything for the Fatherland.” 

Narrated by Arnold it is seen from his perspective.  Although everything he stands for is abhorrent, Hartman paints a sympathetic character – a victim of a different kind caught between two opposing worlds.  Eventually Arnold finds the courage to renounce all the indoctrination and bullying of his father and stand up for himself. Hartman also allows us a glimpse of what life was like living under the occupation for those who supported the Germans and the children who were trapped by their parents’ beliefs: hated by their own countrymen and women and bullied by their own families.

The Winter When Time was Frozen written in 1977 by Els Pegrom, it appeared in English in 1980 translated by Maryka and Rafael Rudnik.

Els Pegrom was born in Arnhem, based the story on her own wartime experiences. Her story deals with the aftermath of the Battle of Arnhem, the unsuccessful Allied military campaign in 1944. Many families were forced to flee from their homes in the city to the countryside where they often found shelter on farms where they stayed until the war was over.

The Battle of Arnhem was fought in and around the Dutch towns of Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Wolfheze, Driel and the surrounding countryside from 17-26 September 1944. It was part of Operation Market Garden, involving the use of airborne forces dropped into the Netherlands to secure key bridges across major rivers and towns along the Allied axis of advance, so that armoured columns on the ground could go deeper into Germany, however, they were quickly hampered by unexpected resistance.

12-year-old Noortje is forced to flee with her father after the battle of Arnhem.  They find refuge in the country with the Everingen family at Klaphek Farm.  Noortje is a city child but her new life offers many pleasures from caring for the animals to playing with her new friend Evert. However, the war is omnipresent and tragedy is never far away. 

Noortje experiences first hand the terrible suffering that is going on around her. Hungry people are always turning up at the farm and German officers requisition living space to billet their soldiers, as the Allies advance.  Then there is baby Sarah, a child of a Jewish family hidden in the woods whom Noortje helps her Aunt Janna to deliver during one night in their hideout.  When it becomes too dangerous to keep Sarah with them, because of her constant crying, she is taken in by the Everingens. 

The Dutch people endured terrible hardship during the Dutch famine of 1944–45, known as the ‘Hunger Winter’ (Hongerwinter). With the war coming to a close food supplies became increasingly scarce. After the national railways complied with the exiled Dutch government's appeal for a railway strike starting in September 1944 to help the Allied liberation efforts, the German administration cut off food and fuel shipments from farm areas with some 4.5 million people affected. By the time the blockade was partially lifted in early November 1944, allowing restricted food transports over water, the unusually early and harsh winter had already set in. The canals froze over and became impassable for barges.
The Winter When Time was Frozen is a richly textured and many faceted novel and was awarded the Dutch literary prize for best children’s book of the year in 1978.

Dutch author Ida Vos wrote several novels based upon her own wartime experiences in the Netherlands. During the 1970s. She was admitted to a hospital due to the traumas she had suffered during the war and this led her to start writing about her childhood, first poetry and then stories eventually leading to her writing books for children.  Central to her work was the infringement on her freedom by the Nazi occupiers and the time she spend in hiding.

Persecution of the Jews began almost immediately in 1940 although there were no deportations in the first year. The Nazis installed a Jewish Council, a board of Jews, after all the independent Jewish organizations were closed down. The council were convinced that they were helping the Jews, but in effect they were merely serving as an instrument for organising the identification and deportation of Jews more efficiently. With the assistance of Dutch police and civil service, the majority of the Dutch Jews were deported to concentration camps. Nazi Germany was particularly effective in deporting and killing Jews during its occupation of the Netherlands where the survival rate is much lower than in Belgium or France.

All four of Ida Vos’ books translated into English are narrated in the present tense and told from a child’s point of view – Hide and Seek (1981), Anna is Still Here (1986), Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon (1989) and The Key is Lost (1996).

Hide and Seek and The Key is Lost are both about two sisters who go into hiding staying in a variety of ‘safe houses’. The most well-known story of being in hiding, is, of course Anne Frank and her family, her ordeal known all around the world as a result of the diary she kept. Vos was a survivor of this experience and these two novels provide first-hand knowledge of what it was like to live permanently in fear of being discovered.

Perhaps out of all Vos’ novels Hide and Seek, translated by Terese Edelstein and Inez Smidt, is the most autobiographical, as she acknowledges in her introduction – the story of Rachel Hartog is her own.

“I am eight years old.  German soldiers are parading through the Dutch streets.  They have helmets on their heads and they are wearing black boots.  They are marching and singing songs that have words I don’t understand. “They’re going to kill all Jews!” shouts my mother.  I am afraid, I have a stomach ache.  I am Jewish”.

Eight-year-old Rachel Hartog, her sister Esther and her parents are forced to go into hiding as the Germans take over their town. At first they stay with Father Thijssen at the Rectory but soon they have to be moved on because they have been discovered.  Separated from their parents, the girls go to another house in Venjuizen to stay with Aunt Nel and Uncle Jaap De Lange, (to whom the book is dedicated), where they remain until the end of the war. 

Rachel’s intense fear of going outside after the German defeat is very real and Vos draws on her own experience of this. The letters the family receive telling them of their relatives deaths in concentration camps also adds depth to the story.  Vos lost her own grandparents and cousins.

The Key is Lost, written fifteen years after Hide and Seek, appeared in English in 2001 translated by Terese Edelstein.

Twelve-year-old Eva Zilverstijn and her nine-year-old sister Lisa go into hiding with their family, but no place is truly safe. Their first refuge is shared with another family but with so many people in the house it poses too great a risk, and it is Eva's family that must leave.

Their next ‘safehouse’ also proves temporary when the wife – who is having an affair – tells her lover of the hidden Jews.  Hoping to have the husband arrested, the lover plans to inform the Germans.  Eva's family manage to flee in time but soon she and Lisa must separate from their parents.  Before they are parted from one another, their mother gives them each identical poems, about her hopes and dreams for them and for what they will do after liberation.

At first the girls stay with Eduard and Martha, but things become dangerous when the police crackdown on a group of anti-Hitlerite Germans who have been secretly meeting in the house at night. Then they are on the move again before finally being rescued by a nurse in the Resistance who smuggles them to their final hiding place in an ambulance and for the rest of the war they remain with the kindly puppeteer Amici Enfante, an old friend of their parents.

Vos successfully demonstrates the protective powers of the fantasies the girls slip into as they re-create their own private world while in hiding – from taking imaginary ‘walks’ because they cannot go outside, playing with the lice they find in their hair, and putting on a puppet show.  Permeating the story is the girls’ fear of getting caught, concern for their parents, and their growing reluctance to form attachments to those that have risked their lives to take care of them. 

At the end of the book Vos explains in the author’s note, that the poems referred to in the story were those given to her and her sister by their mother.

Anna is Still Here translated by Terese Edelstein and Inez Smidt, gives a real insight into what life was like for a young Jewish girl trying to readjust to life after living in hiding, confined to one room, unable to go outside, speaking very rarely and who is suddenly confronted with everyday life again.

Thirteen-year-old Anna Markus has survived the war as a ‘hidden child’, sheltered by strangers. Emerging after three years in hiding, during which she rarely spoke Anna attempts to resume a normal life. She returns to school and is reunited with her parents, but she struggles to adapt, experiencing nightmares fuelled by the terrible things she knows her parents are keeping from her that they cannot yet bring themselves to tell her about.  Anna has heard about the concentration camps and is aware that her best friend Marga was murdered in one.  Somehow, Anna has to learn to live without fear of being discovered and believing that danger is lurking around every corner.

The depiction of prejudice against the Jews still rife in Holland after the war, the sometimes callous lack of sympathy for survivors together with the bitterness and hatred toward collaborators provides a backdrop to the novel.   Perhaps the weakest element in the story is the reunion of a Jewish neighbour with her daughter who has been saved from being deported to Bergen-Belsen. Although it was not impossible for children to be reunited with their parents, having survived living in hiding, it was very rare.  Also the issue of Fannie’s adoptive parents and the implications for them when she returns to her real mother are glossed over.

Despite this Vos has produced a compelling and moving portrayal of the price of survival based on her own wartime experiences.

The most powerful of the four novels is Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon, translated by Terese Edelstein and Inez Smidt, because it highlights a lesser known aspect of the Holocaust.

Ten-year-old Rosa de Jong lives with her parents and younger sister Silvie.  As the Nazis impose anti-Jewish regulations and the deportations begin, Rosa’s refuge is to curl up in a chair, lost in daydreams of how life used to be. Together with her sister they memorize the dates of all the Nazi restrictions and constantly quiz each other about them because they are so afraid they might accidentally forget and sit on a park bench, enter a library, or go swimming. Rosa is a talented violinist and loves music. Although she can no longer go to school she tries hard to lead as ‘normal’ a life as possible still managing to have her violin lessons with old Mr Goldstein. 

Rosa's uncle Sander appears to offer the family a solution when he tells them that because he saved the life of a German officer, he has been granted papers for ‘safe passage’ to Vichy France for himself and nine other people.  As the girls excitedly begin to learn French words and songs their father recognizes that the plan is almost certainly a fantasy.  In a stark, shattering conclusion, the family are arrested during the next round up of Jews.  It is Rosa’s violin that carries her through the story, and in the end it saves her life.

In the epilogue Vos explains that she used real people as models for many of her characters. The de Jong’s were based on her own family.

“The idea behind the story, however, was not inspired by actual fact, but by a rumour that spread through our community and offered us a glimmer of hope during the dark days of occupation.  The central figure in this rumour was a man named Friedrich Weinreb. He was regarded as a sort of ‘wonderrebbe’, a learned and respected teacher. He began to be asked for help with the authorities in seeking deferments from being deported to work camps.  As conditions under the Nazi regime grew more oppressive, rumours about the powers of this wonderrebbe began to spread…” “My family and I were among those on “the Weinreb list”. 

Vos’s mother became suspicious of this list, and finally convinced her father that going into hiding was their only hope of survival.

The ‘Weinreb list’, named after Friedrich Weinreb, a Hassidic Jew and one of the leaders of Dutch Jewry, around whom incredible stories circled, was a rumoured list of people who were to be provided with papers that allowed them to leave Holland for the South of France.

The controversial story of this Polish-born Dutch Jew and his famous `list' is still lives on, despite a post-war trial and a Dutch investigation. After the war Weinreb was imprisoned for three and a half years for fraud as well as collaboration with the German occupier. In his memoirs, published in 1969 he maintained that his intention was to give Jews hope for survival and that he had assumed that the liberation of the Netherlands would take place well before his ‘customers’ were deported.

The debate about his guilt or innocence known as the ‘Weinreb affair’ was very heated during 1970s and in attempt to end this debate, the government asked the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation to investigate the matter. In 1976 the institute issued a report which determined that his memoirs were  "a collection of lies and fantasies," and that his collaboration had caused 70 deaths. Although his activities did contribute to some Jews' survival, most Jews who fell for Weinreb's swindle were deported and killed.

Max’s Gang by Frank Baer, written in 1979 and translated into English by Ivanka Roberts in 1983, focuses on the evacuation of children from the Allied bombing of Germany. 

Max, like many other German children was sent to a Children’s Evacuation Camp in Czechoslovakia by his parents to be safe from the bombing in Berlin.  After nearly four years, with the war drawing to a close, plans are underway to send the children back home to Germany. Crammed tightly into train carriages the children begin their long journey back to Berlin. When the train is attacked by Allied fighter planes, it is abandoned and the exhausted group continue on foot through the ravaged countryside. Max and two of his friends become separated from the other children, so they must continue their arduous journey alone.

Max’s incredible journey took seven months from April – October in 1945. Though the characters have been fictionalised Baer explains in his introduction that the story of Max’s gang is based on fact and the result of extensive journalistic research. The author analysed over four hundred interviews, including forty with former Berlin school children who had similar experiences to those of the children in Max’s Gang.

Baer also provides some historical context. School children and their teachers were evacuated from bomb-threatened cities and placed in Children’s Evacuation Camps.  The children from Berlin were taken either to Western Poland or Czechoslovakia but towards the end of the war they were hastily shipped to the west, most ending up in the Bavarian Forest.  During the chaos of the final days they were put up in make-shift quarters, badly fed, and sometimes deserted by their teachers or separated from their classmates.  Having had no news of their parents for months, many children took matters into their own hands and tried to get back to Berlin on their own.

With no mail service, no telephones, travel only permitted with a special permit and things bought in shops only with ration cards, tens of thousands of children in Germany and elsewhere in Europe were wandering around, fending for themselves, searching for their families and trying to get back home.

Baer’s gripping and unsentimental novel bears witness to these many thousands of displaced children.

Sobibor by French author Jean Molla, appeared in English in 2005 translated by Polly McLean, tackles a challenging and unpalatable subject – that of the willing collaborator. As one Amazon reviewer commented “it hit me like a slap in the face”.  Molla deals with an aspect of the Second World War which receives far less attention than other holocaust literature.  Few novels write from the perspective of a killer, in this case a French national who believed in the Nazi ideology and was quite prepared to do their dirty work. 

Emma is a troubled sixteen-year-old who suffers from anorexia. She seeks attention by shoplifting and no one understands why she does it.  Perhaps it is her parents’ indifference to her, the long family silences or the lies they tell each other. The one person that Emma is close to is her grandmother, Mamouchka, but she is very frail and ill.  After her grandmother’s death, Emma discovers an old notebook which turns out to be a diary.  The opening pages describe a horrific killing of a mother and child in a concentration camp during the Second World War.  Emma’s world is turned upside down as she slowly begins to unravel disturbing secrets kept hidden for many years.

Molla creates a contemporary setting cleverly weaving the protagonist’s anorexia into the story. As the reader slowly discovers the cause of Emma’s illness and begins to see the parallels with the inmates of Sobibor extermination camp in Poland with her own emaciated form, the anorexia becomes an allegory for the starved inmates of the camp.

It is the description of the shooting of a woman and child at point blank range that is so brutal and shocking; chilling in its ordinariness of the everyday life at the camp and how the killing and extermination was just a ‘normal’ part of their day.  In the eyes of the killer it was a fight for survival – had he disobeyed the order he would have been dispensed with himself. 

Sobibor is a poignant, sometimes unbearable story but one that needs to be read.

Nightfather is a hard-hitting autobiographical novel by Carl Friedman. Written in 1991, it appeared in English in 2004 translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans, it is based on the author’s father and his experience of being held in a concentration camp during the war. 

It is the 1960s and the Second World War is in the past, but the narrator’s father cannot stop telling stories about the ‘camp’ as he refers to it.  He always begins his story: “When I was in the camp.....”   Any ordinary event can evoke a memory and yet another story.  The narrator and her two brothers, Max and Simon are his audience.  They live in the everyday world of school and friends, but also in their father’s nightmare world of hunger, gas, and the crematorium. As they struggle to understand, their father continues to reveal the harrowing story of his imprisonment and survival.

“Everything we owned, from the rags we wore to our daily portion of watery soup, was the property of the Third Reich.  Even our lives were on loan to us from the German state, which could give us notice to quit at any time”.

In forty short, sharp chapters, Friedman writes about her father’s experiences without ever compromising her compassion or extinguishing her sense of hope, neither does she shy away from the brutality or appalling living conditions of the ‘camp’; the children are simply told how it was, with nothing held back.  It captures the sheer torment of her father as his days and nights are filled with images of what he endured  fifteen years before.

In a moving afterword Friedman sets the historical context for the book and speaks directly about her father, whose story this is, filling in the details of his life during and after the war.  As Friedman says in her afterword, her father “remained a victim of that hatred all his life. And indirectly, his children were its victims as well”.

All of these 14 books contribute to the canon of historical fiction in children’s literature. Many are autobiographical; each bringing an aspect of wartime experience, while others focus on a true story, less well known historical events, or focus on the Holocaust. 

“One generation’s experience of history becomes the property of the second” - Carl Friedman, Nightfather.


Deborah Hallford is Co-Founder of Outside In World and has an MA in History. (2017)




Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon, Ida Vos, translated from Dutch by Terese Edelstein and Inez Smidt, Houghton Mifflin, New York, USA, 1995 First published as Dansen op de brug van Avignon, Uitgeverij Leopold, the Netherlands, 1989

Anna is Still Here, Ida Vos, translated from Dutch by Terese Edelstein and Inez Smidt, Houghton Mifflin, New York, USA, 1993. First published as Anna is er nog, Uitgeverij Leopold, the Netherlands, 1986

Hide and Seek, Ida Vos, translated from Dutch by Terese Edelstein and Inez Smidt, Puffin Books, 1995. First published as Wie niet weg is wordt gezien, Uitgeverij Leopold, the Netherlands, 1981

The Key is Lost, Ida Vos, translated from Dutch by Terese Edelstein Scholastic Inc, USA, 2001. First published as De sleutel is gebroken in the Netherlands, 1996


The Boys from St. Petri, Bjarne Reuter, translated from Danish by Anthea Bell, Puffin Books, 1996. First published as Drengene fra Sankt Petri by Gyldendal, Copenhagan, Denmark, 1991

Candles at Dawn, Serpil Ural, translated from Turkish by Betty Toker, Limelight Press, Australia, 2004

The Empty House, Claude Gutman, translated from French by Anthea Bell, Penguin Books, 1993. First published in English by Turton and Chambers, 1991. First published in France by Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1989 

Fighting Back, Claude Gutman, translated from French by Anthea Bell Turton and Chambers, 1992. First published as L’Hôtel du retour, Éditions Gallimard, France, 1991

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Solider, translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone, Phoenix Yard Books, 2014. First published as On les Aura! Editions du Seuil, France, 2011

Max’s Gang, Frank Baer, translated from German by Ivanka Roberts, Little Brown, 1983. First published as Die Magermilch-Bande, Albrecht Knaus Verlag, Hamburg, Germany, 1979

Nightfather, Carl Friedman, Translated from Dutch by Arnold and Erica Pomerans, Persea Books Inc, New York, USA, 2004. First published as Tralievader, Urtgeverij G A van Oorshot, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 1991

War Without Friends, Evert Hartman, translated from Dutch by Patricia Crampton, Crown Publishers Inc, New York, USA, 1982. First published as Oorlog Zonder Vrienden by Lemniscaat b.v. Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 1979

The Winter When Time was Frozen, Els Pegrom, translated from Dutch by Maryka and Rafael Rudnik, William Morrow and Co, New York, USA, 1980. First published as De kinderen van het Achtste Woud, Uitgeverij Kosmos, Amsterdam, the Netherlands 1977


Sobibor, Jean Molla, translated from French by Polly McLean, Aurora Metro Press, 2005 First published in French by Editions Gallimard Jeunesse, 2004

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