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The Importance of History: Part 3

In the third and final article on translated historical fiction, Deborah Hallford explores books from ten authors, writing about Greece, Poland, Hungary, Russia and Japan during the Second World War


Importance of History Pt3 Nov17



Part three continues to look at translated novels and how books from other countries can contribute to our better understanding of history.


No article on historical fiction would be complete without mentioning Alki Zei, one of Greece’s best writers for children. Wildcat under Glass and Petros’ War provides a unique insight into what life was like in Greece in the lead up to and during the Second World War.

Wildcat under Glass, written in 1963, appeared in English in 1969, translated from Greek by Edward Fenton. Set in 1936, the story centres on a family living on a Greek Island whose members react in different ways to the changing political climate after a Fascist dictatorship is installed.

Nine-year-old Melia, the narrator, fears for her beloved cousin Niko who is in the resistance movement and has had to go into hiding. Grandfather, Mama and Stamatina the maid hate what is happening, so too does their father, but he is concerned he will lose his job at the bank if he is not seen to outwardly comply with the new rules and regulations.  Great-aunt Despina doesn’t see what all the fuss is about and Melia’s older sister, Myrto proudly joins the Fascist Youth organisation at school, unaware of the sinister undertones of the fascist doctrine. 

Combined with changing life on the Greek island are the idyllic summer holidays spent in Lamagari with friends and the risks the children take to hide Niko when he becomes a wanted man.  The stuffed Wildcat in a glass cabinet holds a place of honour in the family home and comes to symbolize the spirit of freedom that was kept alive in Greece after the Fascist dictatorship came to power.

Inspiration for the book was drawn from Zei’s own childhood growing up under a dictatorship.  She successfully combines humour with the chilling image of books being burnt in the town square, including Grandfather’s beloved ‘ancients’ and Myrto’s changing character as she is slowly indoctrinated with fascist beliefs.  Zei skilfully weaves a story of every-day events set against a backdrop of the changing political situation in Greece, a land where democracy originated, but that is now slowly being eroded.

The Fascist dictatorship was installed by Ioannis Metaxas who declared a state of emergency on 4 August 1936 and with the support of King George II, parliament was dissolved on 14 August.  Political parties were banned, opponents were arrested and some 15,000 Greeks were imprisoned, tortured or exiled for political offences.  Strikes became illegal and there was widespread censorship of the media. Even though there were similarities in ideology to the Fascist powers of Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal, Metaxas was aware that the greatest threat to Greece came from Italy and Germany. Although prepared to resist Mussolini’s attack on Greece in October 1940, he was ultimately unable to prevent Italian troops from invading. The Greek Army halted the invasion temporarily, but this success forced Nazi Germany to intervene and they invaded the country on 6 April 1941. Greece was then occupied and divided between Germany, Italy and Bulgaria, while the King and the government fled into exile in Egypt.

Petros’ War is set during the occupation. Written in 1971, it appeared in English in 1972, translated from Greek by Edward Fenton.

As Athens is occupied by Italian and German troops in 1941, ten-year-old Petros decides it will be his heroic war filled with deeds of valour, just like those of the heroes in his books.  However, liberating a dog from a German soldier and painting slogans on walls after dark for the Resistance do not require the heroism he had imagined.

As the book gathers momentum the reality of war and its hardships begin to take their toll on the population.  Petros witnesses the terrible famine that envelopes Athens, people dying of hunger, with even his own grandfather going out begging for food.  Dead bodies begin to be left outside the cemetery walls as people are unable to bury their dead.  Most Greeks are united in their opposition to the invaders but there are still those who are prepared to collaborate such as the local Baker with his three daughters, nicknamed ‘The Little Czarinas’ and Petros’ neighbour who takes up with a German soldier.

The situation becomes much more serious when the Nazis take full control of Athens after Italy joins the Allies.  The protest march against forced labour through the streets of Athens is particularly full of pathos – the humorous image of oranges being hurled at the Carabinieri soon turns to tragedy when a young girl is shot. Petros finds himself caught up in the terrifying  ‘Blocko’ – on 1 May 1944 when the Germans randomly round up people in the city and herd them to the main square blocking off the exits and he witnesses individual callous acts of cruelty towards those he cares about.

The novel’s gentle start belies the horror to come.  Zei successfully weaves the historical details of the occupation with the way in which people reacted to such events.

Petros witnesses the ‘Great Famine’, a period of mass starvation during the occupation. The Axis Powers initiated a policy of large scale plunder with wholesale and retail shops systematically cleared out. Goods were purchased with freshly printed Occupation Marks which were of no value outside of Greece and commodities like tobacco, olive oil, cotton, and leather were often transferred to their home countries. The confiscation of fuel and all means of transportation prevented any transfer of food and other supplies and the requisitions, together with the Allied blockade ruined the country's infrastructure resulting in the emergence of a black market.

During the winter of 1941-42 food shortages were acute and the mortality rate reached a peak. As Zei refers to in her novel, the sight of emaciated dead bodies was commonplace in the streets of Athens and outside cemetery gates. The terrible suffering and the pressure eventually forced the British to partially lift the blockade and from the summer of 1942, the International Red Cross were able to distribute supplies but the situation remained grim until the end of the occupation.


Damned Strong Love by Lutz Van Dijk was written in 1991 and appeared in English in 1995 translated from German by Elizabeth D Crawford. Based on a true story, as told to the author, the word ‘damned’ in the title literally describes the consequences of the love between a teenage Polish boy and an Austrian/German soldier. 

Narrated by sixteen-year-old Stefan, it charts his life in Poland during the occupation together with his awakening sexuality.  He meets Willi, an Austrian soldier – "Before my eyes I saw only him, this tender, handsome man-without his uniform, without the war and all of world history. Only him." – and they embark on a passionate affair.  In their secret hideout Stefan and Willi shut out the war until Willi’s unit is posted to the Russian Front.  

Stefan is blindly confident in his secret relationship despite the overwhelming dangers.  However, his artlessness proves his downfall when he sends Willi a letter which is intercepted and leads to their liaison being discovered.  Stefan is arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and imprisoned. Finally he is tried and sentenced to a labour camp where he experiences a brutal three years only to be freed when the war ends.  Based on the true story of Stefan K this is an important account because it deals with the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.  The afterword written by Stefan K in 1994 is profoundly moving.  Stefan never hears from Willi again and even after the passing of so many years his fate remains unknown. A brave story to tell, Damned Strong Love was awarded the Mildred L. Bachelder Honor in 1996.

During the 1920s Berlin had nearly 100 gay bars, cafes, clubs and bookstores. In 1919 the Institute for Sexual Research was opened where people could receive counselling and other services. While homosexuality remained illegal in Weimer Germany under Paragraph 175, Germany’s anti-gay law created in 1871, there was a serious movement to repeal it in 1929.

However, many in Germany regarded the toleration of homosexuals as a sign of Germany’s decadence and when Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis set themselves up as moral crusaders intent on stamping it out.  Persecution intensified of German homosexuals as the Gestapo opened a special anti-gay branch specifically for this purpose.  Gay men were targeted because they were viewed to be carriers of a ‘contagion’ that weakened society and did not contribute to the desired growth of the Aryan population.

As the Gestapo spread throughout Europe they expanded their hunt.  It’s impossible to know exactly how many Europeans from other occupied countries were arrested because of a lack of reliable records, but between 1933 and 1945 it is estimated that 100,000 men were arrested for violating Nazi Germany’s law against homosexuality and of these, approximately 50,000 were sentenced to prison.  5,000 to 15,000 men were sent to concentration camps on similar charges, where an unknown number perished. In the concentration camps, gay men were made to wear a pink triangle and were singled out for particular abuse including rape, castration, medical experiments or sometimes murdered on a guard’s whim.  They were also ostracised and tormented by their fellow inmates.

This is a period of history that still provokes controversy. After the war, the treatment of homosexuals in concentration camps went unacknowledged by most countries. It was not until the 1980s that governments began to acknowledge the full extent of their persecution and not until 2002 that the German government apologised to the gay community. In 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Holocaust which included the persecution of homosexuals.  

The next five novels deal with the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany on 1 September 1939 and by the Soviet Union on 17 September. After the Axis attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, all of Poland was occupied by Germany.  It is estimated that about 5.7 million Polish citizens died as a result of the occupation and close to three million Polish Jews were murdered at Nazi extermination camps, such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibór.


David’s Story by Stig Dalager is set in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Translated from Danish by Frances Osterfelt it appeared in English in 2010.

Eleven-year-old David becomes separated from his parents after they are rounded up and deported from their small Polish village by the Nazis.  Escaping from the truck when it overturns in the snow, David is free but on the run.  He travels many miles until eventually he is picked up by the police, but finding another opportunity to outwit his captors, David escapes into the chaos of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Here he learns how to survive; first by smuggling goods on the black market and then, as the deportations increase in intensity, by begging on the streets while dodging both the Jewish police and the Gestapo.  Weak and exhausted from a lack of food, David has to continually to fight for his survival.

Danish writer Stig Dalager’s novel was inspired by true testimonies and diaries of children who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto. The story is often stark and doesn’t spare the details of the appalling suffering and cruelty.  The lack of humanity, not just by the Nazis and their lackeys, but also by some of David’s own people, (also highlighted in Mirjam Pressler’s novel Malka), who in fighting for their own survival, were often unwilling to help others.  Dalager also shows, in sharp contrast, the many selfless acts of kindness by those who had little themselves but were prepared to help other Jews whenever they could.


Malka by Mirjam Pressler was written in 2001 and appeared in English in 2002, translated from German by Brian Murdoch. Set in 1943, Seven-year-old Malka lives with her mother, Hannah Mai and her sister Minna in Lawoczne, Poland. Malka does not remember her father as he lives in another country. Her mother is a doctor and believes that she will be safe from the roundups of Jews because she has treated sick German soldiers.

Malka’s childhood is shattered when the Germans begin their ‘special operations’ and her mother finally realises that they must escape across the mountain border into Hungary.  When Malka becomes ill Hannah Mai leaves her with a trusted Jewish ‘friend’, who promise to take care of her, and continues her journey to find somewhere for them to be safe. This soon turns out to be the worst mistake of her life as Malka is turned out and left to fend for herself.

Now separated from her mother and sister Malka spends four months on her own, somehow managing to survive and making her way back to Poland where she has to learn to survive in the Jewish ghetto, while her desperate mother struggles to find her.

The narrative follows the story of Hannah Mai as she searches for her daughter and of Malka as she fends off starvation and the regular roundup of the Jews.  Based on a true story, Pressler’s narrative conveys the brutality and harshness of Malka’s life without sensationalising it.  The author met the real Hannah Mai in Israel in 1996. From the recounted fragments of memories Pressler was able to create a fictional account of a lost child and a mother’s frantic search. It is both poignant and at times shocking – in particular, how some of Malka’s own community shun her when she needs their help most – but there are many individual acts of kindness too that are heart-warming in this powerful, haunting novel.

Uri Orlev
is regarded as one of Israel’s best writers for children, although sadly, none of his works have appeared in the UK. The following three novels are all based on real life stories, each providing a very different experience of life in Poland during the occupation.

The Island on Bird Street, written in 1981, appeared in English in 1984, translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin, is also set in the Warsaw Ghetto. Eleven-year-old Alex finds himself alone in the ghetto except for his pet mouse, Snow.  First, his mother disappears after going to visit some friends in a different ghetto, and then Alex and his father become separated when his father is ‘selected’ by the Germans for an unknown destination. Boruch, his father’s friend suggests that Alex hide in a ruined, bombed out building on their street – 78 Bird Street – where Alex should remain until his father returns. 

Over the next five months Alex lives in the hideout.  Whilst others hiding in bunkers are discovered and looters are constantly on the prowl for food and other items, Alex manages to remain undetected, determined to wait for his father to come back.  His resourcefulness, ingenuity and courage help him to survive the long, lonely weeks of waiting.

The Island on Bird Street was inspired by Orlev's own experiences of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Although for a slightly younger age group than David’s Story or Malka, it focuses on Alex’s struggle for survival in the ghetto without dwelling on the horrors or detailing the suffering. It also demonstrates the compassion and humanity of others in the face of unbelievable circumstances.

The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe. Established in the Polish capital between October and November 1940, over 400,000 Jews were imprisoned there in an area of 3.4 km. With intense overcrowding and meager food rations many died of starvation and disease. There were regular deportations with at least 254,000 Ghetto residents sent to Treblinka extermination camp during a secretive Nazi German operation of mass extermination of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto in the summer of 1942 under the guise of "resettlement in the East".

The death toll of the inhabitants of the Ghetto is estimated to be at least 300,000, killed either by bullet or gas, combined with 92,000 victims who died of starvation as a result of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and casualties of the final destruction of the Ghetto.

Orlev’s novel The Man from the Other Side was written in 1989 and appeared in English in 1991, translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin.

Fourteen-year-old Marek is a young Pole, living with his mother and stepfather, Anthony, in occupied Warsaw just before the 1943 ghetto uprising.  He is an observant Catholic living in an anti-Semitic society.  When Marek’s stepfather asks him to help smuggle food into the ghetto by travelling through the sewers, he agrees.  For Anthony it is a business transaction; food is sold at high prices to the Jews in the ghetto, but he is also prepared to return with a baby to hide with the nuns for which there is no charge.

Marek is casually anti-Semitic and after being involved in robbing a Jewish escapee he is caught by his shocked mother.  She points out that his actions have sentenced the escapee to death and she then reveals Marek’s own heritage – his father was Jewish.  Deeply shaken, Marek sets out to make amends. He befriends Jozek, who he sees in church crossing himself the wrong way and ultimately leads him back, underground, to the ghetto, during the uprising.

This beautifully crafted and compelling fictional memoir is based on a true story told to Orlev in 1987 by a Polish journalist.  The understated but very revealing tale follows Marek through some harrowing experiences as he is drawn into this Jewish battle for survival on both sides of the ghetto wall.  As well as telling the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it also gives the perspective of a boy living in an Anti-Semitic society, where not everyone is prejudiced.

Run, Boy, Run, written in 2001 and translated from Hebrew into English by Hillel Halkin in 2003, is based on a true story of a ghetto survivor who escapes into the Polish countryside. A bleaker story than The Island of Bird Street, it has none of the sense of adventure or optimism that permeates the other novel.  Srulik Frydman is an eight-year-old Polish Jew living in the ghetto with his family.  One day, while scrounging with his mother for food, Srulik finds himself alone, his mother has disappeared.  Unable to navigate the large town without her, he joins up with a band of orphans.  With news that the ghetto is going to be emptied, Srulik manages to escape, hidden in the back of a farmer’s wagon.  He joins another group of Jewish children who are living in the forest.  When Srulik unexpectedly meets his father, who is also on the run, he advises him to forget his real name and to act like a Christian, learning how to cross himself and to pray in order to stay alive. Srulik becomes Jurek Staniak, an orphan, who has lost his parents while fleeing a bombing raid.

Throughout Srulik’s years on the run in the Polish countryside he is nurtured by some and hated by many.  In one shockingly unforgettable incident, after a terrible accident on the farm where he has been working, Srulik loses his right arm because a Polish doctor refuses to operate on a Jew. The narrative is simple and spare, with factual detail about everything, from hunting with a slingshot to making a fire with a piece of glass.

Orlev once again uses historical fiction to successfully illustrate the heart-breaking resilience of a young boy as he fights for survival.  Often stark with darker elements, especially the shocking incident of bigoted racism by the Polish doctor. 

Orlev has received numerous prizes, including the Hans Christian Andersen Prize (1996) for his complete works and he won the Mildred L. Bachelder Award three times – The Island of Bird Street (1985), The Man from the Other Side (1992) and Run, Boy, Run (2004) – no mean feat for any author.

As a child, Orlev learned how to escape the horrors of war by seeking refuge in his imagination.  He even felt it was a kind of adventure.  "I always used to read a lot and I envied the American Indians because of the terrible and exciting things that happened to them."   


I am Fifteen and I Do Not Want to Die by Christine Arnothy (1930-2015) is a compelling autobiographical account of a young girl caught up in the siege of Budapest in 1945.  Appearing in English in 1956, translated from French by Antonia White, Arnothy’s poetic prose vividly capture the appalling depravation, fear and desperation encountered by the citizens of Budapest. While the town burned around them, with no obvious escape routes, because the Germans had blown up all the bridges over the Danube, they were trapped in a rat infested city with dead bodies littering the streets, living in cellars with no drinking water or electricity. In the cellar where Arnothy lived with her parents and other residents candles were made from cooking-fat in a shoe-polish tin with a shoe lace to serve as a wick, giving out a sickening smell and yellow light. The only time anyone ventured outside was when the noise of battle momentarily receded. They constantly wondered whether their conquerors would be the Germans or the Russians and under which of them they would fare best.

Arnothy’s commentary is often matter-of-fact. On seeing a dead body for the first time at the baths where she had gone to get water, she says it was impossible for her to discern whether it had been a Hungarian or a German, a soldier or civilian. “A startling example of the great justice dealt out by death who makes no distinction either between moral principles or between nationalities”. There are little glimpses of humanity too when the group of residents take Mr Radnai, a Jew with false papers, under their wing or Christine’s pleasure at being able to give the weak and dying horses, who have been left abandoned in the streets outside, a little of her precious water.

The wrecked bridges allow blocks of ice to pile up and obstruct the flow of the Danube resulting in the water rising in the sewers and flooding their cellar.  As everyone fruitlessly tries to bale out the water they are menaced by the volleys of machine-gun fire and the exploding mines. When the Germans have their provisions stolen near the building where Arnothy is taking shelter they threaten to blow them up. One inhabitant dryly comments: “Where is any international convention respected these days? What’s our beautiful city turned into? A heap of stinking filth, with thousands of corpses left to rot.”

Arnothy doesn’t differentiate between the cruelty of the Germans or the Russians.  When the Russian army enter the city they kill Germans on sight even if they are wounded or dying. Ilus, a young woman who shares their cellar is found near the body of a dying German soldier and is brutally violated.  From that moment on the author realises what is happening is very different to what they had all hoped for.  “Everything from now on, was going to be one long nightmare, made up of atrocities.”

Arnothy’s family eventually manage to escape to their villa outside of Budapest where they discover that they are less than welcome by the friends they had allowed to stay there.  Their belongings have been looted and provisions used up – “The behaviour of our friends fitted in perfectly with the spectacle that the capital presented these days.  It was neither repulsive nor inconceivable.”

Other shocking images of Russian brutality come in the form of Mr Radnai being shot and killed and the systematic rape of women.  One harrowing example is that of an elderly women who is a passenger on the same train the author’s family are taking to Ovavos close to the Austrian border. “Who’s going to defend me if they attack me tonight?” says the women. A man in the carriage tells her not to be frightened because she is well past the ‘dangerous age’. When the lady tells him that despite being aged 73 “Last week five soldiers made use of my body, one after then other”, it is deeply shocking.

The poignant title of Arnothy’s book is expressed in more detail towards the climax of her story when she describes a meeting with a priest on the night of her escape from Hungary. “Father, I’ve rebelled at not having known what it’s like to be young and carefree.  All the happy time of my childhood has been completely blotted out of my mind that, when I try to piece together a few scraps, it’s no good.  It’s blackness, all around me.  There’s nothing – Nothing at all except misery and anxiety.  If someone stops in front of our house, I imagine it’s a police officer.  If I hear footsteps behind me, I think I’m being followed.  All that’s only illusion, but it tortures me.  I would so very much like to be happy …”

Arnothy’s novel of an innocent sufferer trapped between two armies in a broken city is an outstanding piece of literature and a remarkable personal document of the Second World War.

It Is Not Easy to Live, translated by Antonia White in 1958 is the sequel to I am Fifteen and I do Not Want to Die where Arnothy writes about her subsequent adventures after her family’s dramatic escape over the frontier into Austria, and freedom (or so she imagined).

Hungary’s position both before and during the Second World War was complex. In the 1930s, Hungary had relied on trade with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to pull itself out of the Great Depression but by 1938, its politics and foreign policy had become more stridently nationalistic, adopting similar policies to Germany's, by attempting to incorporate ethnic Hungarian areas in neighbouring countries into their own.

During the war Hungary became a member of the Axis powers in 1940 and Hungarian forces participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia and of the Soviet Union in 1941. Hungary further complicated its position by engaging in armistice negotiations with the USA and the UK. On discovering this betrayal Hitler dispatched German forces to Hungary in March 1944, but when Soviet forces also began threatening Hungary, an armistice was signed with the USSR by the Regent Miklós Horthy. Matters became even more difficult when Horthy's son was kidnapped by German commandos forcing him to revoke the armistice. Horthy was then deposed from power and Hungarian fascist leader Ferenc Szálasi established a new government with German backing. Finally in 1945, Hungarian and German forces were defeated by invading Soviet armies.

The Siege of Budapest, that Arnothy writes about lasted for 50-days as the city was encircled by the Red Army at the end of October 1944. The plan was to isolate Budapest from the rest of the German and Hungarian forces. By 26 December, the road linking Budapest to Vienna was seized by Soviet troops completed the encirclement. As a result nearly 33,000 German and 37,000 Hungarian soldiers, as well as over 800,000 civilians, became trapped within the city. Refusing to authorise a withdrawal, Hitler declared Budapest to be a fortress city, which must be defended to the last man. The city unconditionally surrendered on 13 February 1945 which was a strategic victory for the Allies.

During the siege the impact on civilians was catastrophic with some 38,000 civilians dying of starvation, disease and through military action. Although when the USSR invaded orders were given prohibiting ill-treatment of prisoners of war and civilians, there were excesses such as looting and the violating of women and girls was high with estimates varying from 5,000 to 200,000.


A Hostage to War: The Diary of a Young Russian Girl and The Ice Road deal with the German occupation of Russia and the siege of Leningrad in 1942.

A Hostage to War by Tatiana Vassilieva written in 1999, translated from German by Anna Trenter, is based on a true story – a diary of a young Russian girl narrating her own personal experience of the invasion of Russia by the Germans in 1941. “I am writing down what I have learnt today.  War is not just a word.  War is terrible and full of blood.”

When the Nazis invade Russia life becomes increasingly difficult for thirteen-year-old Tania’s life and her family in the small town of Wyritza, 60 kilometres from Leningrad, because of food shortages.  By 1942 her family is starving and Tania decides to set off on a dangerous journey on her sledge in search of food.  It is winter and she travels 120 kilometres in freezing conditions.  Eventually finding some corn she returns home.

With her father dead and their store of corn gone, starvation beckons again, but worse is to come when Tania is taken away from her family and transported to a labour camp in Germany. Over a period of three years Tania works in the fields and factories of the Third Reich.  The work is back breaking and she wonders how she will get through another day.  Although the hours are long and the food scanty she fares better in the factories.

Throughout the hardship she is kept going by the thought that her mother and sister might still be alive, also by the small acts of kindness by individuals who help her to survive.  This is a moving book told in an unemotional way by Vassilieva.  It displays a resilience, courage and willpower to survive against appalling adversity.

A Hostage to War was an Honor Winner of the 1998 Mildred L. Bachelder Award.

The Ice Road by Jaap ter Haar (1922-1998), written in 1966, first appeared in English in 1969 under the title Boris and was then reissued in 2004 and translated from Dutch by Martha Mearns

The German army have surrounded Leningrad. The citizens are being bombarded day and night, no one can get out, no food can get in and the temperature is below zero. Food is strictly rationed and 12-year-old Boris Morenko’s mother is ill. Plans are being made to evacuate the children from the city and Boris’ mother wants him to go too. However, the Ice Road stretches across Lake Ladoga and is the only way out of the city. Many have perished on this treacherous journey across the ice, including Boris’ father.

Desperate for food, Boris and his best friend Nadia take a perilous trek behind enemy lines in search of potatoes. It is a dangerous mission but the need to find food drives them on. When they receive help from an unexpected source, Boris is given a whole new perception of the war.

Jaap ter Haar’s novel is an uplifting and thought-provoking book that evokes the terrible hardships of the siege of Leningrad, a prolonged military blockade by the German Army. The siege started on 8 September 1941, when the last road to the city was severed. Although the Soviets managed to open a narrow land corridor to the city on 18 January 1943, the siege was only lifted at the end of January 1944, 872 days after it began. The two-and-a-half year siege caused great destruction to utilities, water, energy, and food supplies, resulting in extreme famine in the Leningrad region. Up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians died and the evacuation of 1,400,000 more, mainly women and children, many of whom died during evacuation due to starvation and bombardment.

As A Hostage to War and The Ice Road attest civilians suffered from extreme starvation, especially in the winter of 1941–42. The only food available was 125 grams of bread per day, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other inedible mixtures. With temperatures, down to −30 °C (−22 °F), and no transport, even the distance of a few kilometers to a food distributing kiosk created an insurmountable obstacle for many. Deaths peaked in January–February 1942 at 100,000 per month, mostly from starvation. People often died on the streets, and citizens soon became accustomed to the sight of death.


There have been less books in translation about the Pacific War in Asia. Two incredibly powerful books from a Japanese perspective are The Girl with the White Flag and The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine.

The Girl with the White Flag, is a true story by Higa Tomiko written in 1989. It appearing in English in 2003 translated from Japanese by Dorothy Britton.

Narrated by the author it spans her life from aged five to seven years old, on the war-torn island of Okinawa.  Tomiko is the youngest in a large family (her mother is dead and four of her older siblings had left home). Tomiko lives with her father, brother Nini and two sisters Yoshiko and Hatsuke. When the war reaches Okinawa Tomiko’s father disappears while delivering food to Japanese soldiers.  The remaining children decide they will flee south on the recommendation of the army. 

While seeking refuge, Tomiko’s brother Nini dies as a result of a stray bullet, then she becomes separated from her two sisters in the confusion of the US invasion Forces landing on Okinawa.  Searching desperately for her sisters, fleeing the encroaching enemy forces, Tomiko survives by eating plants and raw vegetable, when she can find them, and taking scraps of food from the knapsacks of dead Japanese soldiers.  There is no safe place to hide, even Japanese soldiers pose a threat, and in fact she is almost killed by one. Tomiko risks death at every turn as the bullets whistle past her, but somehow she finds the strength and courage to survive on her own.

The Girl with the White Flag came into being because of a black-and-white photograph of a young barefoot girl in tattered clothes waving a piece of white cloth tied to a crooked stick.  The photograph had been taken by John Hendrickson, a young American army signal corps photographer on 25th June 1945. Tomiko came across the photograph while browsing in an English-language bookshop and all her memories came flooding back. However, she still remained silent, reluctant to bring up her past.  Several years’ later American film footage of the Battle of Okinawa became public in 1983. Following the opening of the film in 1984 audiences were struck by the image of a young girl, holding a white flag of surrender and waving at the camera appearing to be shocked by the image, not because of the strength she exudes, but because Japanese soldiers can be clearly seen in the background.

Ultimately, it was Tomiko’s meeting with John Hendrickson ten years after discovering the photo that finally gave her an opportunity to resolve the secret torments she had locked away in her heart. In 1989 Tomiko published her book, Shirohata no shoujo (Girl with the White Flag) in order to set the record straight and tell her own remarkable story. She wanted to correct misunderstandings about ‘the white flag’ and to dispel the rumour that she had been used by the surrendering Japanese troops.

A harrowing and brutal novel at times The Girl with the White Flag is also an inspiring, unforgettable true story vividly portraying the unintended civilian casualties of war.  The power is its rawness, its simplicity and bold honesty in recounting things that really happened.

The Okinawa Campaign took place from 1 Apr 1945 - 21 Jun 1945. Known as Operation Iceberg, the US invasion of the island, involved over 450,000 troops and was the largest naval operation mounted in the Pacific. Approximately 130,000 Japanese troops defended Okinawa proving a formidable obstacle as they launched deadly kamikaze attacks on US naval forces. The battle had one of the highest number of casualties of any World War Two engagement. During the 82-day campaign most of the Japanese army were killed, as well as an estimated 42,000 of the 450,000 civilians on the island and the Allies (mostly United States) suffered more than 50,000 casualties, with over 12,000 killed in action. The caves that Tomiko refers to were built by the Japanese Imperial Army using forced labour to dig shelters into the cliffs. The entrances, with their rusting grill doors bolted into rock, resemble cages. As the battle intensified, lost children wandered across the battlefield and it became second nature for them to dig into the pockets or prize open the rucksacks of dead soldiers in the hope of finding morsels of food.

The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine originally published in Japan in 2003 is a collection of seven stories written for children by Japanese author Akiyuki Nosaka (1930-2015). It appeared in English translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori in 2016.

Each story takes place, on the 15th of August, 1945 – the day Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender ending the Second World War – and deals with the effects of conflict on both civilians and soldiers.

Most of the tales are tragic and at times hard to read as Nosaka captures the hopelessness and horror in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The author cleverly uses animal characters in most of the stories to help convey some of the unpalatable horrors of the Pacific War.

In the title story, ‘The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine’, a lonely whale searches the ocean for a mate sacrificing himself when he mistakes a Japanese submarine for a female of his species. And so the tone is set for more heart-wrenching stories to follow.

'The Parrot and the Boy' – a young boy and a parrot are the only survivors of their bombed out town eking out their existence scavenging for food while living in an air-raid shelter; 'The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl' – when an old and dying wolf finds a young child abandoned by the refugees flooding out of Manchuria she tries to take care of her; 'The Mother That Turned into a Kite' – a mother desperate tries to keep her son alive by hydrating him with her tears; 'The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach' – a young kamikaze pilot takes his insect 'friend' the cockroach on a last and final mission and 'The Prisoner of War and the Little Girl' – an escaped POW and an orphan girl live in an abandoned tunnel shelter in the mountainside as they await the end of the war together. 

It is really only the final story, 'The Cake Tree in the Ruins', that has any glimmer of hope as a group of children discover a strange tree sprouting from the ashes of a burnt-out home, with leaves that taste like cake, while the grown-ups pass by without even noticing it.  The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine was originally entitled ‘War Fairy Tales’. Although released in the UK as a children’s title these profoundly moving stories with their fairy-tale format help to express the chaos and terror of conflict, yet also how love can illuminate even the darkest moments.

While the language used is simple, with a smooth translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori, the mood is sombre. The black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations by Mika Provata-Carlone add further solemnity to the narration.  Akiyuki Nosaka was a singer, lyricist, comedian and politician as well as a novelist and short story writer. However, his successes in later life betrayed an extraordinarily traumatic youth that saw his mother die soon after birth, his adoptive father killed in a wartime air raid and a sister starve to death in an evacuation camp. Nosaka touches on the futility of war while focusing on the hardship felt by the innocent victims caught up in it. These stories provide an important poignant message, however unpalatable at times – stories that need to be told.  

All of these 13 books contribute to the canon of historical fiction in children’s literature. Many are autobiographical; each bringing an aspect of wartime experience and many are based on a true story.

Uri Orlev recorded his experiences and dreams in his biography, The Sandgame (1994), which was written for children.  "At one stage I decided that the war and the Holocaust were not at all real.  That I was just dreaming it all.  In reality I was the son of the Chinese emperor." He explained that a child’s perspective is not simply a literary device for the author: "When I write about my childhood it is like walking across a frozen lake.  I mustn’t tread too heavily, I mustn’t dwell upon my childhood as an adult, or I will fall through the ice, submerge and never resurface."

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




The Island on Bird Street, Uri Orlev, translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin Houghton Mifflin (USA), 1984. First published in Hebrew as ha-I bi-Rehov ha-tsiporim, Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, 1981

The Man from the Other Side, Uri Orlev, translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin, Houghton Mifflin (USA), 1991. First published in Hebrew as Ish min ha-tsad ha-aher, Domino Press, Israel, 1989

Petros' War, Alki Zei, translated from Greek by Edward Fenton, E. P. Dutton & Co, 1972. First published in Greece as O Megalos peripatos tou Petrou, Editions Kedros, 1971

Run, Boy, Run, Uri Orlev, translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin, Houghton Mifflin (USA), 2003. First published in Israel as Ruts, yeled, ruts by Kester Publishing House, 2001

The Whale that Fell in Love with a Sudmarine, Akiyuki Nosaka, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari, illustrated by Mika Provata-Carlone, Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015. First published in Japan as Sensō dōwa shū by Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc, Tokyo, 2003 (Original edition 1980).

Wildcat under Glass, Alki Zei, translated from Greek by Edward Fenton, Victor Gollancz, 1969. First published in Greek as Kaplani tis Vitrinos, Editions “Themelio”, 1963


A Hostage to War: The Diary of a Young Russian Girl, Tatiana Vassilieva, translated from German by Anna Trenter, Collins, 1999. First published in Leningrad in 1990. Published in Germany by Beltz Verlag, 1994. First English translation by Hamish Hamilton, 1996.

David’s Story, Stig Dalager, translated from Danish by Frances Osterfelt and Cheryl Robson, Aurora Metro Press, 2010

The Girl with the White Flag, Tomiko Higa, translated from Japanese by Dorothy Britton Kondansha International, 2003. First published in Japan as Shirohata no shoujo, Kondansha, Tokyo, 1989

The Ice Road, Jaap ter Haar, translated from Dutch by Martha Mearns, Barn Own Books, 2004. First published in 1966 Van Dishoeck, Van Holkenna and Warendorf N.V., Bussum First published as Boris in English 1969 by Blackie & Son

Malka, Mirjam Pressler, translated from German by Brian Murdoch, Macmillan Children’s Books, 2002. First published in Germany in 2001.


Damned Strong Love: The True Story of Willi G. and Stephan K, Lutz Van Dijk, translated from German by Elizabeth D. Crawford, Henry Holt & Co (USA), 1995. First published in Germany as Verdammt Starke Liebe, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991

I am Fifteen and I Do Not Want to Die, Christine Arnothy, translated from French by Antonia White, Collin

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