Monday, 10 June 2013

The Puppet Boy of Warsaw - Eva Weaver

It has, to mis-quote a fellow blogger, been a highly pressured period of time lately, and I've not not been reading...I've just not been writing about what I've been reading, because that would have meant more screen time, and more tapping away at a keyboard, and that's been part of the pressure... However, a long weekend, and a bit of headspace granted, here I am with the latest completed read. The backlog is huge, and I am undecided on quite how to tackle the stack of books that is getting rather too large to comfortably fit in my TBRreviewed pile! So, to break the ice, I'll start with this one and then try to figure out what comes next.

The Puppet Boy of Warsaw isn't for the faint-hearted. If Holocaust fiction is not your thing, steer clear of this one, because Weaver doesn't pull her punches. Drawing on numerous histories and fragments from Survivor stories, she has pieced together a highly engaging story that presents both sides of one story - that of a teenaged boy in the Warsaw Ghetto and a Wehrmacht soldier who was stationed there. Some real life historical figures pop up in the narrative, and other characters are based on actual people, or partially so. There is an interesting spin on this towards the end with a story within the story that is part of the redemptive aspect of this particular book.
The novel is constructed in sections, so we start in New York in 2009 with Mika Hernsteyn and his thirteen year old grandson, Daniel, heading out into the snow to a museum. A poster advertising a puppet play, The Puppet Boy of Warsaw, triggers memories he's never shared with his family. When Daniel gets him back to his apartment, he brings out a dusty, carefully sealed box, out of which he brings an old, old overcoat with many pockets, and begins to tell Daniel his story.

Mika was herded into the Warsaw Ghetto with his mother and grandfather, and later joined by his aunt and two cousins, Paul and Ellie. His grandfather had had the coat made in celebration of a promotion just before he was, like all Jewish professionals in Poland, sacked from his university job. In the ghetto, Mika's grandfather's status gets them a slightly larger apartment than many, including a tiny room, in which the grandfather secrets himself away for hours at a time. The only thing he does share with Mika is the construction of multiple pockets on the inside of the coat - pockets within pockets of all shapes and sizes, that form a veritable labyrinth of secret hiding places. An outspoken man, and one who cannot abide injustice, Mika's grandfather is shot by a German soldier in the ghetto when he defends a woman who the soldier is harassing. When soldiers try to take the coat, Mika's mother risks her life creating a diversion so that neighbours can help Mika remove it from the body and get it safely away. After the funeral, Mika remembers the secret room, and searching through the coat, finds a pocket with the key, which opens the door into a fantasy wonderland - he is greeted by many, many tiny faces; traditional hand-puppets that his grandfather has been making from scraps of anything and everything. Slowly, he begins to get to know them, spending hours himself completing those unfinished and making more, and learning that they have personalities.

Life in the ghetto gets progressively worse. Paul dies. Another family moves into the apartment with twin daughters. At their birthday, there is no possibility of presents, so Paul and Ellie - who has discovered his secret - mount their first puppet play. Together, they begin to venture out into the ghetto, playing to children, people in queues, at the hospital and in the orphanage in the small ghetto where Mika meets Janusz Korczak, who eventually goes to his death with the orphanage children, rather than be separated from them.

And then, Mika finds himself defending a woman being harassed by a soldier - without realising it, he has brought The Doctor out, one of the puppets, to engage the soldier who, distracted, allows the woman to flee. Amused, the soldier, Max Meierhauser, carts Mika outside the ghetto to the barracks, forcing him to perform for the soldiers, telling him that if he does well, he will receive food. And so, Mika's hidden life begins. Arriving home drunk from the beer forced down his throat by soldiers, he is beaten by his frantic mother, who eyes the huge loaf of bread he has with him with suspicion, but he refuses to tell where he's been. Ellie, meanwhile, gets it out of him, and more, goes to the matron of the hospital, who comes up with the audacious plan of having Mika smuggle tiny children out of the ghetto on his performing nights to be handed to people who will hide them.

When the deportations begin, Max intervenes and saves Mika's mother and Aunt. He and Ellie continue their activities with increasing risk, and are both out when eventually his mother and aunt are discovered and taken away. With only each other to care for, they join the group preparing for the uprising of the ghetto in 1943...

Max, of course, is caught up in the uprising too, as part of the troops sent in to quash the rebellion. He survives, although the death toll of German soldiers is high. But he is later captured when Warsaw falls to Russian hands, and he - with superb irony - is loaded into cattle trucks with the other captured soldiers and is sent to Siberia as a POW. With him is a small companion, The Prince, Mika's favourite puppet, given to him by Mika in thanks for saving his mother the first time. He has no idea whether Mika has survived or not, and has no idea now whether he will survive himself. He endures the journey and arrival in the camp deep in Siberia. He forms friendships, avoiding those soldiers who were also stationed at the ghetto. Together, with even less resources than Mika and his grandfather had, he and his friends craft the rest of the puppet troup to accompany Mika's Prince and begin to put on puppet shows to cheer each other. But, eventually, Max decides he must try and escape, even though the odds are heavily stacked against him. With two others, he plans how and when to go, and they succeed in getting free and evading pursuit. The others don't last long, dying within days of each other, but Max, driven to return to his wife and son, with The Prince for company, pushes himself beyond endurance, finally collapsing in the first shelter he finds - a broken down shed on the periphery of a village of nomadic people forced there by Stalin's regime. They care for him, get him well, and give him supplies to continue his journey.

Three years later, walking most of the way, he returns to Nuremberg to his wife and, now, grown son. Thirteen years altogether have passed, his wife has endured horrors she doesn't share. Karl is now a grown man and is deeply uncomfortable with his father. Family life can't just pick up as it was... Karl marries and produces a child, Mara, and for the first time, there is someone with whom Max can unbend, who can reach through years of defences and survival mechanisms. When Karl's wife is killed in a road accident, he comes home with Mara, and Max spends increasing time with the little girl, who is a solitary and imaginative child, weighed down by her mother's death. He introduces her to The Prince, making up stories to make her laugh, and Mara slowly starts to heal. Every year, for her birthday, he makes her a new puppet.

But Max is haunted by his war experiences. Haunted by not knowing what happened to Mika. Some of his stories include tiny snipperts of his story, but he never tells her everything. When he is finally diagnosed with incurable cancer, Karl realises that he has no time if he is to come to grips with the father who came back, as opposed to the father who left, and eventually Max tells him everything, including the story of Mika, begging him to try and find him, to see if he survived, and most importantly, to return the prince to him. Karl, humouring him, says he will, but in his efforts to screen Mara from the story, hides The Prince away - but Mara needs The Prince, and finds him. Eventually, Karl tells her everything, and gives her answers to questions no one, including her teachers at school in post-Holocaust Germany, has so far been willing to give. She becomes a nurse when she grows up but continues to create puppet plays, taking them to the children in the hospital. But she realises that, really, she wants to be a puppeteer full time, and sets up a troupe, creating a play based on the fragments of Mika's story that she has. Surprisingly, it takes off. Tours start all over Europe at puppet festivals. And then comes the all important phone call, inviting her troupe to perform at a puppet festival in New York.

She knows there is a Mikail Hernsteyn who left Europe for the United states and she has found a Mika Hernstein (different spelling) in New York, but she doesn't know if it is him. All she can do is make the call and hope...

When I worked at the Sydney Jewish Museum, my boss was writing a PhD thesis on Holocaust memorials, looking at the theology of the memorials. There were those that she said were redemptive, in that they were intended both to mark the Holocaust and offer solace to those who visited. To my mind, this can be said of some Holocaust literature, and this book would fall into that category. It is one of the few books that looks at both sides at a personal level, because we have Max's story as well as Mika's. Nothing can undo what has been done, and nothing can possibly compensate for the destruction of Mika's world, but through the medium of The Prince, it is possible to see lines of communication that traverse the huge distances, physical and emotional, between the many generations of protagonists in this story. We also get a glimpse of ordinary life in Germany after the war, which is something rarely included in this literature. Max's return to Nuremberg is not to the city he remembers - it is to one that was flattened by allied bombing, so what he sees is the rebuilt city. In his mind, he makes the direct link with the destruction of the ghetto, the rebuilding that can't be done there and his part in it.

As I said at the beginning, this novel really isn't for the faint hearted. There is detail in the descriptions of the ghetto that make for difficult reading, as are the conditions Max endures as a prisoner in Siberia. It is very well researched and beautifully written, and I do recommend it, both as a general read, and as a teaching tool for those involved in Holocaust education.


  1. I have seen this title around a lot lately and will now be adding it to the list.
    I think when I read the Jodi Picoult novel what bothered was the feeling that she had researched real tragedies and she was using them not so much to tell an important story as to feed her own success. I am probably being unfair but it just didn't feel right but then I guess Picoult's readership is predominantly very comfortable middle class women who will after reading her book go away thinking about the Holocaust and remember. With the passing of time and the passing of survivors there is perhaps the possibility that disbelief will grow and people will forgot the horror and tragedy that occurred. Deniers get air time because they create controversy, despite the absurdity of their claims. I am now wondering if it is not more important then ever to tell these stories. I think my cynicism may have lead me to be unfair about Picoult, and her latest book.
    Will also add The Puppet Boy of Warsaw to the list of must read books, thanks Kaz.

    1. Hi Arabella -

      Thank YOU for that post I mentioned at the beginning of this one that stimulated me to get back to my blog! I was in a bit of a rut of not writing...

      As I said in my comment on your blog, I've not read that Picoult book, but having read others of hers, I'm not sure that you were unfair - she does have a very successful formula and I would say that your analysis might not be far off. Although, if her book stimulates her readers to go looking for more information, then it will have, as you say, contributed to the story telling that is going to be, one day, the only way we have to remember what happened.

      Weaver has drawn on many different stories, the origins of which she credits, and there is a list of the real people at the end of the novel with a little bit about them. In her acknowledgements, she also credits numerous others for sharing their stories - people who lack the prominence of those like Korczak, but who have important stories to tell, and loved ones to remember.

      The important thing is to keep the memories alive - which is what the Survivors asked of us when they shared their stories at the Museum and those I met in Israel when I did my training at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

      Keep me posted on how you find this one when you get to it.