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4 May 2023 IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE: A TRUE STORY OF SURVIVAL AND HEROISM IN NAZI EUROPE by Steve Sheinkin, Roaring Brook, August 2023, 256p., ISBN: 978-1-250-26572-2


“People killin', people dyin'

Children hurt, hear them cryin'

Can you practice what you preach

Or would you turn the other cheek?

Father, Father, Father, help us

Send some guidance from above

'Cause people got me, got me questionin'

Where is the love”

– Black Eyed Peas (2003)


“On July 2, 1942, the New York Times printed an article reporting that the Nazis were likely murdering Jews by the hundreds of thousands in Poland. This might seem like major news–but the piece was buried on page six of the paper. The journalist even cast doubt on his own story, citing a Jewish leader in London who thought the report, in the journalist’s words, ‘seemed too terrible and the atrocities too inhumane to be true.’”


I often write about fun and exciting books that you won’t be able to put down. They are frequently referred to as page-turners. I also sometimes write about some truly great books, like IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE, that you need to put down. Put it down to catch your breath, to check your humanity, and to sometimes wipe away the tears. To digest the reality of what you’re reading. 


That, to me, was IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE. Steve Sheinkin has long been one of my favorite nonfiction authors for young people. This will be another award contender for sure. But it’s sure tough to be reading this one with the knowledge that this is a true story. And reading it with the recognition that, without vigilance, it could well happen again. 


IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE is exceptionally well-researched and well-told. The descriptions are only as graphic as is necessary to accurately depict these world-shaking, historic events. But it is, nevertheless, an utterly brutal read. Be prepared to support young readers who will be losing their innocence about what humans are capable of doing to one another


“The conversation turned to what came next. Where were they going? What would the resettlement area be like? 

Most people seemed to expect some sort of labor camp or ghetto. Maybe it wouldn’t be too awful, and they could return home when the war was over. 

A young  girl asked her father: Would there be schools?  Playgrounds? 

The  father told his daughter what she needed to hear. Yes, he said. Schools and playgrounds. A girl of about sixteen said she’d recently gotten a letter from a cousin, someone who’d been resettled with an earlier group. Everything  was  fine, the cousin reported. Enough food, and the  work wasn’t too hard. ‘There was only one thing I couldn’t understand,’ the girl said. ‘She said her mother sent me her love. And her mother died three years ago.’

Another woman, a mother holding a baby,  told a similar story. She’d gotten a letter from her sister, who’d been resettled, and the sister wrote that a friend of theirs, Jakob Rakow, was doing well.

The strange thing was that Jakob Rakow had died in a car accident years before.

Had these people been forced to write letters to their families saying everything was fine? Had they slipped in details their relatives would recognize as wrong as some sort of warning?

‘You’re fools if you think you’re going to resettlement areas,’ one young man told the group. ‘We’re all going to die!’ 

Rudi didn’t believe it. No one in the car believed it.

In  fact, the killing had already begun.”


IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE focuses on two Slovakian Jewish teens, Rudi Vrba, the story’s real-life hero, and Gerta Sidonová, a classmate who has a teen crush on Rudi, back before their world falls apart.


Idealistic Rudi has a plan to sneak his way across Europe to Britain and join the fight against Hitler. Instead, he is captured and shipped to Auschwitz.


Meanwhile, Gerta is in another country. She is holed up with family in an apartment in Budapest, masquerading as a Hungarian country girl. Somebody eventually turns her family in, and they are suddenly in a detention camp in eastern Hungary. Both young people were clearly living on borrowed time.


As we now know, millions of Jews and other oppressed groups were being systematically slaughtered at Auschwitz and elsewhere. The longer he survived Auschwitz, and the more details he amassed about what was taking place there, the more desperate Rudi became to get the word out to the world and stop the slaughter. When, after years, he and a friend finally escape, the tale does, indeed, become a real page-turner. 


Traveling at night, having to watch every step they take, Rudi and his fellow escapee eventually reach Slovakia. Theirs are the first detailed, eyewitness accounts of the Auschwitz death factory to reach the outside world. While millions had already perished, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Hungary were saved; thanks to their accounts.


And then, as the result of a chance reunion, Rudi becomes the key to Gerta’s survival.


Humanity is too often a nightmare. We pass this way, coming to and leaving this planet, while the ever-accruing mountains of hatred and prejudice continue on with their immortal lives.


IMPOSSIBLE ESCAPE demands that the tween/teen readership consider whether one can, in good conscience, individually or collectively invoke pacifism or isolationism as an excuse for turning one's back on the murders of millions of innocents. This book compels one to contemplate what YOU will do or not do, the next time another Hitler comes along. 


Or maybe the next time you see some kid being bullied or ripped off.


I would pair this book with Candace Fleming’s THE RISE AND FALL OF CHARLES LINDBERG, or the late James Cross Giblin’s THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ADOLF HITLER.


And, in order to better get their heads around what actually took place during Hitler’s reign, I would encourage developing a project through which students would collectively gather together and count one-million beans or pieces of gravel, and get some sense of the enormity of the millions and millions of people who died at the hands of the Nazis.


Never again.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks  http://richiespicks.pbworks.com





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