In 1955 West Germany, 13-year-old Peter thinks WWII and its atrocities are old news. National Book Award winner Whelan (Homeless Bird) loads Peter's summer vacation with big lessons: he helps a kindly Jewish philosophy professor-turned-bricklayer rebuild the town church; fishing in the river that borders East Germany, he and his buddies help a man safely reach the West German side; he overhears anti-Semitic comments and tries to make up for them with a generous gesture. But the biggest discovery is prompted by a recurring nightmare. Unnerved, rifling through his parents' things, Peter finds evidence that he is not their natural child; eventually he learns that he is Jewish, pressed into a stranger's arms just before his birth mother boarded a train for Dachau. The straightforward narrative takes readers through Peter's anguish and confusion, his first lessons in Judaism and his attempts to announce his newfound identity. The plotting is too convenient and the pace unrealistically swift, but middle-graders who are not ready to deal with either a more nuanced presentation or with more brutal truths will like the drama as well as the message of acceptance and hope. Ages 8-12. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
After the Trainby Gloria Whelan
Peter Liebig can't wait for summer. He's tired of classrooms, teachers, and the endless lectures about the horrible Nazis. The war has been over for ten years, and besides, his town of Rolfen, West Germany, has moved on nicely. Despite its bombed-out church, it looks just as calm and pretty as ever. There is money to be made at the beach, and there are whole days
Peter Liebig can't wait for summer. He's tired of classrooms, teachers, and the endless lectures about the horrible Nazis. The war has been over for ten years, and besides, his town of Rolfen, West Germany, has moved on nicely. Despite its bombed-out church, it looks just as calm and pretty as ever. There is money to be made at the beach, and there are whole days to spend with Father at his job. And, of course, there's soccer. Plenty for a thirteen-year-old boy to look forward to.
But when Peter stumbles across a letter he was never meant to see, he unravels a troubling secret. Soon he questions everything—the town's peaceful nature, his parents' stories about the war, and his own sense of belonging.
In Germany, in 1955, scars of the Nazi regime and anti-Semitism are still evident. When a school assignment includes researching a "good German" who opposed Hitler's government, Peter Liebig finds himself in a dilemna. He searches his parents' letters written during the war and finds a picture of a woman whose face he recognizes from his lifelong nightmares. Everything he has known about his family and upbringing is contradicted by his discovery that he is a Jewish boy, rescued and adopted by a woman working with the Red Cross when his biological mother was sent to Dachau. A conflict of emotions develops as Peter is angry and resentful yet still loves the parents he has known. At the same time he is disturbed by a sense of loyalty and a need to find out the true fate of his birth parents. Whelan's well-developed story line and characterization present a short, psychological drama of a boy struggling to come to terms with his past so that his future identity, be that Jewish or Christian, can be formed. Supporting roles of Peter's peers, as well as that of a new friend, a Holocaust survivor who helps him with gentle advice and a caring introduction to a Jewish environment, bring this boy's story full circle.-Rita Soltan, Youth Services Consultant, West Bloomfield, MI
Read an Excerpt
After the Train MOB
The last day of school is a hundred thousand hours long. It's as long as waiting in the dentist's office or listening to your parents talk about what it was like when they were kids. The sun leaks through the windows, paints everything gold, and makes me warm and sleepy. Herr Schmidt drones on. I think about a soccer scrimmage after school and how I will be out with my rowing club on Saturday. I watch a fly, come to life with the warm weather, buzz against the window. I'm that trapped fly. I hear a train whistling in the distance and wish I were on it. I study the way Ruth Kassel's hair falls over her face as she leans down to write and the way she nibbles little slivers from her pencil when she is concentrating. She catches me staring at her and I quickly look away.
Herr Schmidt's classroom is the one I most dislike. Going to his class is like tearing off a scab. The war has been over for ten years. The Nazis are gone. It's 1955. Why should we have our noses rubbed in someone else's dirt just because we happen to be German? Our eighth grade is being scolded for something our parents did. It is something I don't want to hear or think about.
With his white-blond hair, pale skin, and long thin arms and fingers, Herr Schmidt looks like he lives in a cellar or a cave. He has an irritating way of drawing out his words so you are afraid he will never finish a sentence. "Ri-i-i-ight here in Rolfen," he said, "I am sor-r-r-ry to say there is the e-e-e-evil of anti-Semitism."
I'm tired of being told all the bad things about our country. Why can't he talk about the good things about Germany? I slump down and stare at mydesk. It is at least a hundred years old. The carved initials in the desk are like ghosts of the students who have sat there before me. During the war the desk survived the bombs of the Americans and the English. I squirm in the hard wooden seat and catch Hans Adler's eye. His shrug tells me he is as bored and impatient as I am with the lecture.
As if it were just another lesson in grammar or arithmetic, Herr Schmidt prints on the blackboard the crimes of the German people and we copy them, each one like a scolding. All over Germany Jewish converts to Christianity were expelled from the church. When he speaks of what the church has done, Herr Schmidt looks serious and sad, as if to say, People may do stupid and even evil things, but the church? How can that be? But of course the church is not just a brick building that got up off its foundation and shook out the Jews; no, there was the pastor and those who chose him and paid him. When you speak of the church, you are not speaking of a building but of men and women. Even I know that. We squirm in our seats. Hans speaks for everyone in the class when he wriggles his hand in the air and says, "We were just babies during the war. We didn't have anything to do with what happened to the Jews." I silently agree. Most people want to be good and they want people to believe they are good, so it's hard when you're made to feel guilty for something you didn't do.
Herr Schmidt says, "I know I am reviewing what we have talked of before, but I want to be sure you understand. l tell you these things so that your generation will not repeat the mistakes of your parents and their parents."
Dieter Kroner has been drawing dirty pictures of Herr Schmidt. Now he leans across the aisle and whispers to me, "That's all Jewish propaganda." Even I know better than that. Men have stood up in court and admitted their parts in what happened. There are government records and terrible pictures of men more dead than alive in prisoners' striped suits. It is all true, but I don't want to hear about it.
At last Herr Schmidt gives us our assignment to do over the summer. We groan. When we leave today, we want to close the door on the school and not think about it. Herr Schmidt says, "In spite of the terrible things that happened during the war, there were Germans who risked their lives to oppose Hitler. I want you to find such a person and write that person's story."
We push our way out of the classroom and into the hallway, where there's a sour smell: part sweaty socks, part stale air. Students shove one another in the halls and on the stairs as if they can't wait to get the day over with and get outside. Even the teachers seem impatient. Our algebra teacher storms up and down the aisles of the schoolroom, crumpling our papers and rapping the boys on the head with his ruler.
At lunchtime we kick around a soccer ball, an old size four with most of the leather worn away. Hans gets into a fight with Kurt Niehl because Kurt won't own up to a foul, and I have to pull them apart, getting an elbow in my ribs for my trouble. I make a nice shoelace pass, the ball rising into the air in a beautiful arc, lofting right over Hans's head and falling at Kurt's feet, but just at that moment the bell rings and we have to go back inside.
As usual Hans has done no homework and is unprepared for our Latin class with Frau Lerche. No one is more goodhearted or can turn on more charm than Hans, so most of the teachers forgive him his lack of interest in his studies, especially the women teachers; but Frau Lerche is immune to Hans's charm. Although he bats his long lashes at her and gives her his most radiant smile, she's not moved. When he translates fastigium, "height," as fastidium, "disgust," he gives Frau Lerche an opportunity for exercising her considerable sarcasm. "I have reached the height of my disgust with your translations, Herr Adler," she says, which makes Hans turn beet red. While Frau Lerche launches into a discussion of the beauty of the ablative case, I sit and stare out the window as if it were a postcard from someplace I'll never visit.After the Train MOB. Copyright © by Gloria Whelan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Gloria Whelan is the bestselling author of many novels for young readers, including Homeless Bird, winner of the National Book Award; Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect; Angel on the Square; Burying the Sun; Once on This Island, winner of the Great Lakes Book Award; and Return to the Island. She lives in the woods of northern Michigan.
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