Mara's Stories: Glimmers in the Darkness

Overview

A testament to the power of stories, and how they may bring hope even in times of darkness.

As night falls, the women gather their children to listen to Mara tell her stories. They are stories of light and hope and freedom, stories of despair and stories of miracles, stories of expected pain and stories of unexpected joy—all told in the darkness of the concentration camp barracks.

Through extensive research noted in the back of the book, Gary ...

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Mara's Stories: Glimmers in the Darkness

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Overview

A testament to the power of stories, and how they may bring hope even in times of darkness.

As night falls, the women gather their children to listen to Mara tell her stories. They are stories of light and hope and freedom, stories of despair and stories of miracles, stories of expected pain and stories of unexpected joy—all told in the darkness of the concentration camp barracks.

Through extensive research noted in the back of the book, Gary Schmidt has skillfully woven together stories from such sources as the Jewish religious scholar, Martin Buber; Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel; and folklorists, Steve Zeitlin and Yaffa Eliach. Combining lore of the past with tales born in the concentration camps, Mara's stories speak to us from a time that must never be forgotten.

Each evening, in one of the barracks of a Nazi death camp, a woman shares stories that push back the darkness, cold, and fear, bringing hope to the women and children who listen.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[Schmidt] leaves specific atrocities between the lines, but effectively conveys a sense of the time’s ‘soul terror,’ adding a leavening of humor and plenty of searching, not-easily-answered questions for the young readers to ponder. Gold, indeed.”—Kirkus Reviews

 

“The twenty-three stories . . . are sometimes funny, often sad, but always profound.”—Voice of Youth Advocates

 

“Schmidt’s retellings are succinct and dramatic; stories of miraculous endurance, impossible escapes, and final redemption are presented with a brevity that never undercuts their power.”—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

VOYA
As night falls in the concentration camp where people are held prisoner because of their faith, the women and children gather to listen to the stories of Mara, the daughter of a Rabbi. The twenty-three stories she tells have been adapted from traditional Jewish folktales to reflect a Holocaust theme. They are sometimes funny, often sad, but always profound. Mara uses her gift of storytelling to offer her fellow prisoners hope, although on some nights it is hard to ignore that there is one less person listening. Some tales have a brief introduction to remind the reader who is telling these stories and why. The stories themselves are organized in sections such as "Stories in the Darkness," "Fear and Faith in a Bloodied Earth," and "Questions Angels Fear to Ask." This unique collection contributes to a field of study that is always sought. There are notes at the end that explain the origin of the stories and their meanings. Many readers will need to refer to these notes. The stories themselves are great explorations in language and Jewish folklore, but are often obscure to those new to the tales. This book will meet the needs of public libraries and school libraries looking for a new perspective on the Holocaust and Jewish themes. Notes. VOYA CODES:3Q 2P J S (Readable without serious defects;For the YA with a special interest in the subject;Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9;Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2001, Henry Holt, 148p, $15.95. Ages 12 to 18. Reviewer:Karen Jensen—VOYA, December 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 5)
Children's Literature
Mara, meaning "bitter" in Hebrew, is a prisoner in an unnamed Holocaust concentration camp. Each night, the tired, cold, hungry women and children who share her barrack gather around Mara's bunk to hear a story from her childhood, from tales she hears in the camp, or from the stories of their Hasidic tradition. Into what would otherwise be a place of bitter despair, Mara brings light and hope through her stories. Schmidt uses a unique format to emphasize the stories and still provide the reader with the setting of the book. The book is divided into eight segments, each with a title page and two strands of barbed wire as a visual reminder of the book's setting. An introduction and short conclusion set in italics prefaces each of the brief stories, which are set in standard type. The book or its separate stories could serve as a powerful introduction to a middle grade or high school unit about the Holocaust, or be told to a teen or adult audience. Schmidt includes detailed information about the origin of each story, as well as providing the reader with some details of the Holocaust camps. 2001, Henry Holt, $15.95. Ages 10 up. Reviewer: J. B. Petty
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-This collection framed as tales told within the concentration camps by a young woman named Mara is not completely successful as a cohesive whole. The book includes holocaust tales as well as traditional rabbinical stories set at that time. The selections range from accounts of escapes from being put into the camps to finding hope within the camps to betrayals and choices. Some are truly transcendent while others are simply filler. The use of Mara as a storyteller seems artificial and takes away from the power of the stories. Most of them could be used in a classroom situation, although they may be more useful in a religious setting than in a secular one. Schmidt includes extensive source notes for each story, giving the origins and explaining how he has changed some of them for this book. Hazel Rochman and Darlene Z. McCampbell's Bearing Witness: Stories of the Holocaust (Orchard, 1995) remains the best collection for children, but libraries with a strong Jewish patronage and a need for additional Holocaust literature may want to add Mara's Stories.-Amy Lilien-Harper, The Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of Straw Into Gold (2000) spins 23 brief tales drawn from collections of Hasidic legends into a deeply felt Holocaust memorial, recasting them as versions told by a concentration camp resident and set not in a timeless past, but the storyteller's present: " . . . as if they had just happened. As if they are happening even now." So instead of generic oppressors, rabbis and simple folk face Nazis, even Hitler himself, or escape miraculously. Eisik seeks treasure under a bridge but finds it beneath his own iron stove after a German guard scornfully tells him of a dream; the Baal Shem Tov comes to stand witness over a mass grave; and two violinists play so beautifully-without instruments-that even the prisoners around them hear music. Schmidt is careful to explain what he has added to these episodes, names characters in honor of historical or Biblical figures, and conscientiously cites his sources. He leaves specific atrocities between the lines, but effectively conveys a sense of the time's "soul terror," adding a leavening of humor and plenty of searching, not-easily-answered questions for young readers to ponder. Gold, indeed. (Folktales. 11+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312373887
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • Publication date: 1/22/2008
  • Edition description: STRIPPABLE
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 1,512,132
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.61 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Schmidt is the author of many well-received books for young readers, including The Wednesday Wars, First Boy, and The Wonders of Donal O'Donnell. His novel Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy was both a Newbery Honor Book and a Printz Honor Book. Gary teaches writing at Calvin College and lives with his wife, author Elizabeth Stickney, and their six children on a farm in Alto, Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt

Mara's Stories

Stories in the Darkness

Night.

It always seems to be night in the camps—or at least it always seems to be dark.

Somewhere the sun must come up every morning. Somewhere there is more than only dust and clouds and ashes. There must be some place, there must be some place that is warm and bright and green.

But not here. Not in this death camp. Not here.

Here is always cold. Here is always fear and pain. Here is always hunger. Here is always waiting for ... for what?

Night.

But there is one moment every day in one of the barracks when the dark and the cold seem to pull away and be forgotten. It is in Mara's barracks, which is a barracks just like any other except that this one holds Mara. At night, hungry and trying not to look at the empty places where friends slept just a night or two before, the women come back and gather their children around them. They hold them and share their food. They smile to hide their soul terror.

And then they come to Mara's bunk.

Mara is waiting for them all. No matter what new wound bleeds through her shirt, she is waiting. No matter what new bruise is swelling, she is waiting. She is waiting with the light and the warmth of stories. Everyone gathers around, and from her lips to their ears the stories go, and for a little while the camp disappears, and for a little while they are all free.

Each evening it is the same. Mara reaches out and takes a child onto her lap—a different little one each night. "When my father the Rabbi would sit us around him and tell a story," she begins, "he would ask God to listen as well. 'God,' he would say, 'make me a teller of stories, because all stories are Yours. And if You would lend me one now, I will tell it and then give it back to You.'" She lifts her hands to heaven when she speaks.

And everyone in the barracks is still, so still. And the story comes to Mara as though God Himself were giving it. Mara smiles. She nods. And then she tells it.

Many of the stories are of long ago, in the days of the great rabbis whose lives were lives of light. But in this barracks there is no long ago. There is only now. It seems as if there has always only been now. And so the tales even of long ago and far away become tales of now and here, as if they had just happened. As if they are happening even now.

Sometimes Mara's stories are sad, and the dark lines below her eyes darken, and the hollows of her cheeks fall even farther in. Sometimes the stories are too terrible to speak, and she tells them very softly, in a voice that is hardly a whisper, slivers of sound. Sometimes the stories are lonesome, and as she tells them, her eyes fill for those whom she misses, whom they all miss. And sometimes, sometimes the stories are funny, and Mara laughs out loud, and her cheeks hint at a long-lost glow.

Night after night, night after night the stories push back the darkness and the cold. Those who listen carry them through the next day, and often the thought of the next night's story is all that keeps thewomen from stepping across the dead-lines that rim the camp.

And the children?

The children listen. The children listen and understand.

The Violinist and the Master

In a camp in Poland, there was once a young violinist named Salek. He had been in the camp for two years, and in all that time he had never ceased practicing his music. He had no violin and he had no bow, but he practiced nonetheless. In the long hours of pain and boredom, he dangled his legs over the edge of the platform, held his chin just so and his hands out, and fingered through Schumann, and Brahms, and Mozart.

And he heard the music in the air. Even though no one else around him could hear it, he did.

Then one night, half of those in his barracks were marched away. Awakened from sleep, they were marched away and could take nothing with them.

That night, Salek played silently into the darkness, trying to fill it with music.

In the morning, a new group of souls was marched into the barracks, and rifle butts forced them four, five, six abreast onto the wooden slats that would be their bunks. And across from Salek on the upper platform, unbelievably, was the Master Violinist he had heard in Prague. It couldn't be, but it was. The Master.

With the shouting and the calling and the crying, Salek could not speak to him. Perhaps the Master would not have answered anyway. He looked as though he were at the rim of the Sheol.

Salek stared across at him. How often had he listened to this man's music! How often had his soul breathed on every tone that shimmered, or danced, or thundered, or struck from his strings! Salek knew that in his best moments, in his very best moments, he could never make the music that this Master made. But the knowledge had not brought despair to him, only wonder at the gifts of God. That God had touched this man so that he could makemusic—no, not make—breathe music like the living breath of God! Salek shook his head at the thought.

The next night, Salek sat on the edge of his platform and called across. "Master!" He had to whisper so that the kapos outside would not hear him. But the Master did not stir. "Master," Salek called again. "Master!"

Nothing.

Salek dared not risk any more calls.

The next night, he tried again, but the head of the Master was drooped even lower than it had been the first night. "Master!" Salek called. The Master did not answer.

The third night, Salek did not call. He dangled his legs over the edge of the platform, held his chin just so and his hands out. And he began to play. With his bow of air he drew through a long and trembling adagio from Schumann, then spurted to a quick rondo from Brahms. His eyes closed with the beauty of the music. And when he opened them again, finishing with a short, quick presto from Mozart, the Master was looking at him.

He had heard. He had heard the music.

The next night, the Master and Salek sat across from each other. They dangled their legs over the edge of the platform, held their chins just so and their hands out, and played a Corelli duet. The Master tapped the air with his foot for the rhythm, and Salek took the second line. The music from the two of them interlaced like two rosy vines until they reached a perfect bloom of a note that they held and held—a little longer than Corelli might have wished, but neither Salek nor the Master wanted the duet to end.

And those around them heard. They heard the music too.

After that night, and for many, many nights afterward, the Master and Salek played the Corelli duet, their bows waving in thin air, just thin air. But the music that came from that air! All those in the barracks held their breath with the astonishment of it. They all closed their eyes to the wonder of it. Their hearts forgot to beat with the joy of it.

And always Salek heard the Master's line louder and sweeter, the line of a musician touched by God.

One night, the guards burst into the barracks, bristling with flashlights and bayoneted rifles. The glare their lights threw down on the prisoners was like the glare of hell. One by one the guards called the numbers, and the prisoners looked at their tattooed arms to see if theirs was the one called. The barracks filled with silent weeping, as the dreadful march of numbers drummed on and on.

And when the last number was called, Salek looked across at the Master and saw that it was his. It was his.

With a sigh, the Master looked to heaven and then began to climb down from his platform. But Salek was quicker. He slid down first and stood beneath the Master, looking at the hands that had held themselves just so to make such music.

"Stay," he whispered. "Stay for the music. Stay for its joy."

The Master's eyes widened, but he shook his head.

"Hold him," said Salek, and though the Master struggled, hands grabbed him and pinned him to his bunk. Salek walked out of the barracks and into the cold night, his soul rising to heaven—if not higher.

 

 

Someday, the camp will be liberated. And the Master will survive.

He will live for many years afterward, and give many concerts. His music will breathe joy. His music will speak of hope and love and spring and summer, of children and home and peace—of all the good and joyful things in this old and tired world.

And in all his concerts, he will end by playing a single line from the Corelli duet, a single lonely line that nevertheless will thrill with the sounds of happiness. And he will always weep, my children. He will always weep.

From joy, his audiences will think. From joy.

MARA'S STORIES. Copyright © 2001 by Gary Schmidt. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2007

    Amazing

    I absolutely loved this book! I read it in 4th grade and I am now a senior in high school and still enjoy this book. It shows that there is always hope in times of darkness.

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