Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944

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Upon the Head of the Goat is the winner of the 1982 Boston Globe - Horn Book Award for Nonfiction and a 1982 Newbery Honor Book.

Nine-year-old Piri describes the bewilderment of being a Jewish child during the 1939-1944 German occupation of her hometown (then in Hungary and now in the Ukraine) and relates the ordeal of trying to survive in the ghetto.

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Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944

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Upon the Head of the Goat is the winner of the 1982 Boston Globe - Horn Book Award for Nonfiction and a 1982 Newbery Honor Book.

Nine-year-old Piri describes the bewilderment of being a Jewish child during the 1939-1944 German occupation of her hometown (then in Hungary and now in the Ukraine) and relates the ordeal of trying to survive in the ghetto.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“At the outbreak of World War II, 9-year-old Piri is visiting her grandmother in the Ukrainian countryside and is unable to return to her family in the Hungarian town of Beregszász. Aranka Siegal, the Piri of the narrative, finally comes home the following year but finds her life forever changed.” – Starred, School Library Journal

“This is a book that should be read by all those interested in the Holocaust and what it did to young and old.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer

“A simple and beautiful account of the life of a Jewish family as, step by step, war and anti-Semitism creep closer to the Hungarian town in which they live, finally engulfing them.” – The New Yorker

Children's Literature
This warm and engaging look at the enduring spirit of the family will be a real find for teachers and librarians, as well as homeschoolers looking for a new viewpoint of the Holocaust. Siegal recalls her childhood in Hungary, from the outbreak of World War II until the day her family is sent to a Jewish ghetto and then to a death camp. At first a carefree 9-year-old, her outlook slowly grows in maturity as she becomes more aware of what is happening in her country. Siegal portrays her mother and sister as unsung heroines, never taking credit for the small acts of courage she herself displays. It's full of small, telling details such as the ways her mother copes with worsening food shortages, the increasing coolness of former "friends" who were Christian, and the fact that recess games were replaced with military exercises. They create an increasing sense of dread, especially since we know what the characters don't: that most Jewish families will not survive. Highly recommended. 2003 (orig. 1981), Sunburst/Farrar Straus and Giroux, Ages 12 up.
—Donna Freedman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374480790
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • Publication date: 3/24/2003
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 687,937
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Lexile: 830L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.03 (w) x 7.62 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Aranka Siegal’s Holocaust novels are based on her own experiences as a child. She lives in Miami, Florida.

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Reading Group Guide


Discussion Questions for Upon the Head of the Goat

1. When we study the Holocaust, much of the focus is on the atrocities in the concentration camps and the numbers of people murdered. Less is said about the lives of the people before the invasion of the Germans. In Goat, Aranka Siegal tells us about her life before the war. Discuss the ways her life was the same as yours.

2. Tradition for the Davidowitz family and for most Jews is an essential part of their identity.

Piri: I had once asked Mother about the neat little ball of dough she always saved from her Friday baking and tucked inside a flowered tin box for the following Friday. She had answered, "I brought this tin box with me from Komjaty when I first moved to Beregszász. My mother gave me a ball of her growing yeast to take with me. She got her original ball of dough from her mother. This way the bread we bake stays the same for generations."

"Are you going to give me a ball of the dough when I get married?" I asked.

"Of course," she had answered. [pp. 141–42]

What does the ball of dough represent? If you were going to start a tradition for your family, what would you pass down?

3. In 1939, the Davidowitz family is living side by side with its Hungarian neighbors in Beregszász. When they visit Babi, Piri's grandmother, in Komjaty for the Passover seder, Babi advises Piri's mother: "Rise, you are fooling yourself. You are living among goyim and you think they are your friends. I just hope you never have to depend on them. They are neighborly, but there is a big difference between neighbors and your own. Only your own can feel your pain." [p. 30]

Is Babi being cynical, or is what she is saying correct? When things changed for the Jews, how did the Hungarian neighbors act? What parallels can you find in American history?

4. The day before the Davidowitz family is hauled off to the ghetto, Piri gives Ica Molnar her most valuable possession, her phonograph. Ica's eyes plead, "I did not mean to cause you harm." [pp. 147–48]

What harm does this refer to? Was it something that she did, or something she didn't do? Ica is about fourteen years old. Should we overlook Ica's actions or inactions because she is still a child, or should we hold her to the same standards as those for adults?

5. Talk about anti-Semitism as it became systemized in Hungary -– from not allowing the children to go to school, to requiring Jews to wear the Star of David, finally to deportation. How did it affect the Davidowitz family and their Jewish and Gentile neighbors? How did the Davidowitz family cope with each stage?

6. In the spring of 1944, Hungarian police come for Piri and her family. They refer to a census list to make sure every family member is accounted for. As each name is called, it is crossed off with a thick black line. Discuss the symbolism of this act.

7. Many Jews in the ghetto were taken there without being allowed to bring any possessions or had their possessions seized from them upon arrival. Iboya offered to help a woman with no provisions get blankets for her and her child. "You will have a mitzvah," the woman blessed her. [p. 155]

A mitzvah is an act of pure goodness, big or small, done with no expectation of reward or thanks. You don't have to be Jewish to perform a mitzvah. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a mitzvah? Have you ever done something that would be called a mitzvah?

8. Talk about the different people in Goat. Who is the most interesting? Which one has the most vitality? Which character is most like you or your friends?

9. Piri felt sorry for Judi. She [Judi] had been misled by her liberal upbringing to believe that she did not have to live by restricting rules. She had been taught she was a Hungarian, but now found out she was a Jew. Her false security was crumbling and she had no identity to hold on to. [p. 206]

Is this a necessary pitfall of assimilation? Does assimilation have to strip you of your ethnic or religious identity?

10. Government inspectors came to the Davidowitz home and confiscated Ladybeard, the family's goat and only source of milk for the children. Piri asks her mother what they would do with Ladybeard. Mother responds, "Send her into the wilderness with their sins, I suppose." [p. 100]

Mother's answer is a reference to the Bible, Leviticus 16, and the origin of the term "scapegoat." How were the Jews of Europe like Ladybeard? Why did the Germans and their sympathizers make them scapegoats? Do we still blame the troubles of society on groups of people, making them scapegoats for our own shortcomings? Explain.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2003

    Outstanding, detailed and compassionate

    A young Jewish girl -- nine when we first meet her and nearly fourteen when the book ends -- experiences the beginning of World War II with her parents in Hungary (and her grandmother in the Ukraine). Eventually, she, her family, and all the Jews of their small town, are forced to leave their homes and await a train that will take them to Auschwitz. This is a terribly sad coming-of-age story that is accessible to children older than ten. It doesn't explain the Holocaust, but it goes further than most books in allowing readers to 'experience' the fear, confusion, and especially the courage felt and displayed by the characters. Indeed, the author, who based the story of her own experiences, does an outstanding job drawing all the characters, including a number of the non-Jewish townspeople and one particular non-Jewish Hungarian soldier. It is especially interesting to learn so much about small-town life in the Hungarian-Ukrainian border region. It is sad, but not at all morose. It is inspirational -- because so many characters, young and old, display courage and fortitude in the face of increasing misfortune. And it is filled with compassion -- you almost feel sorry for the non-Jews who turn their backs on their Jewish neighbors. In one scene, the young narrator, who can only take a few items with her into the ghetto, gives her record player and records to her non-Jewish friend, to hold for her until she returns, even though they have not spoken to each other since the Jewish children were excluded from the town's schools. You can feel the hope of the narrator that someday she might return, get back her records, and they can play together again. And you can feel the shame the non-Jewish friend feels -- wanting to still be friends, but feeling constrained by the societal pressure to ostracize the Jews. At one point the author recalls her Grandmother's words that Jews and non-Jews 'are all the children of God.' But she is looking at a German guard preparing to force them on to the train to Auschwitz. And she wonders if this cold, grey man -- who is ignoring all the suffering around him -- is also a child of God. Clearly, the author does not draw any of the Nazi characters compassionately. On the other hand, their actions and their treatment of others evoke our pity, more than our hatred -- for they, the Nazis, had clearly forgotten that all people are 'the children of God.' This book is filled with the 'humanity' and 'humankindness' exhibited by the Jews who are subjected to oppression, hatred and derision, but who respond by helping each other and those who are less fortunate. The author expresses very little hatred towards the oppressor. But I was left with a terrible sadness, knowing that the German and Hungarian oppressors chose to act inhumanely -- they did it to themselves -- they denied their 'humanity.' There is no way that I could forgive such horrible people, but this book is the first book that made me pity them. I look forward to reading the sequel: 'Grace in the Wilderness.'

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2014


    A fantastic read. Would definitely read again.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 1, 2009

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