Friday, May 21, 2004

Room in the Heart

Levitin, Sonia. 2003. ROOM IN THE HEART. New York: Dutton Books. ISBN 0525468714 [Suggested Grade Levels 7 to 10]

This story follows the paths of two young Danish people in the years leading up to World War II. The young man, Niels, gets involved in the Resistance movement and learns the hard way how friendship can be tested when his best friend begins to side with the Nazi way of thinking. Niels’s view of the world begins to change as he is personally affected by the Nazi regime; he sees some friends from the Resistance escape, and others sent to death camps in Czechoslovakia.
The young woman, Julie, is Jewish, and as such she and her family experience persecution under the Nazi regime, as many families did at this time. The reader also accompanies Julie as she goes through the rigors of adolescence at a difficult and dangerous time in history. She matures quite a bit over the course of the story, particularly when her mother becomes ill; she becomes the caretaker (“Now Julie is looking after us all”) and must assume more adult responsibilities. Her world changes in multiple ways: not only must she adjust to a more grown-up role, but her whole country (indeed, the entire world) is changing dramatically around her.
The reader is given a broader perspective of the experiences of the time period through the two different main characters and also through letters written by Willi, a Nazi soldier, and the diary entries of Julie’s sister, Fredericka. The wartime events are also reflected through various characters such as Niels’s Resistance cronies and his Uncle Jens, who is a member of the secret police. The novel does not shy away from depicting the gruesome fates of many: friends sent to death camps, a piano teacher to Auschwitz, an employer arrested by the Gestapo. This exemplifies how no one was unaffected by these terrible events, even if their own family managed to survive.
The scenario is especially realistic, due to the fact that the author herself escaped from Nazi Germany as a child. Details about Jewish culture and holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover lend more insight to the characters and their way of life.

A class project could be to locate survivors of a Nazi concentration camp who would be willing to be interviewed (perhaps through a Jewish community center or local synagogue). The subsequent interviews could be arranged as a display for the library or published online.

Other books involving Nazis and the World War II era:
Anflick, Charles. Resistance: Teen Partisans and Resisters Who Fought Nazi Tyranny. ISBN 0823928470
Axelrod, Toby. In the Camps: Teens Who Survived the Nazi Concentration Camps. ISBN 0823928446
Oertelt, Henry. An Unbroken Chain: My Journey Through the Nazi Holocaust. ISBN 0822529521
Wiesel, Elie. Night. ISBN 0553272535

By Shannon McGregor

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