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A Diary Like No Other

Halinka by Mirjam Pressler translated from the German by Elizabeth D. Crawford, Henry Holt, $16.95

Twelve year old Halinka, taken from her Holocaust-survivor mother after being neglected and abused, lives in a German home for abandoned children after World War II. She does not trust anyone at the home, has trouble making friends, and is convinced that her life will be perfect if only she can go and live with her Aunt Lou. Halinka treasures Aunt Lou’s letters and lives for her weekend trips to Aunt Lou’s apartment, but the state will not allow Lou custody until she finds a husband.

Halinka deals with her sadness and frustration by sneaking into the home’s storeroom nightly to write in her secret “thoughts book,” in which she records the life lessons she has learned. Each chapter of the book Halinka is named for one of the girl’s “thoughts.” For example, “Even in the Garden of Eden it wouldn’t be good to be alone,” and “He who dreams of palaces loses his place in the hut.”

Despite the lofty chapter names, the book does not moralize, nor does it oversimplify Halinka’s life by organizing it into neat little episodes; rather, the chapter titles provide a sense of continuity for Halinka’s turbulent experiences in the home. Halinka sounds, authentically, like any twelve-year old struggling to understand the complicated world around her. Pressler knows how to endow this character—and the other girls in the home—with defining traits without making them one-dimensional.

When Aunt Lou explains that Halinka’s mother was abusive because she “went through very, very difficult times,” Halinka does not comprehend how someone who suffered can turn about and inflict suffering. The girl writes “And when I consider it very carefully, I think it should be the other way around: if someone has experienced something bad herself, so that the blows have even hit her soul, then—especially then—she shouldn’t hit others.”