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Girls and Sad History

There is a rich and varied tradition of Holocaust literature for young adults. Two recent additions to this genre, Tamar (Candlewick, $17.99) and The Book Thief (Knopf, $16.95), should be recognized for bringing less-known narratives of World War II — the stories, respectively, of the Dutch resistance and of a young girl in the German heartland.

Mal Peet’s Tamar moves between two stories. One focuses on Dutch resistance fighters during the Hunger Winter of 1944 – 1945. The other tells of Tamar, the British granddaughter of two resistance fighters, trying to understand the suicide of her beloved grandfather and the cryptic scavenger-hunt of messages he left for her. The story of two British trained Dutch resistance members and the brave patriots who sheltered and helped them is a vivid tale of espionage, love, and betrayal that will appeal to male and female readers alike. The intricate details of how messages were encoded and discovery averted make for gripping reading. The story of the present-day Tamar is less successfully told — her journey to decode her family’s secret, embarked on in the company of a conveniently appearing distant cousin from Holland, is never as interesting as the story of her grandparents. Nevertheless, Tamar’s account of the suffering in Occupied Europe during World War II is not often addressed in Jewish circles, setting this book apart.

The Book Thief is entirely startling. The title character of this remarkable and unique novel is a young German girl whose impoverished mother has left her in the care of foster parents in a small town outside Munich. The narrator, who sympathetically follows the girl from her journey with her mother and dying brother through the end of the war, is Death. As voiced by gifted writer Markus Zusak, Death is a busy bringer of souls, who tries to avert his eyes from “the leftover humans. The survivors. They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, though on many occasions I still fail.” Zusak brings to life the horrors the totalitarian Nazi regime wrought even on ethnic Germans: how it armed schoolyard bullies and made them masters of Hitler Youth, how it punished any kindness to the less fortunate, how its citizens starved while party officials flourished. Leisel finds refuge with her seemingly rough foster parents, and solace in the books she manages to steal. The continuing horrors culminate in the loss of virtually everyone and everything she has ever known in the Allied bombing of Munich, including her own story which she has painstakingly recorded. But Death, omniscient, exhausted from carrying away the souls of the dead, allows his fascination with the girl to distract him from the horrors of his work, and ultimately to preserve her tale.

The Holocaust figures much more prominently in The Book Thief than in Tamar. Not only is one of the central characters of The Book Thief a hidden Jew, but Death himself, as he tells Leisel’s story, often recounts his own work during that time, as he tenderly carried away millions of Jewish souls. Leisel is a wonderful character — wounded, brave, enduring terrible sorrow and remaining engaged with others and the world, but ultimately it is Death that steals this book and renders it unforgettable.

Rahel Lerner is a book editor in New York City.