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The Big Lie: A True Story

The Big Lie: A True Story
Isabella Leitner; Scholastic, 1992, $13.95

If it’s time for your child’s first Holocaust book. The Big Lie, recommended for ages 8 through 11, is a good choice. Anchored, warm, even a tad dull, Leitner’s steady, reassuring voice hides none of the brute facts: as a Hungarian-Jewish teenager, she is put in a cattle car, sent to Auschwitz, and confronted regularly with Mengele’s “selections.” She endures a winter’s death march, and discovers, after the war, that two of her sisters and her mother have been murdered.

Part of what makes this appropriate medicine for children is that the ongoing portrait is never of a young girl alone— rather, Leitner is always in the loyal, loving, deeply supportive company of at least three, and sometimes four, of her sisters. Her brother Philip, separated in another part of Auschwitz, risks much in order to sustain his sisters’ hope, tenacity, and courage. At one point Philip climbs through a window of the woman’s disinfection station at Auschwitz to whisper to his sisters, “Eat whatever they give you, because we must survive. One day we will be free. And we will pay them back. So eat and survive. I love you.” At another point the four sisters, who sleep together (with ten other girls) on the top deck of a triple-deck wooden shelf at Auschwitz, mysteriously receive a piece of wood. “You must live. You simply must. I love you,” Philip has carved into it.

The simple, uncluttered prose favors details that are almost solace-giving, from a child’s-eye view: The girls hide for a short while in an empty doghouse; hungry, they discover delicious cabbage in an abandoned farmhouse; Leitner shleps with her—as she’s herded from home to ghetto to cattle car—a favorite transitional object, a beautiful camel’s hair coat that she absolutely loves. When Leitner’s sister Chicha is forced, by a female Nazi officer, to hold two rocks over her head during roll call, Leitner comments, “Chicha was very brave. She held the rocks high for hours. It was a small victory, but still a victory. Chicha gave all who saw her the courage to carry on.” Sensitively calibrating how far pre-adolescents can be emotionally pushed. Leitner chooses, throughout the book, to emphasize the positive; valor, determination, small but meaningful acts of resistance, and, perhaps most reassuringly, family love.

A very spare and simple map of Isabella Leitner’s Europe, and an afterword that offers children some fundamental World War II facts round out this respectful book. It’s probably not a good idea to just give The Big Lie to a child. Read it yourself, and be available to discuss rewardingly its frank, modest, sad material.