Kathy Kacer’s name dots the pages of Second Story Press’ Holocaust Remembrance Series.
From her first book in 1999 to last year’s Shanghai Surprise, no other author has contributed so many stories to the series.
The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser is bookended by contemporary snippets designed to draw young readers into the tale.
(I like to start at the beginning and this was Kathy Kacer’s first novel.)
Two children listen to their grandmother tell her story, and the book takes just that long to read.
It’s an old trick, but it still works, And young readers are encouraged to stay because the story is told in language which capably and succinctly deals with complex issues which children can immediately recognize and understand.
The breakdown of “religious and not-so-religious beliefs”, the sensory details depicting the sabbath dinner, the overarching threat to the family as the disturbing political changes begin to affect people’s everyday lives: these facets of Kathy Kacer’s storytelling cement the connection between readers and characters.
Gabi must grapple with the serious matters which face her and her family, and she is certainly aware that there are events unfolding which her parents are not discussing in detail with her.
But Kathy Kacer affords Gabi an agency that not all writers would afford their young heroines; she depicts Gabi choosing not to share certain information with her parents, too, thinking that she must protect them just as they seek to protect her.
Nonetheless, even while there are life-and-death matters of importance, Gabi also must struggle with the disintegration of her friendship with Nina, who has been her best friend.
Talk of lost friendship is juxtaposed with discussion of rallies, factories, work details and death camps. There is a brief foreword to the novel which offers some historical context and an appendix, including two pages of photographs, which outlines the main events in the war as it unfolded in Czechoslovakia. But ultimately The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser is the story of one young girl, told in unadorned prose.
A more recent work by Kathy Kacer depends upon a similar framework, but there are many more photographs included, spread through out the narrative, so that readers are constantly aware that although reading a story now, the events which unfolded were real for millions of people.
In The Diary of Laura’s Twin (2008), Laura’s bat mitzvah is approaching and she must research the experiences of a girl her own age during the war.
As a contemporary guide, Laura’s character is slightly older than Gabi and afforded slightly more complexity as well.
Laura is just as preoccupied with her best friend, and even more so by matters revolving around experiences she is having at school, but she feels conflicted in some ways.
Although initially she resisted the idea of learning more about Sara’s experiences during the way, soon Laura finds Sara’s experiences in the past so compelling that she wants to spend more time with her friend on the pages of this diary than with her real-life friends.
And, just as Laura is being drawn towards the diary, a string of hate-crimes seems to give the past even more relevance to Laura’s contemporary life than she suspected possible.
“She didn’t want historical information about the events leading up to World War II. She wanted more than that. She wanted to know what Sara seemed to be asking – why the world had stood by and allowed these events to unfold in the first place.”
Nonetheless, it is Sara’s voice which resonates most intensely in the narrative. The immediacy of the diary form and readers’ awareness of historical events add urgency to the story.
The sense of impending doom is captured brilliantly, but Sara is afforded the opportunity to imagine a future act of resistance.
“That’s what Hinda’s illness was like for me. It was like running to get out of a burning building before something really terrible happened. We were able to avoid this disaster. But it always feels as if the next one is just around the corner. Next time I’m going to do something. Next time I’m going to be like David.” (November 5, 1941)
And, in the meantime, Sara has a way of describing things which keeps the content from settling into the overwhelmingly grim.
“They are living with an old couple and Deena says the old man snores and barely even speaks to her. Deena says they are all jammed together the way her grandmother used to bottle pickles – one next to the other until there was no space left in the jar.” (July 16, 1941)
There is a sense, early in the story, that Sara will take action when the time is right.
“That’s what David told me what he wanted me to do. ‘We need a messenger,’ he said. ‘Someone small, someone who can move quickly and easily through the sewers.’ David went on to explain that there was a letter that had to be delivered to the outside. A contact was waiting beyond one of the gates of the ghetto.”
Specific events create a page-turning atmosphere for the reader, but a more subtle shift is also chronicled as the story unfolds. These words, from Sara’s diary, are just as meaningful for Laura in the present-day:
“These ghetto walls had take away every sense of freedom I ever had. But I suddenly realized that freedom was not just about where you were. Freedom was about who you were and who you chose to be.”
Kathy Kacer creates a heroine in Sara, a young girl who dares to take action against the threat she faces.
In the sequel to The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Gabi and her younger cousin have the same opportunity when they meet a member of the Czech resistance group.
The Night Spies (2003) depicts Gabi and her cousin hiding in the barn behind the house of Kos family, in a space carved out of straw (6′ x 6′ x 4′) during the day, but the children become — and this is not a spoiler because it’s in the title — night spies.
Published four years after her first novel, Gabi’s continuing story introduces a degree of complexity which is appropriate considering that readers who met her as a younger girl are now prepared to meet her as a thirteen-year-old girl.
When she and her cousin meet the partisan soldiers in the woods, with whom they soon ally, they must accept the fact that some of these soldiers are fighting to protect their homeland from the Nazi invaders, but they do not necessarily disagree with Hitler’s policies.
It is difficult, but Gabi and her cousin must accept the fact that they are hated by some of the partisans as much as they are hated by some of the Nazis, and yet they owe their survival to the partisan soldiers.
Gabi does not sugar-coat the challenge she faces and at least one battle between the partisans and the Nazi soldiers is a devastating experience for her, but these stories were based on stories that Kathy Kacer heard from her mother: Gabi is a fictional creation but she is based on a real girl who had to find courage that she did not know she possessed.
This is true, too, of Clara in Clara’s War (2001). “Clara was so tired of having to be grown up and brave when deep down inside she still felt afraid.”
This was the story which I personally found most engaging. It unfolds in Terezin, 60 kilometres north-west of Prague, in a ghetto-fortress which was originally built by Emperor Joseph II of Austria.
The details about ghetto life in Terezin, the specific experiences that Clara has in the girls’ dormitory, from the awkwardness of her arrival throughout the daily events which comprise the routine there, were sketched in a matter-of-fact voice, with just enough detail to evoke the scenes.
Most impressive were the descriptions of what school was like in the ghetto, the ways in which the elders and adults worked to educate the children under these conditions, and, amazingly, the production of Brundibar, an opera composed by Hans Krasa.
The lyrics in the final victory song in the opera, sung in defiance of the wicked organ grinder, are powerful indeed. All the more so when one imagines that one knows the children singing them.
“His days are numbered now. We face him with no fear. We are unbeatable.”
After reading several of the books in this series, I had to set aside my reading for this project for a spell. I had become so absorbed in these stories that I set aside all other reading.
I was reminded of what I had read in Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors beautiful graphic memoir last autumn, about her voracious reading (in general and on the subject of the Holocaust).
“I read in order to be brave, to learn how to navigate my way through a shape-shifting world. I read for the pure pleasure of how language serves both imagination and will, and to hear the clarity of voices responding to murky reality. In doing so, I discover time and again the ability to find my own.”
I bet she takes her kidlit seriously too.