When We Were Shadows: A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers
Janet Wees, Author
Second Story Press, Biography, Apr. 18, 2018
Suitable for ages: 9-12
Themes: Jewish children, Family relationships, Holocaust, Netherlands, Underground Resistance, Heroes
It is 1937. Walter is five years old when his parents decide to flee their home in Germany and start a new life in the Netherlands. As Jews, they know they are not safe with the Nazi party in power. For nearly three years Walter and his family is relatively carefree. His father opens a small tea and coffee shop. Walter and Hannah are able to attend school, learn Dutch, and play with other children.
When Germany invades the Netherlands in 1940, Walter’s world changes from safe and predictable to one full of uncertainty. He hears his parents talking in whispers. He is too young to appreciate the danger he is in, and everything seems like a great adventure. He has to change his name. His family leaves their home and shop. But as the war progresses, his family is forced to move again and again, from city to countryside, to eventually, the Hidden Village deep in the Dutch woods.
Walter and his parents are separated from his seriously ill sister, who is hidden in a hospital, and his grandmother, who is hidden in other safe houses. He writes letters on napkins, scraps of paper, and book pages, describing his life, his fears, and his hopes. Walter’s eyes are opened to the threat that surrounds them every day and to the network of people who are risking their lives to help them stay hidden. This true story shines a light on a little-known part of WWII history and the heroes of the Dutch resistance—particularly those involved in the Hidden Village—without whose protection, Walter, his family, and hundreds of others would not have survived.
Why I like this book:
This is a moving and sensitive true story about the strength of the human spirit to survive. It is story about the power of a family determined to stay together. It is a story about the compassion and kindness of ordinary individuals who put their lives in danger because they know it is the right thing to do.
I like the format of Janet Wees book as it reads like a story. The author uses the letters Walter writes to his granddaughter, Jenny, as the background for the story. He waits until Jenny is old enough to share his entire story of fleeing Germany in 1937 as a young child and the fear and horror around him. The rest of the story is told in the letters Walter writes to his oma (grandmother.) After Oma’s death, Walter found the letters wrapped in a bundle in a trunk. They are in the voice of young Walter, who is able to sneak the letters to Oma through the Underground.
When We Were Shadows is a vivid and realistic story that will make readers remember so that this kind of atrocity doesn’t happen again. There are photographs throughout the book of Walter and Hannah, homes where they were hidden, dense forest camouflaged hide-outs and a rebuilt Hidden Village, that add undeniable authenticity to the story.
Resources: Make sure you read the Prologue, the Epilogue about the liberation and the Author’s Note at the beginning and end. This is another excellent book for middle grade teachers to add to their Holocaust collection.
Janet Wees has written since she was nine years old. A retired teacher, she spends her time creating children’s picture books, reading, walking, writing letters, cycling, volunteering and traveling. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.
The publisher provided me with an advanced copy of the book.