Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Light in Hidden Places - Sharon Cameron

Title: The Light in Hidden Places
Author: Sharon Cameron
Publisher: Scholastic Press, March 3, 2020 (Hardcover)
(Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: February 18, 2020
Finished: February 22, 2020

From the back cover:

It is 1943, and sixteen-year-old Stefania has been working for the Diamant family in their shop in Przemysl, Poland. She hopes to marry one of their sons, Izio, but they must keep their love a secret since she is Catholic and he is Jewish. Everything changes, though, when the German army invades Przemysl. The Diamants are forced into the ghetto, and Stefania is alone in an occupied city, left to care for Helena, her six-year-old sister.

Then comes the knock at the door. Izio's brother Max has jumped from a train headed to a death camp. Stefania and Helena make the extraordinary decision to hide Max and eventually twelve more Jews. Now they wait, every day, for the next knock at the door, the one that will mean death. When the knock finally comes, it is two Nazi officers, requisitioning Stefania's house for the German army.

With two Nazis living below, thirteen Jews hidden above, and a little sister by her side, Stefania has one more excruciating choice to make.

Award-winning author Sharon Cameron depicts that utterly unremarkable and heroic real-life story of Stefania Podgorska in this gripping page-turner that explores the momentous decisions people make and how one person truly can change the world.

I've always liked these types of Holocaust memoirs (well, fictionalized accounts of memoirs), so when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of an upcoming book relating to an individual from history that I didn't previously know, I jumped at the chance.

The Light in Hidden Places is a novel based on the true story of Stefania Podgorska, a young woman who helped aide thirteen Jewish people in the ghetto, and later hid them in her attic. The story begins in the late 1930s, when a young teenaged Stefania moves from the rural countryside to live with her older sisters in the city of Przemysl. She begins to work for the Diamant family in their store and quickly becomes like a sister to the four Diamant boys: Chaim, Henek, Max, and Izio. Once the German army invades in September 1939, their city is bombed, and restrictions on Jewish citizens begin.

In early 1942, the Diamants are ordered to relocate to the nearby ghetto, and Stefania remains alone in the Diamant home. That same year, after her mother and brother are sent to a labour camp in Salzburg, Stefania is tasked with taking care of her younger sister, Helena. When the ghetto is liquidated, Max escapes from the train headed to a death camp and Stefania and Helena hide him in the apartment. In 1943, after securing work at a German-owned factory and a new apartment to rent with an attic where people could hide, they later add Max's brother Henek and his girlfriend Danuta and ten others from the ghetto. Her house is requisitioned by the Nazis in early 1944, so Stefania, Helena, and the thirteen others hiding in the attic shared the house in that way for the next several months until the city was liberated by the Russians in the summer of 1944.

You can tell that this book was written with a great deal of love and compassion. The author has done her homework and researched it all impeccably well. Stefania's son Ed is quoted on the back cover as to the accuracy and spirit of the book being in line with his mother and father's memories. Contrary to my expectations, it isn't sugar-coated in the slightest (I figured it would be a little since it was published under the Scholastic banner) and tells the very raw details of Stefania's experiences. She is assaulted and nearly raped several times (there's a very hard scene to read where 8-year-old Helena is badly beaten by the SS), and she even expresses resentment at times because of the sheer amount of work and stress involved in her situation. At the same time, Stefania states how she simply couldn't live with herself if her actions (or inaction) had allowed her thirteen to be harmed in any way, which is part of what makes her story so remarkable.

I can appreciate the level of honesty in this novel because you don't often hear about the mental anguish that Holocaust survivors and their helpers endured, most narratives tend to focus on the bravery. This book is unique in that it acknowledges the PTSD that affects people who endure trauma on this scale, I feel like we as readers understand this now, but years ago it wasn't something that was really discussed as part of their story.

The only thing that nagged at me a bit was that it was difficult to follow the progression of years at the beginning of the story and how old people were. Like how Stefania was actually sixteen in 1941, not 1943, and for the majority of the events in the story she was actually eighteen and nineteen years old.

In researching this book, I came across this clip on YouTube of Stefania and Max's son, Ed, giving a talk about his parents in 2019. He mentions this very book, and he even shows a copy of the drawing Max drew for Stefania that was mentioned at the end of the book that was really nice to see. This is a great clip to start with if you'd like to learn more about Stefania's story.

This is a wonderfully-written account of how the small actions of a few can really changes people's lives for the better. This more mature narrative should be available in all our high school libraries and is one we should encourage our children to read.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's a typical YA cover, nothing much to write home about. You'd think they'd incorporate something with an attic and light and shadow or something like that given the content, so a missed opportunity in my opinion.

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