Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sheltered from the Swastika: Memoir of a Jewish Boy's Survival amid Horror in World War II—Peter Kory

...this points to the ultimate truth about war - it's war as an idea that is the real villain, those who perish in it are the victims, and, in the final analysis, there are no winners. (135)

This is yet another of my books from the Early Reviewers program through Librarything. (I have two more on their way, which is more thrilling than I can express, free books.) I can honestly say that this is the best of the three books that I have thus far reviewed, although to be fair, the other two were children's literature.

I rather enjoyed this memoir, written by a now eighty-year-old-man who was a young boy when he was separated from his parents in World War II. He does a remarkable job of weaving historical facts with his personal remembrances.

With his parents, Peter escaped Germany when he was an infant. His parents could see the intense restrictions that were coming down the pipeline with relation to Jews. They fled to Belgium, where they lived for a brief time. I appreciated the coverage of his time in Belgium, a country for which I have heard little on the subject of its experience during the war. And I studied history at university, so that's not for nothing. Although that lack of coverage may be as a result of Belgium's neutrality, but what do I know? After Belgium, they went to France, initially to track down Peter's father, who had been taken from them in Belgium. Once they found him, and helped him escape from the prison where he was being held, they started to create a plan for escape to a space where they would no longer need to live in fear of their religious background. Once the plans were set up, and his parents had accounted for all possibilities and created contingency plans for Peter in case they were separated, they set these escape plans into action.

One of the worst-imagined scenarios occurred, and Peter was in fact separated from his parents. He followed their directions and, avoiding Nazi agents and collaborators at every corner, he found his way to the place where he would eventually spend the remainder of the war, a familial chateau in Auriac, located in the southern region of France. Following the end of the war, the family that had been sheltering him, the de Bonnefoys, started proceedings to adopt him. Unfortunately, due to intervention from a postwar organization, the OSE, it was determined that as Catholics, the de Bonnefoys were failing Peter in not allowing him to acknowledge and experience his Jewish heritage. The OSE apparently didn't care that Peter was not interested in living an Orthodox lifestyle - in fact, his parents had never been devoutly religious - and sent him to an Orthodox orphanage, with the long-term goal of sending him to the recently formed Israel. From this orphanage, a strange and fortuitous series of events led to the discovery that he had family in America, and after much debate, he was allowed to join them there, in the land of prosperity and dreams.

While I found the book well written and thoughtful, there were some things that I thought could have been a bit better. I understand that the book was more about the personal events of the author and less about historical points and the sources for those points; however, I would have appreciated if Kory, for the few citations that he utilizes, had employed endnotes. Instead he has an incredibly simple bibliography at the end of the book. This is more a personal preference than anything, having spent my university career reading documents with endnotes. Further, there was some inconsistency with regard to the photo captions - sometimes they were labeled in first person (my mother) and sometimes in third (Peter with...). There were also some obvious typos and punctuation errors that were upsetting to see, considering how easily they were spotted and thus how easily they could have been remedied.

Most frustrating for me was a seemingly incorrect use of the word penultimate, which does not in fact mean the same thing as ultimate. Rather, it indicates the second to last of something.

Overall, an eloquent, informative, well organized memoir written by a remarkable man who overcame early struggles and trauma to achieve success and happiness.

Some other good quotes:

Life in Brussels became almost tediously normal. As a fiercely neutral country, and a kingdom at that, we were like a small island of calm, floating in a sea of horrendous geopolitical turbulence. (30)

I felt then (and I still feel now) that trying to raise any religion to the status of a nationality or, even worse, a race, is precisely the tactic that the Nazis had used so successfully to justify the persecution of Jews. Those views, in my opinion, have always served to segregate Jews fro the mainstream of the population, thereby causing them to emerge as a convenient target for the placement of blame for all the problems of the world. No, I never considered Palestine my "Promised Land," nor Israel a sanctuary. I believed in assimilation. My country was never an abstract "Kingdom of Heaven" or a "Sacred Ancient Promised Land." It was a country that would have me as a citizen and treat me like everybody else, without any kind of hyphenation. (167) [Please note: This should not be taken as a political statement about my position on Israel; I merely appreciate the sentiment of "his country" as one that would accept him, regardless.]