Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. The arrival of a noteworthy work of historical fiction for kids tends to work one of two ways. Either the marketing machine behind the book hits bookstores and libraries full-force, cramming said book down everyone’s throats until they yield and make it a bestseller/award winner… or nothing happens at all. The book slips onto shelves without so much as a squeak, never insisting that anyone go out of their way to find it. "Someone Named Eva" belongs firmly in the latter camp. It’s small and subtle and extraordinarily good. The kind of WWII children’s fiction other authors should look to emulate, given the chance.
Eleven-year-old Milada remembers the night. The night when there was pounding on the door and Nazis in her Czechoslovakian home. The night when her grandmother pressed a garnet pin into her hand and told her to never forget who she was. But since that time Milada had a difficult time keeping that promise. Having been forcibly removed from her family and taken to a bizarre Nazi-run girl’s school, Milada quickly learns the reason for her presence in the Lebensborn center; her shiny golden hair and bright blue eyes. Renamed Eva, Milada is part of a system intent upon turning her into a "good" German citizen. The kind of place where she can be taught the evils of the Jews, the glory of Hitler, and the joys of being adopted into a real German family’s home. Based on events following the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, author Joan Wolf tells of the real Lebensborn center in Poland, the crimes it committed against an untold number of girls during WWII, and what it takes to stay true to your heritage.
Did you notice something? Read the summary again. That’s right. We’re dealing with a WWII children’s book that doesn’t focus primarily on Jewish children. Not that there’s anything wrong with more Holocaust novels, of course. They’re often quite stunning. Just the same, there are an awful lot of them out there. So much so, in fact, that when I picked up this book and looked at the cover I decided on the plot immediately. Something along the lines of, "Ah. Here is a book about a blond Jewish child who passes as Christian so that she won’t be sent to the concentration camps with her family." I was more than a little shocked when I sat down to read and found that my smug summary was way off base. In fact, my surprise didn’t end there. Again and again, Wolf was able to give me facts from the time period that I had never ever encountered before. These included the fact that German women were awarded the "Mother’s Cross" when they increased the number of children in their home. Who knew? Also, as someone who was more than a little peeved at how The Boy in the Striped Pajamas chose to ignore the fact that living outside a concentration camp meant dealing with a constant, pervasive, horrible smell, I appreciated that Wolf makes it practically the first thing Milada notices when she moves in with her new "family".
It’s very instructive to watch how Wolf uses names in this book. The only other person in Lebensborn that Milada knows is Ruzha, a sullen mean-spirited girl from her home village. After the scene where each girl is given a new name, Ruzha becomes Franziska. Right from the start the girl embraces her Nazi teachers and their philosophy. It is worth noting then that as an author, Wolf often refers to Milada by her old name (at first) but rarely does the same with Ruzha. That particular girl’s transformation is quick and complete. You get the feeling that when the war is done she will be happy to remain with the German family she has found, in spite of the continuing existence of her real parents. Of course, much of Ruzha’s back story is left unknown. We don’t know what kind of life or abuse she may have suffered in her own home. To be transported from a place where she was unhappy to a world where her teachers praise and seemingly love her is mighty significant. Though you may disagree with it, you understand where Ruzha is coming from.
Wolf is also very good at displaying the effectiveness of intense psychological brainwashing. When Milada says that, "it was hard to remember that I wasn’t a Nazi, that I didn’t want to be the Aryan ideal, that I hated Germany," you understand why she says this. The psychological damage inflicted on these girls must have been intense. Little wonder then that, as Wolf mentions in her Author’s Note, "Very little has been written in English about the Lebensborn centers that housed kidnapped children, part of which may be due to the fact that so few children were found after the war." What’s more, Wolf knows how to manipulate her reader so that we find ourselves in the same position as Milada. When she realizes with a shock that she can’t remember her old name, I challenge you to remember it yourself. It’s gone and as she wracks her memory, we wrack our own. Such a clever technique.
For the record, I also can’t help but note that I never saw where the novel was going. Once Milada was in the school I wondered if this would turn into a kind of child vs. the establishment type of story. I couldn’t imagine that that would be a good way to go, and indeed it could have been catastrophic to the novel. So while the sudden mention on page 100 that all the girls will now be adopted into new families shouldn’t be shocking, it truly is. Sometimes the most obvious turns of fate are the least expected.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)