Vienna, 1938. Two boys, one Jewish, one not, fend for themselves after their parents are taken away by the Nazis. Emil and Karl, best friends, are brave and loyal in a world of persecution and cruelty. The Holocaust has recently been rediscovered by children's authors as a new generation of young people, growing up at an ever greater distance from the reality, risks losing a sense of its horror. But Yankev Glatshteyn's Emil and Karl is an exceptional novel, not just for its raw and compassionate portrayal of what was suffered by the Jews in Austria, but for its historical accuracy. Written in 1940 in Yiddish, this heart-wrenching story of two nine-year-old friends caught up in the earliest tremors of anti-Semitic hatred in Vienna is all the more shocking because its author had no idea of what was still to come. Despite the casual violence done to their families – Karl's parents were socialists and Emil is Jewish - the boys find moments of kindness, courage and hope along their painful journey.
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Born in Lublin, Poland, Yankev Glatshteyn (1896-1971) was a major American Yiddish poet, novelist, and essayist. Emil and Karl is his only work for young readers.From Booklist:
*Starred Review* Emil and Karl may be "one of the first books about the Holocaust for any age and in any language." So says Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Yiddish Literature and Holocaust Studies at Rutgers University, who has translated the book into English for the first time. The novel, written for children, was published in Yiddish in New York, appearing in February 1940. Its author, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who had written two adult novels, was part of a dynamic Yiddish-speaking community in New York. On a visit home to Poland in 1934, he witnessed growing discrimination against Jews, and he wanted American Jewish children to know about it. Now, long after, translator Shandler fills in what was happening when the book was first published. World War II had begun in 1939, but the U.S. was not yet part of it; Germany had invaded Austria; Jews were viciously persecuted and deported to concentration camps. But even Glatshteyn could not foresee the death camps and genocide that were coming. Why has his novel never been translated before? Beyond the amazing publication history, it's much more than a dutiful read. It's a clear, powerful novel that will bring today's readers very close to what it was like to be a child under Nazi occupation.
Told in the third-person from the alternating viewpoints of two friends in Vienna-Emil, who is Jewish, and Karl, who is not-the story begins with the classic nightmare scenario. Karl watches the Nazis drag his mother away; they punch him in the stomach and warn him that they will be back for him. He remembers when his Socialist father was shot dead. Karl tries to find shelter with his Jewish school friend, Emil, but after Nazis shoot Emil's father, the two boys are left on their own. They find kindness and shelter with a neighbor, with a brave member of the Underground, and even with a police supervisor; but they also find betrayal and vicious cruelty. They witness the destruction of Jewish stores, and, while being taunted by mobs, they are forced to scrub the city pavements with their hands. In an unforgettable ending, the two friends crowd onto trains, and they are separated. Will they be transported to a safe country or to concentration camps?
The fast-moving prose is stark and immediate. Glatshteyn was, of course, writing about what was happening to children in his time; his story was not historical fiction then. At times, the story reads like an adventure, but the harsh reality is always there, neither sensational nor sentimental. The translation, 65 years after the novel's original publication, is nothing short of haunting.
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