T4: A Novel
The title refers to the Nazi plan, hatched at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, to eliminate the disabled in the name of racial purity. While it was officially cancelled in 1941 in reaction to public unrest and church protest, the killings went on in a less centralized form in individual hospitals and institutions. LeZotte casts Paula Becker, 13 and deaf from a childhood illness, as her protagonist, who lives a relatively normal life in Germany with her family in the late 1930s. Then a priest comes to tell the Beckers that because of Aktion T4, the government may seize Paula and put her in an institution. He arranges to hide her with a retired teacher, but when the Nazis become suspicious, Paula is forced to move on to a church-run homeless shelter. An attempt to escape from the constant fear leads her to a forest hut inhabited by a Jewish family in hiding. Paula endangers everyone by returning to the shelter to try to persuade the priests to take the Jews in, as well.
I usually don’t care for novels in free verse, but this one grabbed me early on because I wasn’t very familiar with this lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust. LeZotte is deaf herself, which gives Paula’s condition a real ring of truth. That outweighs a couple of small negatives: the lean text prevents extensive character development, and one part of the denouement is rather pat. An author’s note provides references for further reading, and explains that the characters were inspired by real-life people. The large amount of white space on the pages and Paula’s compelling story should tempt reluctant readers, while the subject matter would make T4 an excellent discussion starter for a school unit on the Holocaust or disability studies.