Pastel Orphans

Written by Gemma Liviero

In 1931, in Berlin, five-year-old Henrik lives idyllically with his middle-class parents, Karolin and Emmett. He plays with his newborn sister, Greta. However, their living conditions gradually deteriorate. Emmett loses his job and becomes sick and bedridden. There is less food on their table, and their housemaid is released. Henrik is confused by these changes as well as other incidents, which he questions incessantly. Weird yellow stars appear on shops, and their windows are smashed by rioters. Henrik is called a “Jew” in school and, following a fight, is expelled. Henrik finally learns that while Emmett is Jewish, Karolin is Catholic. Their friends are forced from their homes to “temporary placements.” By 1939, Karolin, distressed, flees using forged papers, taking Henrik and Greta to her sister’s farm in Poland and leaving Emmett behind. Germany invades Poland, and little blonde-and-blue-eyed Greta is taken away by the Nazis. When Karolin tries to interfere, an officer whips her, and she falls unconscious. Young Henrik, witnessing the abduction, vows to find and bring his sister back.

Gemma Liviero has set this story during Hitler’s Generalplan Ost. While the historic details of that plan, where “Aryan-looking” children were abducted and “Germanized,” are known, Liviero has chosen a unique way of presenting the narrative. Since it was the children who suffered the most, the account is aptly told through the first-person viewpoints of three children. Through them, we not only learn about their pain and suffering, from the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but also the anguish and grief of the grown-ups. At times the descriptions of the brutality are too appalling to make this novel suitable for young readers. The futility of racial intolerance, hate, and war are vividly brought to life, particularly by the attention-grabbing ending. Recommended.