The Young Survivors

Written by Debra Barnes
Review by Jasmina Svenne

Even before the outbreak of World War II, the Laskowski children’s lives aren’t easy. Their parents are Polish Jews who have fled to France to escape persecution. When all the adults of their extended family are arrested after the German Occupation, it’s up to teenage Pierre to try to keep his siblings together or, failing that, to make difficult decisions to keep his brothers and twin sisters safe. Based on the true stories of the author’s family and other Holocaust survivors, this novel deals with some aspects of World War II that are rarely mentioned, like the role of Jewish-run orphanages, the Scout Movement and the Catholic church in rescuing endangered children.

There is, however, a flaw at the heart of the book, which is told from the perspective of three of the siblings. All three voices are identical, despite the fact that Georgette is only five when she begins her narrative, while Pierre and Samuel are both teenagers by the end of the book. There’s a tendency to state facts and emotions (“I was happy/sad/frightened”), which is what a child might write in a school essay, but not necessarily how they would experience events. There’s also a tendency to overuse exclamation marks, and frequent uses of “I” where “me” would be grammatically correct.

Some characters leap off the page – the children’s strong-willed Bubbe (grandmother); orphanage director’s daughter Michele, who is both spoilt and lonely, but discouraged by her parents from playing with the other children; and the permanently bickering Kohn brothers – but, unfortunately, these are all minor characters. The central narrators seem curiously flat by contrast. I can’t help feeling that the author’s journalistic background means that this novel would have worked better as a non-fiction book, compiling all the information and eyewitness testimony she has clearly amassed about a subject that deserves to be better known.