Mika, a Jewish boy forced into the Warsaw Ghetto after the Nazi invasion of Poland, finds an escape in the creative world of puppets through his grandfather. He inherits his grandfather’s coat, complete with an intricate maze of pockets and hiding places, and begins to entertain friends and family in the direst conditions. This book is incredibly dark in places yet it is ultimately hopeful. The deprivations and suffering in the Ghetto are vividly described, but the book also focuses on the healing powers of the imagination and performing arts. Mika is the only survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto from his family, as he manages to avoid the clearances along with his cousin, with whom he also starts an incestuous relationship. Mika performs with his puppets for children inside the Ghetto and eventually becomes so well-known he is forced to perform for Wehrmacht soldiers, too. This gives him an opportunity to start smuggling orphans out of the Ghetto in his huge coat. Mika takes part in the Ghetto uprising of of 1943 and eventually escapes via a tunnel built by the Polish Resistance. He emigrates to New York and lives a quiet life until he sees his life story as a puppet play decades later, which turns out to be the eventual twist in the tale.
The novel is also the story of Max, a German Wehrmacht solider responsible for guarding the Ghetto. He is conflicted about the horrors he is forced to commit in the name of the Fatherland, and eventually helps Mika and his family to avoid the Ghetto clearances. He shows Mika some kindness, giving him extra rations after he performs for the soldiers, and starts to open up to him about his own family back in Nuremberg. The second half of the book focuses on Max’s deportation to a prisoner of war camp in Siberia, which turns out to be just as bad as any concentration camp constructed by the Nazis. It’s an isolated gulag in a frozen wasteland where the ex-soldiers and SS are forced to work themselves to death. There’s definitely an element of karma here. Max manages to escape the gulag and finally returns to his family in Germany twelve years after kissing his wife goodbye. Unsurprisingly, he suffers from crippling guilt, PTSD and depression. Like many survivors, he is a changed man and no longer knows how to relate to his wife and son. He finds solace in sharing his love of puppets with his granddaughter Mara, and eventually tells her Mika’s story. Thus the two halves of the book come together in the end where Max’s granddaughter, who puts on the puppet play in New York, meets Mika’s grandson Daniel. They share the two halves of their stories, of Holocaust survivor and Wehrmacht soldier, oppressed and oppressor.
I really enjoyed the fact that this book war far more uplifting than it first seemed. I was confused about what kind of audience Eva Weaver was going for, because the young protagonist Mika and the puppet storyline definitely felt very young adult, but some of the Holocaust descriptions in the book are incredibly visceral. Then again, I don’t think young people should be shielded from the darkest corners of human history. Remembering the Holocaust is vital to understanding the 20th Century and definitely helps young people to recognise the need to combat modern antisemitism and other prejudice. So I don’t think she should have sugar-coated it, it’s just worth noting for anyone interested in reading the book who doesn’t have strong nerves. The images may stay with you.
I also liked how the book also told Max’s story. It handles themes of collective and personal guilt very delicately and thought-provokingly. Max is certainly guilty to some extent. He could have done more to try to help those sick and dying in the Ghetto. The excuse “I was just following orders” was one often heard at the Nuremberg trials, and it nowhere near excuses the horrors of the Holocaust. Max was part of the Hitler Youth and enjoyed the initial stages of the Third Reich, swollen with national pride. However, Max is certainly not the incarnation of evil either. He loves his wife and son, and sees something of his son in Mika. He does his best to help Mika under the circumstances, and without Max’s help, Mika would almost certainly have perished in Treblinka or starved in the Ghetto. To this day, Germans often struggle with their recent past and how to deal with it appropriately, summed up in true German style with one extremely long word: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Are all Germans guilty? Were there ‘good’ soldiers? The mass deportations of Wehrmacht soldiers to the gulags after the Red Army ‘liberated’ Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War is an oft-forgotten facet of 20th Century history. Hundreds of thousands died. It’s not difficult to see why this episode of the immediate post-war period is often glossed over: when six million Jews died at ‘their’ hands, who wants to feel sorry for the Germans? Like anything in history, no story is ever black and white, and this novel feels very nuanced. We don’t have to forgive Max, and Max never forgives himself either. But human beings fought and suffered no matter who they were fighting and what they were fighting for.
Final highlight: I loved how Weaver interspersed a lot of German throughout the book. You never forget that the characters would not have been speaking English, though I was a little baffled about how the soldiers were communicating so effortlessly with the Ghetto inhabitants, as I doubt the Jewish captives would have been falling over themselves to learn German. It goes without saying that the Germans weren’t going to learn Polish either.
I was kind of grossed out by the incest episodes. I can understand why people turned to the most unconventional comforts in the most unimaginable conditions, but I am kind of confused as to why this was treated like the most natural thing in the world. Marrying your cousin wasn’t socially accepted in the 1940s just as it’s not socially accepted today. Mika doesn’t have a single second thought about starting a relationship with and losing his virginity to his. So there was a bit of background creepiness here.
I’m also deducting half a star for its overt sentimentality. Eva Weaver is a therapist as well as author, so feelings play a huge role here. I’m all for a bit of feelings, but at times the book felt ridiculously schmaltzy. The Prince puppet is bounced around as a ham-fisted symbol of hope and togetherness, and it changes hands about twenty times in the novel, dripping with heartfelt affectations each time. I was convinced the book must have been written by an American, but she’s actually German (though having lived in Britain for decades). The ending was also very easy to figure out after about halfway through the book.
Overall it was a light read. I finished it in three days and it was certainly thought-provoking. The plain prose was enjoyable and fast-paced. I would recommend for anyone interested in 20th Century history.