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Then (Once/Now/Then/After) by Morris Gleitzman

October 25, 2016

thenThis sequel picks up immediately from where ‘Once’ finished. Felix and Zelda jump off a train on its way to a Nazi death camp; their friend Chaya is killed in the process and the children bury her, leaving little 6 year-old Zelda with her short legs and wearing only slippers, less strength to keep up with Felix as he drags her up the hill and into the woods beyond, before a Nazi train, carrying Jews to camps, comes with machine guns on the roof and soldiers who would shoot at them. He also has to worry since Zelda has a bad habit of yelling obscenities at Nazis. Felix, who is ten, adores her as if she was his little sister, and does his best to save both their lives and to keep her quiet, telling her stories about finding kind homes in the wood. Instead, they find a pit in the ground with the tangled up bodies of children, some younger than Zelda. Zelda sobs loudly and the Nazi soldiers glare up the hill and start shooting.
For the rest of the book, they have encounters with various characters, including the son of the matron who ran the former orphanage and now lives in the woods, part of the Resistance. Felix, in his naiveté, is trying to find his parents, in order to warn them not to buy Jewish books because the Nazis don’t like them. The reader must accept Felix’s and Zelda’s naiveté to accept the premise of the book, which has several topsy-turvy events that defy the reader’s expectation. Throughout all their adventures, Felix compares their plight to what happens in a favorite book of his, but this isn’t fiction, it is their lives. The wife of a German soldier becomes their surrogate mother; her husband, a German soldier, becomes a deserter who hides in the hole in the barn floor that Felix had dug for Zelda to hide. The menacing man in the truck, obviously a Nazi sympathizer, is not–he hides Jews. Their adventures are impressive and frightening; the dangers are real as is the innocence of the children.

Often a sequel fails in satisfying a reader, because the first book was so good. It feels like nothing can measure up to it, but that is not the case here. I was happy to see that Gleitzman was able to recapture Felix as I remember him, allowing growth because of his experiences but still very much the sweet, innocent storytelling 10 year old boy he was in Once. Gleitzman has done this with Zelda, too, who remains the same annoyingly-endearing, smart mouth 6 year old girl of Once, constantly asking ‘Don’t you know anything?’ whenever someone states the obvious.

It must be a miracle that his specs never get broken despite the number of scrapes he is in.

From the author: Recently I did some winter travelling in Europe, and slowly noticed I was being stared at. Not all the time, so it clearly wasn’t fame. Just by some people in certain countries. Older men, mostly, and a few older women. In Poland and Holland and Germany and France. They weren’t friendly stares.

Naturally I wondered what was going on. I started checking my reflection in shop windows. I was pretty sure I didn’t look much like a hedge-fund operator, so what could explain the hostility?

Then, at Frankfurt airport, as I was being glared at by a young man with icy-blue hate-filled eyes, I realised what it might be. I was wearing mostly black clothes. In Melbourne, where I live, black clothes are thought to denote cultural discernment of the highest order, so naturally I wear them all the time. And, when I’m in a cold place, a black Fedora hat on my bald head.

Using a little trick we authors have developed, I looked at myself through the eyes of my disgruntled observers. Black shoes, black trousers, black coat, black scarf, broad-brimmed black hat.

Good grief, I thought. They think I’m Jewish.

I was shocked, but not because they were wrong. In fact they were a quarter right. One of my grandfathers was a Jew from Krakow and I embrace aspects of Jewish culture enthusiastically. Salt beef bagels, for example, and irony.

Nor was I shocked to discover that anti-semitism is still alive in Europe, because several times in the past I’d seen fresh Nazi graffiti in Poland and elsewhere.

What shocked me was how openly these people were expressing their feelings. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade reading about the Jewish experience in the Holocaust and trying to imagine the unimaginable. Suddenly, at Frankfurt airport, one facet of that terrible time became a little more real to me.

Years ago, when I decided to write a story about a Jewish child in the Holocaust for readers of eight and up, I had several reasons for doing so and I have to confess that at the time confronting anti-semitism in contemporary Europe wasn’t one of them.

I wanted to write a story about love and friendship, and how we humans are very good at both those things, even though a visitor to our planet might be excused for thinking that what we’re best at is anger, hatred and cruelty. I thought it would be interesting if the young characters doing the love and friendship in the story were surrounded by people doing the opposite.

Every day the media bombards us with countless images of humans being awful to each other. That’s the nature of news. But we also have stories, and stories have the power to redress the balance. Not by fudging the true nature of the world our young people will inherit – that would be a betrayal. By reminding us how, alongside the people doing the worst our species is capable of, we often find other people embodying the very best.

I became fascinated by the ways the non-Jewish communities of Europe responded to the persecution and murder of the Jews. Many people helped the Nazis, many others risked everything to help and hide Jewish fugitives. Most of the Jewish children who survived the Holocaust were hidden or rescued in some other way by people who often came from the same backgrounds as the killers.

I write for young people who’ve reached that time of life when we start the crucial work of creating our own moral landscapes. The time of life when we’re ready to ask ourselves questions like ‘What would I have done?’.

There’s a difficult balance here for a children’s author. My rule is that I don’t want to fudge, trivialize or evade how things were and are, but at the same time I don’t ever want to write a book that leaves young readers feeling worse about themselves and their world. A very difficult balance, which is why Once and Then took me years to write.

I was helped by Felix and Zelda’s armour-plated capacity for love, and by Felix’s creative optimism. And the structure of the story. I knew most of my young readers would come to the books knowing very little about what was happening in Europe in 1942, so I put Felix in the same position at the start of Once and made the first book a journey of discovery, seen entirely through Felix’s eyes.

As an author it feels indulgent to hope that stories can change the world, but of course deep in our hearts we hope just that. Even little changes. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed next time I’m at Frankfurt airport.

Quotations:

I had a plan for me and Zelda. Pretend to be someone else. Find new parents, be safe forever. Then the Nazis came. My name is Felix. This is my story.

“A little hope goes a long way.”

‘I don’t like Jews. I never have. It’s how I was brought up. But there are people I hate much more than Jews. Most of all I hate anyone who hurts children.’

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