Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Girl in the Green Sweater
by Krystyna Chiger

Genre: Memoir
Publisher, Year: Macmillan, 2009
Flags: Adult themes
Rating: A, or Great Read
Premise:  Kystyna Chiger was just a child when Nazi Germany occupied her home town. Through the courage of her parents, she and her family find a way to evade capture and endure until the end of the war in the city’s sewers. An incredible survival story.

There are so many good books that deal with World War II, that describe the unspeakable cruelty and then bring to light the unimaginable courage and will to live in the face of that cruelty. And there is an endless amount of these stories. It can be difficult to be reminded of what a devastating a time it was. And it takes me off guard--every time--that such things occurred, that it actually happened, that there was a time and a place where people, millions of people . . . so many people . . . were subjected to such inhumanity, where only a fraction of those people actually survived. To think about the collection of stories that would exist if all of them could tell us of the struggle to their last moments, if they could speak beyond the grave.

It’s that thought that haunts me when I read a memoir. I’m sorry to say it, but this makes me a reluctant reader. Thank goodness for book club, or I might never have had the stomach to read this book. I’m so glad I did. This story is such a testament to the human spirit and to the bond of a family’s love. I was so moved and inspired by the Chiger family.

Krystyna was just your average little girl. She loved to play with her friends, to be outside, to spend time with her family. And when her little brother, Pawel, was born, the two became inseparable. But it wasn’t long before trouble began to brew. War was on the way, and after a difficult Russian occupation, Nazi Germany made things worse. Krystyna watched, from a child’s perspective, as the life her parents and grandparents had built was slowly pilfered away. They took everything. Soon it became apparent that living conditions would become increasingly worse, until they were all gone--until there were no Jews left. But Ignacy Chiger would not accept defeat, so when the final liquidation came, he was ready, and he took his family into the sewer, with others who fled, to find a way to outlast the war.

I think there are few of us who can really imagine the horrors that so many suffered. To read all of those fears dictated by a child--it was excruciating. I could only keep imagining my own daughter, and what it would have been like to have her childhood taken from her in such a vicious way, and I as her mother unable to do anything about it but try to protect her. One thing I feel I did not understand fully about the Holocaust before this book was exactly how the Nazis would capture Jews and kill them or send them away. Krystyna recalls the paralyzing fear of the “actions,” which was the word that described when the Nazis would show up, unannounced, and just pick up Jews, willy nilly. You either evaded through right place, right time or you could sometimes bribe your way out. For this reason, Krystyna rarely ever left her family’s living quarters, and often her father would actually hide her and her brother in a small space all day, just in case one of these actions commenced while he was away. She describes one rare moment when she was outside with her cousin, and when they heard the familiar commotion, they ran. Krystyna was fast enough; her cousin was not. Later, she looked out the window to see her grandmother and cousin together on the back of a truck, headed for who knows where. And she never saw them again. This is just one of many experiences from her story that have stayed with me.

Along with Krystyna, I felt that boundless helplessness, and yet, her family could not lose hope. They kept fighting for each other and for their lives. They resisted and resisted. And surprisingly, even after the war, they resisted some more. The emotional stamina that must claim is unfathomable to me. And I found myself thinking that if I had been in their position, I don’t know if I could have had the same strength.

It was the love they shared, the family and the friends they came to consider family, that sustained them in the long hours, the impossible conditions, the vermin, the hunger and sickness, the constant fear of discovery. And yet, they continued on, with incredible resilience. They always looked forward to the future, undaunted. Even though the conditions were beyond inhuman, they found ways to entertain each other with little plays, to engage in meaningful conversation, to try to learn new things, even while living in a nightmare.

As I came to the end of each chapter, I found myself wondering how it could possibly get worse, and yet it continued. Each harrowing tale followed after another, which made this story quite engrossing. And even though I knew from the outset that Krystyna and her family would survive whole, I still found myself unable to put the book down before I knew what had happened to her, so that I could imagine her, warm in a clean bed, surrounded by loved ones, freed from her sewer prison.

Krystyna Chiger’s story is one of the most memorable I have ever read and perhaps ever will. (Dare I say it?) This book fulfilled its purpose in that it illustrated the war and its terrible consequences. But I would also say this story affected me further than that. It spoke to me in a way that is hard to describe. I learned something about Krystyna, but I also learned something about myself.

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