Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wordwings by Sydelle Pearl

It’s January 1941 and Rivke Rosenfeld, 12, is living in the small sanctuary of a synagogue within the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto with her younger sisters, Tsipoyre and Sorele. Both their parents and their Bubbie (grandmother) have died of typhus, and now they are cared for by their Zadye, their grandfather. 

Despite the cold, and secretly at night, while everyone is sleeping, Rivke is moved to begin recording what life for the Jews in the Ghetto is like at the hands of the Nazis. It is a risky thing to do, and she knows full well she could be killed on the spot if such a record were ever found. Yet, Rivke is propelled to take this risk after witnessing German soldiers cruelly shaving off Zayde’s beard with a knife, and then attacking other Jews in the street, including the man Rivke calls the Peddler of Wind.  Rivke begins keeping her diary in the margins of a book of Hans Christian Anderson stories given to her by Batya, the children’s librarian in the Ghetto, stories that Rivke loves.

One day, Rivke asks the Peddler of Wind what he carries in the sack he always has with him. He answers wind wishes, and just as she asks if he has any fairytale wind, there is a strong wind begins to blow. Scared, Sorele begins to cry, and Rivke starts telling a story of her own about a young Polish boy who loved to blow the Shofar on RoshHaShanah. By the end of the story, everyone is spellbound, and it is clear the Rivke, a lover of stories, has found her own voice as a storyteller.

The story, one of hope, becomes known among the Jews in the Ghetto as the “The Jewish Geese.”
Batya, who has already recruited Rivke to help with the secret children’s library, introduces her to Dr. Emanuel Ringelbaum. Feeling her story is too important to lose, he has Rivke write it down. Later, it
is made into a book for the library, with illustrations by Gela Seksztajn, an artist who works with and draws picture of the children in the Ghetto. Rivke learns that Dr. Ringelbaum is head of a secret project called the Warsaw Ghetto Archive, intended to be a collection of artifacts about what is happening in the Ghetto, and which will ultimately be buried for safe keeping until the war is over.

Portrait of a girl by Gela Seksztajn found in
the Ringelbaum Archive
Wordwings is one of those books that is going to stay with me for a long time because there is so much in it to to think about. One the one hand, Rivke’s story is a factual accounting of what life was like in the Warsaw Ghetto - the starvation, the disease, the fear, the inhuman treatment of Jews by the Nazis, but it is also about the importance of family, hope in the midst of despair, the secret kitchen at Nowolipki 68 serving food smugglers have brought in, underground resistance to Nazi oppressors, and the power that stories have to help get us through difficult times. Or, as Rivke says, “…if you let your heart listen to the stories, then their magic will bring a light to your eyes and energy to your step. And pretend bread is better than no bread at all.” (pg 110)

And the fact is that within the Ghetto, and as terrible as conditions were, a cultural life did thrive for the people who were forced to live there. That is made clear in Wordwings with the inclusion of Rivke’s storytelling, Batya’s library, and Dr. Ringelbaum’s Archive, both of which really existed.  

One of the things I liked is the way Pearl has so seamlessly combined fiction and reality. Those Rivke, her sisters and Zadye are fictional characters, they continually interact with people like Batya, Gela, Dr. Janusz Korczak who ran the Orphans Home, and Dr. Ringelbaum. When you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book, you will learn more about the persons included included in the novel and their fate.

Wordwings is written completely from Rivke’s point of view in the first person (after all, it is her diary), and her diary runs from 9 January 1941 to 9 May 1941. The ending may feel a bit abrupt, until you remember that the diary ends, not because of anything historical happening, but because Rivke has reached the end of the Hans Christian Anderson book, and it was time to put it into the Archive. 

I highly recommend Wordwings to anyone interested in the Holocaust, WWII, or simply historical fiction. It is a valuable addition to the literature of the Holocaust, and has been named a Notable Book for Older Readers by the 2018 Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
I wish to thank Sydelle Pearl and Guernica Editions for providing me with a review copy of this book.

You can learn more about the Warsaw Ghetto at the Jewish Virtual Library.

You can discover more about Dr. Ringelbaum and the archive by visiting the online Yad Vashem exhibit about it.

Besides Hans Christian Anderson, Yiddish storyteller I. L. Peretz is also mentioned, and you can find out more about him at the Jewish Virtual Library

I was sorry I didn’t pay more attention to the places Rivke mentions in Wordwings, but you may want to do that. If so, here is a useful street map of the Warsaw Ghetto:
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Warsaw, vol. 16, col. 347-348. 
(FYI: the Warsaw Ghetto existed from October 31, 1940 to September 21, 1942, the final day of deportations to Treblinka, and also Yom Kippur). 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Seized by the Sun: The Life and Disappearance of World War II Pilot Gertrude Tompkins by James W. Ure

It would seem that having been born in to a well-to-do New Jersey family, Gertrude Tompkins’ life should have been a happy one, free from care and stress. The third daughter of Vreeland and Laura Tompkins, right from the start, Gertrude stuttered just like her father. Vreeland dragged her to doctors throughout her childhood, trying all kinds of supposed cures for stuttering, and naturally, none worked except to make Gertrude miserable. School was especially difficult for her, and she made up excuses not to go whenever possible, finding solace in books and reading instead. 

After high school, Gertrude attended the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, where, though still feeling like an outsider, she found more acceptance than she had in her earlier school days. After graduating, Gertrude traveled abroad extensively, but returning home found herself feeling closed in and eventually moved into her own place in Greenwich Village, commuting to work in her father’s company in New Jersey everyday. 

During that time, Gertrude met Mike Kolendorski, a pilot in Eagle Squadron 71, and it was most likely Mike who introduced her to flying. After he left to fly for England, she began taking flying lessons, so when the United States entered WWII in 1941, and Gertrude learned that women pilots were needed to replace men now in service, she put in her application to become a part of the newly formed WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots).

It is speculated that Mike Kolendorski was the love of Gertrude’s life, but even her sister Elizabeth didn’t know for certain that this was true (Kolendorski was killed on a flying mission in 1941). Interviews with Gertrude’s fellow WASPs and friends yielded some information, and it was made very clear that she loved flying. 

At this point, the book not only explores Gertrude’s life in the WASPs, but also gives an in-depth history of how the WASPs began and it troubled existence. Gertrude was apparently a very private person, considering how little is known about her life. 

The book does do a great job of piecing together the life of Gertrude Tompkins. She apparently was a very private person, considering how little is known about her life, even by her sisters. It also does a great job giving a detailed account of the WASP and especially the poor treatment the women received from the men pilots and those in charge. There simply were no benefits for these courageous women who put their lives on the line in service to their country. They were forced to pay for everything they needed, while men were provided for, and they were also used to fly planes dragging a banner that was used for target practice with live ammunition and no health, medical, or death benefits if they are hurt or killed. Still, Gertrude and her fellow WASPs loved flying.

As the war began to turn in favor of the allies, and it looked like the end was coming, Ure speculates the Gertrude must have wondered what she was going to do afterwards. When a marriage proposal came from an old friend, Henry Silver, she reluctantly and unhappily accepted, mainly to please her father. Not long after, Gertrude disappeared shortly before taking off in a plane near Santa Monica Bay, California. Neither she nor her plane were ever found and what happened remains a mystery to this day.

I’ve read a number of fictional accounts of women who were WASPs during the war, (Flygirl, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Becoming Clementine) and I found that these fictional accounts about life as a female pilot corresponded really well with Ure’s factual information. I also thought he did a great job describing Gertrude’s life, though there was a lot of speculation wherever there were gaps. A number of searches for Gertrude have taken place, but to no avail and Ure theorizes on the possibilities of why nothing was ever found.

Do read Ure’s Afterword to discover how the book was put together. Additional back matter includes a list of Gertrude’s personal effects found in various footlockers and quarters, a Tribute to WASPs Killed in Service, detailed Notes, and an extensive Bibliography. 

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+