What the Living Remember
Apprentice House (2020)
Reviewed by Tammy Ruggles for Reader Views (01/2021)
“What the Living Remember” by Nancy Gerber, is an unforgettable coming-of-age novella of historical fiction. Set against the backdrop of Hitler’s 1930s Germany, young German Jew Karl Walter Zimmer is just thirteen years old; a typical teenage boy trying to figure things out in life, like first love, and finding himself. He doesn’t quite understand what the red flags all around him signify, but he is aware of the growing anti-Semitism that surrounds him. His parents are at odds over the increasing acts and attitude of racism, and the state of things: His mother wants them to leave the country, but his father doesn’t want to.
If you like Young Adult works of fiction with psychological and social themes, this is the perfect book to read. Karl is bullied at school for being a “dirty Jew” even though he thinks of himself as more German than Jew. His physician father falls victim to the new race laws in the land. And this is only the beginning.
Gerber has masterfully crafted a deeply moving and impactful story of the psychology and relationship between victims and survivors of Hitler’s atrocities. The author’s use of first-person point of view creates an intimate feel to the narrative that unfolds in Karl’s life and those around him. Like the atmosphere of the apathy of the time, Gerber cleverly builds the dread and suspense little by little, like a boa constrictor slowly squeezing life away one breath at a time.
This author movingly conveys through Karl, the tragedy of those lost to the Nazis, and the pain of survivor’s guilt for those who escaped and lived. I appreciate how the author focuses literary attention on death in its many forms–not only physical–but social, cultural, financial, emotional, individual. The slow transfiguration of humanity itself is respectfully shown and serves as a mirror we can hold up to the world today.
For a fresh, intense story of life just prior to the Holocaust, read “What the Living Remember” by Nancy Gerber.