Yellow Star is a biographical children's novel that is written in free verse. It depicts life through the eyes of a young Jewish girl whose family was forced into the Łódź Ghetto in 1939 during World War II.
The story revolves around the author's aunt (Syvia) who shared her childhood memories with Roy more than 50 years after the ghetto's liberation. The author added fictionalized dialogue, but did not alter the story.
The book covers Syvia's life from age 4 1/2 to 10 years old in the ghetto. Syvia, her older sister Dora, and her younger cousin Isaac were three of only twelve children who survived.
In 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and forced that nation's second-largest community of Jews, 270,000 strong, into one section of the city of Łódź, which they later walled off to form a ghetto. In 1941, thousands of Jews form other countries were also moved into the Łódź ghetto. They came from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Luxembourg.
Before the invasion, Syvia and her family lived in Łódź. After her father heard rumors that Germans were planning to invade, the family traveled by buggy to Warsaw. Unable to find housing or work, the family returned to Lodz.
When the Germans did invade, they forced Łódź-area Jews (including Syvia's family) to relocate into a ghetto - a segregated section of the city.
The book relates Syvia's explanations of what life in the ghetto was like: her friends, people around the ghetto, jobs, and her schedule. It shares how Syvia's family was forced to sell her doll, leaving her with rags and buttons as her playthings.
When the other Jewish children were sent to Chelmno, Syvia's family smuggled the children from cellar to cellar. The adults would provide a distraction so the soldiers attention would be focused elsewhere while children were smuggled from cellar to cellar. As Syvia's father said, "Many people worked together to save [the] children. We are blessed to have such good people around us."
From Syvia's perspective, she said, "This is not what it was like when I played with Hava and Itka. We had energy to have fun, but now that we are children of the cellar, we just lie around or sit propped against a wall and wait for the grown-ups to visit. We all know how to hide, to keep quiet so that the Nazis don't find us."
The book also many tragic events and the way people were treated:
- the average daily food ration per person was about 1,000 calories. The quality of food was very poor. Dirt, ground glass, and other particles were found in the flour, and the only food available was often rotten.
- people did not have any of their pets in the ghetto. They would have been killed for meat.
- in January 1942, the Nazis began deporting people from the Łódź ghetto. They ordered people onto trains, telling them they were needed to work elsewhere. This was a lie. The Nazis had planned their "Final Solution"...by [building] concentration camps, also called extermination camps.
- in September 1942, the Germans declared a curfew called the Gehsperre (ban on movement). Survivors of this brutal time called it the Sperre. The Sperre's main focus was on children under the age of ten and adults over sixty-five. Parents were reassured that their children were being taken to a better, safer place where they would have food and fresh air; and be watched while the parents are at work. Again, it was a lie. They had gone to the Chelmno extermination camp to die.
- to hide from the Nazis, children and their parents would lay in graves in cemeteries. When danger had passed, the little ones would emerge from behind gravestones and return to their families.
- there were 69 factories in the Łódź ghetto with more than 70,000 workers. Most of the factories produced textiles; and some built munitions.
- by mid-1944, all of the ghettos - except for Łódź - had been destroyed. The Nazis came to Łódź to ask for volunteers to help clean up cities in Germany that had been bombed. The Jews in Łódź were suspicious, but the Nazis made it seem like a legitimate request. So, volunteers lined up at the train station. Soldiers carefully checked their luggage, and apologized for the uncomfortable method of travel. Freight cars, they explained, were the only transportation not being used to fight in the war. By July 15, 1944, 7,175 "volunteers" had taken the trains and were taken to Chelmno extermination camp, where they were killed.
- from August 27-30, 1944, the Nazis ordered the Łódź ghetto to be emptied of people. Over 74,000 residents of Łódź were transported by freight trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where crematory ovens burned 24 hours a day. Approximately 1,200 Jews were left behind in the ghetto to clean it up.
When the people remaining at the Łódź ghetto were freed at the end of the war by the Russians, the Russian soldiers brought chocolate for the children. Many had never tasted chocolate before, so it was a welcome treat...in addition to being liberated and free.
This is a very sobering book to read since it is told from a child's perspective. The strength and courage these children had throughout their childhood is impressive...and unfathomable. What bravery these young ones - and their families as well - showed through such challenging times is a testament to their character. Yellow Star is definitely a book worth reading for this reason alone.