Written by Morris Gleitzman (Henry Holt and Company, 2010–previously published in Australia)
In the author’s note, Morris Gleitzman said he had read a book about Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jewish doctor and children’s author, who helped run an orphanage for Jewish children. In 1942, the Nazis offered Korczak his freedom, but he chose to die with the orphans. Inspired by this story, Gleitzman sought Holocaust-related diaries and survivor memories to write Once. I first heard about Korczak when visiting the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw’s Powazki district in 2008.
This is the story of a young Jewish boy, Felix, whose parents have put him in an orphanage for safe-keeping. He expects his parents to come for him until he begins to realize the Nazis are up to no good. He decides to go back to his home.
The good stuff
- The voice–Main character Felix Salinger thinks and sounds like a kid, but his voice is fresh and vibrant. Some examples: “You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and Adolf Hitler?” or “…I think he’d be a good doctor. Once, after he pulled the legs off a fly, he managed to stick a couple back on.” Felix doesn’t use Mama or Papa to refer to his parents. Instead, he says Mum and Dad.
- Characterization–Felix is naive and a storyteller. Perhaps both qualities save his life. He doesn’t realize at first what Hitler and the Nazis are doing to the Jews. Even when he witnesses a cold-blooded murder, all he says is, “Oh.” When Felix meets Zelda, he’s not prepared for her boldness. “Don’t you know anything?” is her constant refrain. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her that her parents are dead.
- Simplicity–Gleitzman doesn’t go into the horrific details of the Holocaust and he doesn’t have to. He uses no specifics of setting either. Once is a simple story with deep nuance.
- Relationship between Felix and Zelda–A beautiful bond grows between these two children with no parents and Gleitzman adds a little twist to make that bond even more poignant under the circumstances.
The not-so-good stuff
The only thing that irked me was use of the name Barney for the Janusz Korczak character. I would have expected something more Jewish Polish.
Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0!
Note: If you’re interested in children’s books about Janusz Korczak, consider these:
A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz Korczak and His Children by David A. Adler, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, Holiday House, 2002
Submitted to the Jewish Book Carnival