Review of the Day: The Cat With the Yellow Star - Coming of Age In Terezin
A couple of years ago, Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner collaborated together to bring the world a picture book by the name of “Brundibar”. Based on the opera that the Jewish children of the Terezin concentration camp had to sing, the book was filled to brimming with good intentions and sadly lacking in any and all factual information. It was more a labor of love than a book meant to enlighten children as to the significance of its content. When “Brundibar” came out, it felt as if it was reliant on a book that had not yet come to exist. Where oh where was the children’s work of non-fiction that would tell younger kids what Terezin was, why “Brundibar” was important, and what it all meant? Three years later, Holiday House publishes Ms. Susan Goldman Rubin’s, “The Cat With the Yellow Star” and a gap in children’s collections everywhere is filled. And quite frankly, no other book could have felt quite as satisfying as this.
The story of young Ela Stein begins on Kristallnacht in Sudetenland, after it was annexed to Germany. Ela was eight when that terrible night occurred, and she and her family soon ran away to Czechoslovakia. Then, in 1942, Ela was sent with her mother to Terezin from their home. A converted fortress, the camp was a place where Ela and the other children who lived with her in Room 28 would secretly study, learn art, and cast themselves in the opera Brundibar. In the show, Ela was cast as The Cat and the Nazi leaders of the ghetto decided that they would use the children’s show as an example to the Red Cross of how well they treated their Jewish prisoners. Of course, of the 10,632 children sent to Terezin, only 4,096 survived. Ela was one of those survivors and the book shows how she grew up, met her friends from that time period years later, and has participated in Brundibar productions ever since. The end of the book shows a magnificent series of shows performed by children and Ela’s presence at them over the years.
The title is a rare creation: A children’s book memoir under fifty pages. As with her other 2006 publication, “Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter”, Ms. Rubin is particularly good at writing factual biographies for younger readers. She knows that you can pen a book without growing overly reliant on chapters of fifty pages or more. As such, a lot has been left out of “The Cat With the Yellow Star”. The book makes the assumption that kids reading this will already be familiar with Hitler, the Holocaust, and The Final Solution. “The Cat” concentrates primarily on Ela’s tale, and explanations will not be forthcoming for those kids that don’t already have some of the basics of this story down. A person could learn so much from this book too. The fact that in 1945, “the Nazis turned Terezin over to the International Red Cross” as a way of liberating the prisoners amazed me. Ela’s mother even stayed on when her daughters left because she had been hired by a female Russian officer as a maid. Rubin carefully culls all the information she has been given, then keeps the book moving seamlessly from page to page. You may not be able to remember all the names of the girls as Ela befriended them, but you care for them just the same.
The level of documentation in terms of pictures, photographs, records, and images in this book is also astounding. Paintings created by the children of Room 28 are reproduced here and are sometimes able to shock because of what they leave you to figure out on your own. For example, there is a watercolor created by Ela’s friend Helga called, “Arrival In Terezin” that shows families walking past a guard into the camp. Look closely at the picture and you’ll see that everyone in the picture is smiling pleasantly, as if this were just a Sunday stroll in the park. Why would Helga present the people in this picture this way? Was it because she worried that the guards might see it and hurt her if they thought it was anti-Nazi propaganda? Was she just automatically making the smiles without thinking about it? Pictures of this sort raise all kinds of interesting questions suitable for debate amongst child readers. Of course, it would have been nice to be able to get a little more information from some of them. There’s a photography of the “special ghetto money” printed specifically in Terezin that shows an old man with a beard holding two stone tablets with Hebrew writing on them. The bills themselves even have small stars of David on them. Why would the Germans have taken this level of care in creating money for people they were just intending to kill anyway? Was this a part of the Nazi effort to fool the Red Cross into thinking that people were being taken care of? Maybe just a little more info here and there wouldn’t have been out of place.
Not that Ms. Rubin ever skimps on the quality source material. The Acknowledgments alone are worth the price of admission. Ms. Rubin’s Source Notes are of equal interest, to say nothing of the excellent list of Publications, Articles, Videos/DVDs, Sound Recordings, Interviews, and Internet Sites all clearly presented and beautifully aligned. If I’m going to get picky I might suggest that Ms. Rubin could have placed her four sentence Author’s Note at the beginning of the book (where it would have put everything to follow in context) rather than at the end, but that's neither here nor there.
All in all, this is a truly impressive piece of work. It pairs rather nicely with Kushner and Sendak’s, “Brundibar” (which only makes sense in conjunction WITH this book, to be frank) as well as the recent Jennifer Roy title, “Yellow Star”. “The Cat With the Yellow Star” really makes an effort, though, to show how life in a concentration camp wasn’t the be all and end all in Ela’s life. She made friends, left, created a life of her own, and is still speaking about what happened to this very day. This book is a testament to her strength, and it tells an important story to an audience that might otherwise never hear it. Certainly worth eyeing, at the very least.