Lidice (German: Liditz) is a village in the Czech Republic just north-west of Prague. It is built on the site of a previous village of the same name which, as part of the Nazi created Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, was, as per orders directly from Heinrich Himmler, completely destroyed by German forces in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in the late spring of 1942. On June 10, 1942, all 192 men over 16 years of age from the village were murdered on the spot by the Germans in a much publicised atrocity. The rest of the population were sent to Nazi concentration camps where many women and nearly all the children were killed. - Wikipedia
There is so much history attached to Word War II that I couldn't tell you if I knew that or not. I sat and watch the whole World at War series with my dad back in 1973 so I must have heard about it. The fact is after a while the war just blurs into five years of wall-to-wall horror stories and atrocities with the odd act of heroism thrown in for good measure and it's hard to get emotional about it any more. At least 50 million people died in that war and since then we've heard many stories of entire villages being massacred in Africa and Cambodia, for example.
We have our own tragedies to mourn. Do we really need another book about World War II?
I had my doubts when I started to read this, not the author's fault I have to stress, but mine. I read the scene where the village's men are executed without batting an eye. Even the fact that the only witness is Jan (a ten-year-old boy) and one of the men is his father still left me dry-eyed. Then he returns home only to be captured by the Nazis where he sees his mother and elder sister rounded up with all the other women and shipped off to God knows where. This leaves him in charge of his little four-year-old sister, Lena.
It's hard to keep close to her though. Eventually they wind up in a children's home in Germany.
It isn't often he gets a chance to speak to Lena, for the girls and boys are kept apart most of the time. Weeks pass before he manages to find a moment when she is alone; when he tries to speak to her, he thinks she's changed. For one thing, she speaks German. When Jan talks to her in Czech, she screws up her face and tells him to speak properly.
"Only peasants speak the way you do."
Jan gazes at her wordless. It's not her fault; she doesn’t know what she's saying. Every day the women tell them lies like this, and she's only little. It's no surprise that she takes in and believes what they say to her.
"Our parents spoke this way," he reminds her.
Lena kicks a stone away. "Ich habe keine Eltern. Sie sind tod." [I have no parents. They are dead]
The blurb on the back of the book told me what to expect next. Soon his sister is removed too leaving him alone.
Now for the vast majority of kids his age that would have been pretty much the end of his story. All we would be left to find out was whether he survived the war or not. But I'm not an educational psychologist. Myant writes:
The men were killed, the women sent to Ravensbrück and some of the children were sent to Germany to be adopted. This raised questions for me as a psychologist. Quite apart from the appalling trauma of being torn from your family, what did it do to a child to have their identity stripped from them like that? Did they form bonds with their new family, how did they feel when reunited with what remained of their real family after the war, what did the people who were duped into adopting the children feel? The Search explores these issues in the story of Jan and Lena. – The Reading Agency
Virtually all the tales about the war we have are from the perspective of grown-ups with the obvious exception of The Diary of Anne Frank so I can see why this might have piqued her interest. It would never have struck me but this is what we need, the right writer to come in contact with the right material.
The book is written in the present tense, third person, so we go through this as Jan does without the benefit of hindsight. I think the present tense was a sensible choice but I would have liked, as with Anne Frank, to have a first person narrative – just a personal preference – but considering the fact there are two narrative threads she's made the sensible choice I think.
The first thread is Jan's story. A determined young boy, he decides not to sit tight and wait to see how things pan out, rather he resolves to escape from the children's home and try and locate his family. A bit of a tall order.
The second thread revolves around the Schefflers, Friedrich and Gisela, a German couple, and their grown-up son, Wilhelm, who is a soldier away at war. Having lost their own daughter they decide to adopt what they think is a German girl orphaned by the war. What they get is a little Czech girl who has been conditioned to speak German and think of herself as 'Helena'; the girl is, of course, Jan's sister, Lena.
She settles in quickly enough but they soon realise all is not right:
Upstairs, the little girl laughs. She's settling in now, though she's very quiet, and when she speaks, her words don't sound right. The accent's all wrong. When [Friedrich] mentions this to Gisela, saying he thought her language was very poor for a child of her age, Gisela frowned and shook her head. "Poor thing, what do you expect? She's lost both her parents."
"But she says so little. Perhaps she' retarded."
"Have you seen how she helps me round the house? She's smart all right, don’t you doubt it for a minute."
"No more buts, Friedrich. She has no parents, and she's from Hamburg, That's why she sounds so different."
People believe what they want to believe . . . or what they need to believe.
Now Jan may be, as I've just said, a determined little boy but he's not especially resourceful. Like Lena he's been forced to learn German but he speaks with a Czech accent, has a very limited vocabulary (enough to do what's required of him) and cannot read German; actually he struggles to read joined-up writing full stop. It’s just as well he makes friends with an older boy called Pawel because he simply isn't equipped to make his escape alone. And, yes, of course, they both escape. It wouldn't be much of a book if they didn't. They learn the address of the farm in Germany where Lena lives and set off to reclaim her. Inconveniently, they wind up near Pawel’s home in Poland instead, but at least there they get some adult assistance and get pointed in the right direction.
Things don't work out, the boys get separated and if it wasn't for Marek, a sympathetic Resistance leader, Jan's story would probably peter out there. But it doesn't and he ends up joining a small band hiding out in the woods. This keeps him relatively safe but doesn’t help him with his task. He bides his time and waits for an opportunity which eventually comes and he gets a final shove towards his goal.
In the meantime we get to learn a bit about the Schefflers and their son who has deserted and ends up living in a hole in the ground in their barn. It's easy to see all Germans as the bad guys and certainly Jan does or at least he would like to. The thing is he keeps getting glimpses of their humanity. When he is up the tree watching the executions in Lidice a young German sees him and helps him escape before he is discovered and during an ambush he comes face to face with another German who pleads for his life before Marek shoots him. And when he finally makes his way to the Schefflers, he ends up in the middle of a situation he could never have anticipated.
In the final chapter everyone's stories collide and rarely does anyone walk away unscathed from a collision. The scars they're all left with are not what any of them could have expected. So, yes, from a plot perspective, all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed but it's not a neat ending, not in that respect, and I was rather grateful for that because in the rest of the book the plot shows through a bit too much for my tastes. It's a little too neat; the writing is clean and professional, like a film script where the action needs a nudge forward and so things happen when they need to happen, even the unexpected bits.
Did I enjoy the book? Is this a book you're supposed to enjoy? It's a book that makes you think. The last chapter certainly makes you think. It made me think and I'm positive it will drag a tear or two out of some of you. This was a side of the war that I knew of but that was about it. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, Ian McEwan's Rose Blanche and the more recent The Boy in Striped Pyjamas this is a story worth telling. Although not marketed as a young adult novel I suspect this book is one that teenagers would get a lot from.
Having got to this point in the review I felt like I'd been nitpicking, dwelling on the negatives rather than the positives, so I contacted the publisher to see if I could ask Myant a few questions. Once you read these I'm sure you'll realise that there's a lot to recommend this book.
Both Schindler's List and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas have been criticised for presenting unrealistic, even sanitised, pictures of their chosen subjects. How important was it for you to present an accurate picture of Jan's journey? (Please feel free to outline your research for the book.)
It was very important. I started the novel when I was working for a PhD in creative writing at Glasgow University. The final thesis comprised a novel about the repercussions of the Holocaust on the lives of three women along with a 40,000 word critical essay about issues relating to writing about the Holocaust. One of the issues was that of representation of the Holocaust. In the essay I argue that there are essentially three critical responses to writing about the Holocaust - the first being that the Holocaust cannot and should not be represented, the second that testimonial accounts are acceptable and the third being that fictional responses are acceptable.
Some critics argue that it is all right for survivors to write fiction about the Holocaust but not for those who were not involved. I think that as the distance from WW2 increases and there are fewer people around who can write about it from personal experience, we will come to rely more on fictional accounts. I feel strongly that this is something we have to keep alive and I've read with dismay about research which showed that many young people are unaware of the Holocaust (a poll in 2005 suggested 60% of young people under the age of 35 were unaware). Part of my essay goes on to discuss my instinctive feeling that if I were to write about this topic I had to be as accurate as possible and this seems to be the general feeling of Holocaust specialists.
Some feel that inaccurate representations can be used to lend credence to Holocaust deniers (a lot of ire is directed at a TV series of the seventies called Holocaust which was erroneously set in a work camp which in the series was alleged to be a death camp). You mention two of the well known representations which have been criticised severely by some critics. Lanzmann, for example (the director of Shoah) took issue with Spielberg's representation of the gas chambers saying that 'I deeply believe that there are things which cannot and should not be represented.' I was quite critical of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in my thesis because of the inaccuracies in the text but now feel that I was perhaps a bit unfair as the text has stayed with me in a way that few do. But I was concerned about lots of things. There isn't space here to mention all of them but just to take one seemingly small thing: there is a mention of mud towards the end of The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas when Bruno takes off his shoes: 'At first it felt horrible putting his bare feet into so much mud; they sank down to his ankles and every time he lifted a foot it felt worse. But then he started to rather enjoy it (p. 204).' Many survivor accounts I read mention the mud at Auschwitz, one woman, an Italian Jew called Piera Sonnino, said of it:
It didn’t seem like earth and water: but something organic that had decomposed, putrefied flesh that had turned liquid. And at the same time, it had a presence of its own. As if death had given birth to monstrous, vermin-like form of life, treacherous and perfidious, which grabbed us by the ankles and kept us from moving quickly as we had been ordered.
I felt that Boyne's bland description was insulting to the perceptions of those who had been there. As you say, a sanitised account.
The research I did for the PhD novel was extremely helpful for The Search and gave me the broad background but in addition I read historical accounts which gave me details about Aryanisation programmes and the Lebensborn project. They gave me the details of how children were selected for these: the medical and psychological tests used (the latter of great interest to me as I work as a psychologist). I read about resistance groups in the occupied countries and how children were used in these. There's not a great deal written about Lidice but I read everything I could about it. I also visited the memorial site at Lidice which has photographic and film evidence of the destruction. Most movingly, it has interviews with some of the children (now in old age) who were sent to German families and the effect this had on them. Some talk about how they have no memory of being taken from their birth mothers but do have vivid memories of being brought back to Czechoslovakia and the wrench they felt leaving the people they had come to think of as their parents. They had lost the knowledge of Czech which they'd had and one man talked about how he felt he never caught up at school because of it. There were differences between siblings, between those who were old enough to have some memory of Lidice and those who were too young to remember it. I was pretty immersed in that time period while I wrote the book.
You must have considered at some point including a third plot thread talking about the trials of Jan's mother and sister. Why did you choose to reject it? I have to say towards the end I half-expected the book to end on a cliff-hanger and wondered if a sequel was coming.
Although I didn't consider a third plot thread about Jan's mother (in my mind, Maria is dead) The Search is based on the true story of the village of Lidice and no one knows for sure what happened to the children who weren't selected for Aryanisation but most agree they were likely to have been gassed at Chelmno), I have wondered about a sequel. This would be a novel from Jan's mother's point of view which follows her to Ravensbruck and then to the reunion with Jan and Lena and what happens to them then. I also wanted to write more about Pawel and his experience. I haven't ruled either of these possibilities out for the future.
Anne Frank's diary's narrative is, of course, in the first person. Although I agree that your choice of the present tense has its pluses I think I lot could have been gained by using a first person narrative to help us really get inside Jan's head. How do you feel about that?
This is a really interesting question. I didn't at any point consider using the first person voice for Jan and so I have to think retrospectively about this. It's pretty unusual for me not to consider all the options; my computer is full of various versions of things I've written with changes to tense, point of view etc. The novel I wrote for my PhD for example, went through seven or eight serious drafts (by that I mean substantial changes to structure, not just editing). In The Search I used the present tense to try to gain a sense of immediacy and I hope I've been successful in this. I also wanted to keep a certain distance emotionally. This is quite hard to explain. While researching for the PhD, I read a large number of accounts about the Holocaust. These included fictional and biographical accounts as well as historical ones. The Holocaust is obviously a highly emotive topic and there were books I read that had me sobbing for hours. That said though, it is the more measured ones, the ones that report calmly what happened, that have stayed with me. I'm thinking of works like Anne Frank's diary, Primo Levi's If This Is a Man and Charlotte Delbo's On Auschwitz. I think that at a subconscious level, I was afraid that if I wrote in the first person that I would become over emotional, perhaps even lapse into sentiment and I really wanted to avoid that. Maybe I didn't trust myself as a writer.
I'm always concerned when it comes to marketing a book that the cover attracts a certain demographic. I'm not sure for example that I would have picked up this book based solely on the cover. That said, I actually think this is a novel that a lot of young adults would appreciate because it's not too graphic although it is honest. Do you agree?
I like the cover! The Search was published first in Spain (as La Cancion de Jan) and then in Holland (as Zoeken Naar Lena). When Alma picked it up in the UK, they suggested staying with the Spanish cover and I was happy to go with that. I wouldn't have been too happy if they'd chosen the Dutch cover - I'm not at all sure about that one. I suppose my only quibble with this cover is that the boy seems to me to be rather small for a ten year old. I know exactly what you mean about book cover design though - my particular hate are those books for women which have a photograph of a headless young woman on them, often upside down, doing a handstand or a cartwheel or something. What on earth are the publishers trying to say? And as for lime green and neon pink covers with that curly font in relief...
I agree that the novel might appeal to young adults and this has been suggested to me by friends and colleagues who have read it. I hope that its honesty will appeal to a wide audience though.
Having carefully read through these answers I have to say that I have come to look at this book a little differently. That said I've not edited what I wrote before because that was my initial reaction and I can't change that. So what would I have done differently, maybe added in pages and pages of existential angst? I don't know.
Certainly my respect for historical fiction writers is growing.
Maureen Myant is a senior educational psychologist based in Glasgow. In 2004 she was awarded a New Writers’ Bursary by the Scottish Arts Council and she has completed her MLit in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. She is married with three grown-up children.
The Search is her first novel to appear in print however her short story 'Tea in Tashkent', one of a series of linked short stories set in the USSR appear in the print anthology Knuckle End: An Anthology of Emerging Scottish Literary Talent. You can read 'A Parting Gift', another story from the collection, here. At the moment she is working on a novel about a trip to the USSR in the late seventies by a British tour group.
The Search is published in the UK by Alma Books and retails at £12.99 which sounds like a lot but it is printed on good paper and it feels like a substantial volume in your hand.
 Last year a comprehensive BBC poll found that only 55 percent of Britons (and just 40 percent of those aged 18 - 35) had heard of Auschwitz, the death camp where one fifth of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust were murdered.
A new BBC poll reveals that 94 percent of respondents now say they have heard of Auschwitz, including 86 percent of those under 35.
This change is likely caused by:
(a) The comprehensive and generally accurate media coverage of the commemorations surrounding the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27.
(b) The widespread media coverage of the scandal around Prince Harry wearing Nazi regalia at a costume party.
(c) The BBC itself must take some credit after it broadcast in late January of its program "Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution," parts of which were watched by more than one-third of the UK population.
- Tom Gross, "Holocaust Memorial Day raises awareness among Britons" (AFP / Yahoo news, March 17, 2005)
 Piera Sonnino was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. She was later transferred to Bergen Belsen and Braunschweig. The sole survivor of a family of eight, she returned to Italy in 1950. She died in 1999.