Once, by Morris Gleitzman
“For all the children whose stories have never been told.”
~ Morris Gleitzman (Dedication in Once)
I’m not claiming Morris Gleitzman for New Zealand by including him here, but I will draw on our shared ANZAC history to mention his book, Once. I finally got around to reading it yesterday and enjoyed it. It’s extremely readable and worth discussing.
“Once I escaped from an underground hiding place by telling a story.” (p.90)
I think the words “Once I escaped…” pretty much sum up this book (especially if I could accurately reproduce the cursive hand-writing font they use to print the word Once at the beginning of each chapter). This book is about using story-telling as a strategy for surviving (for dealing with difficulty, for confronting fear; even for escaping danger). Its protagonist, Felix, escapes the pain of his life through the fairy tales he tells himself. He helps others escape their pain and suffering through those same stories. Once connects stories with life and hope. Given all the (at times, heated) discussion that has happened around HOW to represent the horrors of the Holocaust, I think Gleitzman has navigated the issue rather well in a book for children. His letter to the reader is essential paratext, I think, but his focus on the importance of imagination does not detract from the gravity of the topic.
I think this book would make for interesting discussion when read alongside some of the material Gleitzman refers us to in his letter. Consider such texts, for example, as those from:
Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942–1944. By Hana Volavkova (Editor)
Certainly, I was put in mind of the hopeful poem On a Sunny Evening (Anonymous, 1944), which was found on the wall of the Terezin Barracks which held 15,000 children aged 10-16 years (and of which, I believe, 100 survived; don’t quote me):
On A Sunny Evening On a purple, sun-shot evening Under wide-flowering chestnut trees Upon the threshold full of dust Yesterday, today, the days are all like these. Trees flower forth in beauty, Lively too their very wood all gnarled and old That I am half afraid to peer Into their crowns of green and gold.
The sun has made a veil of gold So lovely that my body aches. Above, the heavens shriek with blue Convinced I've smiled by some mistake. The world's abloom and seems to smile, I want to fly but where, how high? If in barbed wire, things can bloom Why couldn't l? I will not die!
“Children were neither just the mute and traumatized witnesses to this war, nor merely its innocent victims; the war invaded their imaginations and the war raged inside them.”
— Nicholas Stargardt in “Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis” https://www.hmh.org/ed_butterfly3.shtml
I was also put in mind of an essay by Andrea Levy about her book The Long Song, in which she explained her desire to write the victimhood out of her slave characters, without eliminating their suffering; to represent their strength, but also the lives they made for themselves out of a horrible situation. Hers was a novel for adults. How might her approach work in children’s literature, though?
What relationship does each character have with ‘story’, books, or storytelling?
How do books and stories move the plot along? (NB that they shape most scenes and a few settings)
How important is ‘the imagination’ to this story? When and why does ‘the imagination’ fail? How does a failure of the imagination affect the protagonist?
Is this a story of hope? (consider how the ending of each chapter connects to the beginning of the next; consider also the nature of the narrator)
Why tell a story of hope set in this time? Why tell a story of hopelessness?
Why choose this narrator?
What metaphors are used to describe the purpose and function of ‘story’? (see, for example, the author’s letter to the reader (copied below), in which he refers to the Polish doctor, Janusz Korczak, saying “His story sowed a seed in my imagination.” Another example in the same letter is when Gleitzman notes that he read many other stories to write this book and of those authors, he states that “Many of them died, but some of their stories survived.”) Is that what stories do (survive, when their authors/protagonists cannot)?
How does the title, Once, which is also the first word of every chapter, shape our interpretation of this text? Which storytelling traditions does it invite us to read Once in?
How are fiction and truth represented in Once? (for example, when Felix tells Zelda the truth about her parents – or when Barney tells Felix the likely truth about his own parents)
What are we to make of Gleitzman’s dedication (“for all the children whose stories have never been told”)?
Why include a letter of explanation to the reader at the end?
What role does history play in this tale? How are we invited to look at the Holocaust in this text? (through the eyes of a victim; a child and an orphan; a Jewish boy; a Pole)
What elements of the history of the Third Reich are included in this story (e.g. book burning, the gathering, removal, and killing of Jews, the Polish Resistance)? Why do these aspects of Polish history/ the history of the Third Reich help tell this story?
Post-script – Gleitzman’s Letter to the reader
This story came from my imagination, but it was inspired by real events.
From 1939 to 1945 the world was at war, and the leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, tried to destroy the Jewish people in Europe. His followers, the Nazis, and those who supported them, murdered six million Jews including one and a half million children. They also killed a lot of other people, many of whom offered shelter to the Jews. We call this time of killing the Holocaust.
My grandfather was a Jew from Krakow in Poland. He left there long before that time, but his extended family didn’t and most of them perished.
Ten years ago I read a book about Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jewish doctor and children’s author who devoted his life to caring for young people. Over many years he helped run an orphanage for two hundred Jewish children. In 1942, when the Nazis murdered these orphans, Janusz Korczak was offered his freedom but chose to die with the children rather than abandon them.
Janusz Korczak became my hero. His story sowed a seed in my imagination.
On the way to writing this story I read many other stories – diaries, letters, notes and memories of people who were young at the time of the Holocaust. Many of them died, but some of their stories survived, and you can find out where to read them by visiting my website or having a look at the Once readers’ notes on the Puffin site.
This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable.
Their stories are the real stories.
Ref: Morris Gleitzman (2005) Once. Puffin Books: Melbourne