A chilling and thought-provoking thriller about a Polish orphan's subversion of Nazi ideals
When Peter’s parents are killed, he is sent to an orphanage in Warsaw. Then German soldiers take him away to be measured and assessed. They decide that Peter is racially valuable. He is Volksdeutscher: of German blood. With his blond hair, blue eyes, and acceptably proportioned head, he looks just like the boy on the Hitler-Jugend poster. Someone important will want to adopt Peter. They do.
Professor Kaltenbach is very pleased to welcome such a fine Aryan specimen to his household. People will be envious. But Peter is not quite the specimen they think. He is forming his own ideas about what he is seeing, what he is told. Peter doesn’t want to be a Nazi, and so he is going to take a very dangerous risk. The most dangerous risk he could possibly choose to take in Berlin in 1943.
When the opportunity arises, I love sitting down and finishing a book in one sitting. This book I had to put down and come back to the next day. This is no reflection on the story - in fact it is the opposite. Reading stories about war, especially the second world war which was my first real exposure to the cruelties of humanity, can be pretty emotional. Auslander was read with a box of tissues by my side.
This wasn't because of what happened to Peter. He was one of the lucky ones, living a life of privilege. He has enough food and clothes. He isn't forced into manual labour. He is so much safer than most people of his origin. There are some harrowing events for Peter, times when he is at risk not always through a fault of his own. (Some of them are his fault: what he does is morally right, but for the Nazis he was misbehaving). It is the events which Peter doesn't experience which affected me emotionally.
Knowing what happened to the children who were sent to the other room when he underwent the selection process (including head measurements - there is no such thing as a perfect head!), how refugees and the poor were treated by the Nazis throughout the book makes for grim reading. The depth of Nazi influence on life horrified me. I knew they were patriotic to Hitler, but including him in their prayers before they went to bad had me shocked. The words they use, how they manipulated people with their propaganda - I just couldn't believe it. I didn't realise it was like that.
The depths of courage in some of the people Peter meets is astounding. Normal looking Germans who outwardly support the Nazi cause happily defy the Nazis by taking care of those the Nazis despise. Peter could have had a 'normal' life if he ignored what was happening in the world. He didn't. He couldn't - the Nazi ideals didn't make sense to him, he's very intelligent and has a lot of compassion in his heart.
This is a brilliant book - it conveys the horror of the Nazi regime, the bravery of those who risked their lives to oppose the regime, and what the world was like outside of England. I feel this is beneficial to children studying the second world war, and also just as a general way to get information across in a fun way. It's better than a textbook, with the reader sitting gripped at the end of each chapter, wanting to know whether Peter survives and what punishment awaits him.