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By Jerry Spinelli

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By Jerry Spinelli
Thorndike Press: Large Print (2004)
ISBN: 0-7862-6146-3
Genre: Young Adult, Holocaust Literature

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 19, 2004

Milkweed is a disjointed, deranged, emotionally taxing, and thoroughly engrossing story. Set in Warsaw, Poland, the story opens on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the city, and it focuses on the life of Stopthief. A street urchin, Stopthief doesn't know his real name, or where he comes from. He steals what he wants or needs. As he runs away, people often yell "Stop Thief!" He has heard these two words so often that he thinks that it is his name. The only thing that Stopthief has that is really his own is a small yellow stone that he wears around his neck.

From the very beginning, Stopthief seems to be a bit unbalanced, a mental state that fits in nicely in a world that is rapidly descending into insanity. Stopthief's life takes a major turn when he is befriended by Uri, another street urchin. Uri is intelligent. He never steals more than he needs, and he is well aware that the advance of the Nazis bodes ill for the Jews of Warsaw. Uri assumes that Stopthief is Jewish, but no one ever really knows for sure. To give him a small mantle of protection, Uri transforms Stopthief into Misha Pilsudki, an orphan gypsy. Stopthief readily assumes the identity of Misha, and it is in this guise that he befriends Janina, a young Jewish girl.

When Janina and her family are forced into the Warsaw ghetto, Misha steals food for them and sneaks it into the ghetto. He also steals food for Doctor Korczak and a group of orphans that he is caring for. Sneaking into the ghetto (and back out again) gets harder and harder as a brick wall is built around the ghetto. When Misha and his fellow street urchins are rounded up by the Nazi's, they pay little head to his call that he is a gypsy and they force him into the ghetto with the rest. Unlike most of the prisoners in the ghetto, the street urchins are not 'official' residents. This means that they do not have the requisite arm bands, or official papers, being found without these items can result in immediate death. In the Warsaw Ghetto, death hovered like a thick cloying fog. If the Nazis did not kill you; starvation, disease, or despair would. For Misha, however, living in the ghetto was more of game than anything else. Could he find a way out to steal food, could he get back in, could he stay alive, or would he be caught and hung on a lamppost like many of his fellow smugglers were? Mostly, however, Misha lived to protect Janina.

The story follows Misha (Stopthief) from 1939, through his incarceration in the ghetto, and the aftermath of the war. Some of the characters introduced in this story survive the war, many more, however, die, either in the ghetto or after they are transported "East" to the concentration camps. For those that do survive, their innocence is forever shattered, both by what they had to endure and the roles they assumed in order to survive.

Written by Jerry Spinelli, Milkweed was written for young adult readers, age nine and older. It is a disturbing book, and rightly so. As Uri so eloquently states, the ghetto is, "Where the damned live." ( Pg. 96.). There is also a measure of violence in this book, but it pales in comparison to the actual level of violence that was inflicted upon the residents of the Ghetto. Nonetheless it will give the reader a concrete sense of what life was like for the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Milkweed is an important addition to the body of Holocaust literature for young adults, and it introduces readers to the horrors of the holocaust in a way that 'happy' books, like Anne Frank's Diary, never can. This is an excellent book for use in classrooms as a jumping off point for discussions on the Holocaust. I highly recommend this book for mature readers of any age, particularly middle school age and above.

Note: Doctor Janusz Korczak was a real individual. Although known as Dr. Korczak, his real name was Henryk Goldszmit. Even before the onset of World War II, Doctor Korczak protected and care for a number of destitute and orphaned children (both Catholic and Jewish). When the Nazis ordered his Jewish charges into the Warsaw Ghetto, he went with them, despite having been offered sanctuary by several gentile friends. When 'his' children, who numbered around 200, where sent "East" for relocation, he made the choice to voluntarily go with them. He was murdered, along with all of 'his' children, upon their arrival at the Treblinka Death Camp in 1942.

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