Once by Morris Gleitzman; Henry Holt, 2010, c2005.
Felix, the son of Jewish bookstore owners, is dropped off at a Polish Catholic orphanage when he is six-years-old. They explain to Felix that he must stay at the orphanage while they expand their book business. Nearly four years later, he is still waiting for his parents to return, and World War II is in full swing. One day, Felix sees strange, ominous men burning books in the courtyard of the orphanage and is afraid that these strangers are looking for his parents in order to burn their books. Determined to warn his parents, he escapes from the safety of the orphanage where he has been sheltered from the war and the Holocaust. On his journey, Felix is shot at by Nazis, finds out new owners have moved into his family home, and is called names and chased out of town. When he reaches the ghetto, where he thinks his parents have gone, he saves a young girl and experiences more Nazi cruelty. Shortly thereafter, he is befriended by Barney, a dentist, who takes Felix and some other children into hiding. Ultimately, the group is discovered and forced onto a train bound for the death camps.
What a riveting story! Told through the eyes of Felix, who happens to be a fabulous writer and teller of his own stories, readers see how being sheltered in an orphanage has led to Felix’s naiveté and ignorance about the war, the Holocaust, and the Nazi movement. He has been led to believe, even by the priest, that Adolf Hitler is a kind man. The way that Felix describes the unfolding events has a humorous side, even though they deal with a depressing subject. He is shocked when he sees Nazis killing innocent people “over books”! Every chapter begins with “Once”…as Felix describes something that has happened to him. The title of the book actually comes from a line that Barney utters: “Everyone deserves to have something good in their life at least once.” The author indicates in endnotes that Barney is a veiled reference to Janus Korczak, who actually helped run an orphanage for Jewish children for many years.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. Most accounts of the Holocaust are written through the eyes of an adult. It is refreshing to see the same events through the eyes of a child. I highly recommend this book for middle school, high school, and public libraries! Note* Once was previously published in 2005 in Australia. The cover art is stunning!