Monday, July 10, 2017

My Brother's Keeper by Rod Gragg, 2016

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Thirty captivating profiles of Christians who risked everything to rescue their Jewish neighbors from Nazi terror during the Holocaust. 

MY BROTHER'S KEEPER unfolds powerful stories of Christians from across denominations who gave everything they had to save the Jewish people from the evils of the Holocaust. This unlikely group of believers, later honored by the nation of Israel as "The Righteous Among the Nations," includes ordinary teenage girls, pastors, priests, a German army officer, a former Italian fascist, an international spy, and even a princess.
In one gripping profile after another, these extraordinary historical accounts offer stories of steadfast believers who together helped thousands of Jewish individuals and families to safety. Many of these everyday heroes perished alongside the very people they were trying to protect. There is no doubt that all of their stories showcase the best of humanity--even in the face of unthinkable evil.
(352 pages)

I asked to review My Brother's Keeper because it looked like a really great compilation of nonfictional stories from WWII, but once it actually showed up on my doorstep I continually put off cracking it open because I thought it would be too depressing (and also because it looked kind of boring).

It wasn't boring, though. Come to think of it, I've never read a book about the treatment of Jews during WWII that was boring–everything was just so horrific back then that even the most snooze-inducing historian couldn't dull the horrifying tales. As for my other concern, yes, My Brother's Keeper was definitely depressing. Its description of the systematic hunting down and wiping out of an entire race is horrifyingly detailed, and primary source quotes and images are used hauntingly throughout the book. Every chapter opens with a black and white image, occasionally of the featured person/family but often of German soldiers or real children who were murdered in concentration camps. In the beginning of the chapter there's a little bit of background on the featured figures, a detailed description of the historical context and the evils that they faced (including some truly horrific descriptions of German murder techniques), and then a detailed account of how they risked their lives to help the Jews and what happened to them afterward. I'd say that most of the featured people wound up surviving the war, though a large amount of them spent at least some time in a concentration camp. In one or two instances, the heroes–and their entire families–were murdered outright for their "crimes" under German law.

Honestly, it's pretty amazing to read about the people who risked everything to help save hundreds (sometimes thousands) of Jews from the Germans. Many heroes found it incomprehensible that the Jewish children were also being targeted, so they set up elaborate systems that rescued thousands of young innocents right out from under the Germans' grasp. It's amazing. But at the same time, I can't believe the depths of inhumanity that went on during the war. It's great that there were some heroes who rescued children, sure, but it's also horrifying to learn that 1.5 million kids died during the Holocaust. That's obscene. That's . . . I can't even find words for it. Monstrous fits, but it's not even enough. The actions of the people described in the book were amazing, incredibly brave, but they didn't even begin to conquer out the terrible evil of all the people who perpetrated the murder of innocents–or all of those who sat by and watched them do it. Gragg discusses the fact that many Christians throughout Europe allowed themselves to get swept up by the Germans, swearing their loyalty to the Third Reich and turning their backs on their Jewish neighbors, but he says that all of the people in My Brother's Keeper channeled their belief in God toward a conviction that they had to help the Jews in whatever way they could. I think that's amazing, but again–I only wish that more people, Christian or atheist or whatever, had stood up to the monstrosity of the Nazis.

But then I stop and wonder what I would have done in their shoes, and I'm afraid that I would have shut up and put my head down in order to save myself. And even if I worked up the courage to sacrifice myself, it's hard to decide whether it's worth saving others at the risk of having all of my loved ones murdered. It was an impossible time, an impossible situation. The Nazis were truly monsters in every sense of the word, and the noble secret actions of these thirty heroes (and of many more, I'm sure!) are even more incredible in contrast to the inhumanity surrounding them. I weep for all those they couldn't save, but I still celebrate every life they managed to save.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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