Holding on to an identity

Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf. Clarion Books, 2007. 208 pages.

On May 27, 1942, resistance fighters who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia attempted to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reichsprotector of the Nazi Germany Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the former Czechoslovakia. Heydrich, a particularly vicious advocate of racial purity and appointed to his post by Adolph Hitler, died on June 4 as a result of wounds received during the assassination attempt.

An enraged Hitler then ordered investigators to “wade through blood” until they uncovered the plot and found the assassins. Reprisals were also ordered. Accordingly, in the early morning hours of June 10, German soldiers surrounded the village of Lidice, which was regarded as anti-Nazi and friendly to partisans. Everyone in the village was rounded up; the men over the age of 16 were separated from the women and children. After the soldiers had promised the women and children that they would soon see their husbands, fathers, and brothers, they were taken away to a nearby village.

The men, 173 of them, were then shot out of hand at a nearby farm. Later, 19 more men from the village who were working in a mine were also shot. The women were sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck; twenty-three of the children were taken from their mothers for “Germanization;” the rest were eventually allowed to write a postcard to their families, and were then put aboard special buses and gassed.

Joan M. Wolf’s Someone Named Eva (ISBN 978-0547237664, $6.99), which is aimed at a middle-school audience, tells the story of Lidice through the eyes of a young Czech girl, Milada, whose life is spared because of her Aryan looks: blue eyes, blonde hair, and the correct facial features.

Someone Named Eva opens with Milada’s 11th birthday party. Here we are introduced to Terezie, Milada’s best friend, and to her mother and father, brother and sister, and Babichka, her beloved grandmother. We also meet Ruzha, one of Milada’s classmates, a lonely and bitter girl who will, like Milada, be taken away to the Lebensborn program.

A few weeks later, Milada and her family are wakened by soldiers pounding on their door. They are ordered to dress and leave the house. Babichka pulls Milada aside for a moment and givers her a garnet, star-shaped pin.

“She took it out of my hand and pinned it on the inside of my blouse, her hands trembling slightly. ‘You must keep this and remember,’ she whispered, bending close to my ear. ‘Remember who you are, Milada. Remember where you are from. Always.’”

Throughout the rest of her ordeal Milada carries this pin with her, usually hidden beneath her skirt, using it as a lodestone, a guide to the person she once was.

She and the other children are taken to a gymnasium in nearby Kladno, where they are divided again into different groups. Men with clipboards and white coats evaluate Milada and the other children. Several of these men finger Milada’s golden hair, look carefully at her eyes, measure the shape of her nose and forehead. Then she and Rusha are separated from the others and driven to another camp. As she enters the camp, Milada notices that the other girls, some of whom are not Czech, all have one feature in common: blonde hair.

Wolf, who interviewed several Lidice survivors of the Lebensborn program, now gives us a detailed account of what those who entered this program endured. The Nazis in command of the program give the children new names, German names, and they study German intensely for months. They are indoctrinated into Nazi ideas, taught German history, fed well, and undergo a rigorous exercise routine. Milada fights to hold onto her memory of her old self, her family, her way of life, but finds that each passing day strips away more and more of her former self. Only the garnet pin acts as a reminder of home and the girl she once was.

At the end of this training, Milada is adopted by a German family. The father of the family is the commandant of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. His wife and her daughter Elsbeth soon edge their way into Milada’s affections; she and Elsbeth take particular comfort in each other as the war comes ever closer. In describing the growth of their friendship and affection, Wolf does a fine job of showing us the ambiguities faced by Milada in the conflict between her desire to return home, to find her way back to her family, and her desire to be safe with Mutter and Elsbeth.

To say more here would be to reveal the ending of this fine book. Parents whose children read Someone Named Eva may want to read the book themselves and then discuss it (Wolf includes a brief history of Lidice at the end of the book that should help answer some questions). That discussion might focus not only on Nazism, but on the importance of our identity, our family, and our roots.

Someone Named Eva should also serve to remind us that the Nazis were not the only thugs of the twentieth century. Our young people remember Nazi atrocities because their grandfathers fought the Germans in World War II and because of the Holocaust. Too often, however, our young people, and even many adults, forget the other mass murderers of that bloodiest of centuries: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the lesser dictators who sent men, women, and children to early graves.

Someone Named Eva can help us to remember these butchered souls, all victims of centralized governments and collectivist ideologies. If we ever consign them to oblivion, if we gloss over the tyrannical deeds of the murderous bastards who ordered these deaths, we will find ourselves in this next century once again lurching from graveyard to graveyard, wondering all the while where we went wrong.

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