In silence Marta scrutinised every inch of the emerald silk. In silence she held it up and shook and shimmered it.
‘How about that?’ she said eventually. ‘You can sew. Quite well too. I should know. I trained in all the very best places.’
She snapped her fingers for the blouse next. Rabbit-woman was so stiff with fear her hands could barely uncurl from their cloth. She noticed her terrible mistake with the sleeves at exactly the same moment Marta did.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Rabbit panicked. ‘I know … the sleeves … the wrong way round … I can put them right .. I won’t do it again, I swear. Please let me stay.’
Marta’s voice was low and dangerous. ‘I told you how it it was … only room for one of you. Isn’t that right, schoolgirl?’
(The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington. P22.)
Birchwood. Birkenau. How can such a terrible place have such a gentle name?
Ella will do what it takes to survive. Work, keep working, or your name gets on a List. Keep food to yourself. Make it clear to other Stripeys that you won’t be picked on. Keep your head down in front of the guards.
At the age of 14, Ella is picked off the streets and taken to a labour prison camp. The only reason she isn’t killed straight out is her height. She survives longer because of her ability to sew. The commandant’s wife sets up a dress room, so that the guard’s wives can dress in the latest fashions, and Ella’s dream is to own a dress shop. Her identity was stripped of her on arrival – her clothes were taken away, and she was given a number to use in place of a name – but the dress room may be a place where she can keep a small part of her identity.
Except there are other girls, other women, with their own ideas about survival.
There’s Rose, beautiful, delicate Rose, who thinks she can keep her own ideology. Who would be crushed in a second without Ella. There’s Marta, who looks out for herself, and only herself. Carla, the prison guard, who thinks enemies of the people must be annihilated … but takes a liking to Ella.
The one thing they have in common is a desperate desire to survive.
A sensitive and brilliantly-written look at the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a difficult area in fiction. It is an area of history which needs to be told, and needs introducing from a young age, but it is also an area of history where the truth needs to be respected above all else. Lucy Adlington has achieved this brilliantly. In every page I sensed that she respected the historical accounts most of all. Her characters walked through, but did not intrude upon, the facts.
I am always adamant that adults can read YA, and I stick to that. A text is a text. What differs is the perspective we bring to it. When reading about historical atrocities, it is worth bearing in mind that my perspective on a novel, as a 20-something woman, differs to that of the target audience. For the young readers, it may be the first time they have heard of the holocaust, or, more likely by this age-range, the first time they have heard much detail. I want to highlight this because I can’t review the novel from that viewpoint. For what it’s worth, I thought the novel never shied from the truth, but did not seek to alarm. It conveyed horror with subtlety. Characters cried over items which reminded them of dead relatives. Chimneys smoked in the distance. Terrible things happen, but the story ends with a happy twist. On a note of hope.
The story focuses on labour within the camp, an area which is often strangely lacking from Holocaust fiction. It conveys the horrific precision with which the Nazis executed their plans. It is also set roughly during the period leading up to liberation, in which the Nazis tried to kill as many prisoners as possible, even as opposing armies were marching towards the camps.
As a teenager, my philosophical questions used to be about the role of Germans within the camps. Were you bad if you were forced to act? Carla’s character illustrates this scenario well – a person with a terrible ideology, who commits terrible crimes. Capable of doing good, Carla is still rightly accountable for the things she has done during the war. These discussions are difficult for young people to get their heads around, and having characters to think about as they work through scenarios helps them to understand this is about real people. About crimes which were really committed.
Within the terrible setting, Rose and Ella are beautiful. Like the rose garden within the camp, (so aptly named…) it is impossible to imagine how they belong in such a setting. Rose, or Ella, and by extention any of the prisoners.
It was never going to be easy, reading about the Holocaust, but this is one of the best fictional books I have read on the subject. It respects the subject, and encourages its readers to counter hate with kindness, and by never seeing the world as them and us. Beautifully written.