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Clara's War: One Girl's Story of Survival    by Clara Kramer & Stephen Glantz order for
Clara's War
by Clara Kramer
Order:  USA  Can
Ecco, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Clara's War is a true story about the survival of a small group of Polish Jews who lived in a small town in South Eastern Poland during World War II. Zolkiew had a population of about 5000 Jewish families in 1939 when the war began to affect Poland, and this town 'had a tradition of tolerance that dated back to Jan Sobieski, the legendary king of Poland, saviour of Europe, who had defeated the Turks in the Battle of Vienna' in the 16th century. As a child, Clara had many friends among the non-Jewish population, as did her family. She lived in a multi-family home with her parents, sister, grandparents, and several aunts and uncles. There was another aunt, uncle, and two small cousins living nearby. There was also a ghetto in Zolkiew, but we don't learn of its existence until after the troubles begin.

Clara's family was well-off, as her father ran an oil-press factory with two neighbors, Mr. Melman and Mr. Patrontasche. This factory was so important to the local economy that even as other Jewish families - including Clara's grandmother and the family of her aunt Rosa, who had fled from their home on the other side of Poland - were sent away to Siberia during the brief pact between Russia and Germany, Clara's family, the Melmans, and the Patrontasches, were somewhat protected. As Clara tells her story, though, we see how insidious the campaign against the Jewish people was in Zolkiew, as it was in all the other areas that Germany eventually occupied. First a few people were sent to Siberia, then when the Germans came, most of the Jews were sent into the ghetto to live, and then they started being sent away on trains, as well as being shot in the streets.

These three families had the foresight to dig a bunker out beneath the Melmans' house, where they hid for a few days while the Germans rampaged and killed many people. The bunker was so small at that point that there was just enough room for them to lie down or sit, all cramped together. They begin to make it larger, while Clara's father looks frantically for a way for them to leave the town or, later when that becomes totally impossible, for someone to hide them. When they have almost lost hope, Valentine Beck, the ne'er-do-well husband of their former maid, offers to watch over them as they hide in the bunker, now enlarged, but still dirty and cramped. The Becks move into the Melmans' house, and so begins their fearful life underground.

This is a book that is hard to read because of the graphic story of the inhumanity of one set of people to another, but it is also hard to put down. We care so much about Clara and her family, and about the others who are in danger on the outside and those sheltering in the bunker, also in danger, but with at least a chance to survive. Mr. Beck is an alcoholic and the marriage of the Becks is strained by his drinking as well as by the affairs he has with other women. Clara kept a diary during the terrible time they all lived in the bunker, and she has written a breathtaking story about her experiences and how they survived and lived to tell the tale. By the end of the war, the 5000 Jews in Zolkiew had been reduced to 50.

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