“This much I know. My name is Daniel. I am fourteen. And I am Jewish. I am on a train with my mother, father, sister, and what looks like over a thousand other Jews from Frankfurt. We do not have any idea where we are going, only that the Germans no longer want Jews in Germany. My country.”
The book begins with Daniel sitting on a train, confused and afraid, blankly looking through his photo album. These are the early days of the Holocaust, and Daniel’s family has just been forced out of Germany. Daniel is later shipped from work camp to work camp, and his narrative is structured around similar moments – it seems that Daniel is always on a train, in increasingly painful circumstances, telling his story through pictures.
Matas’ approach is interesting, but doesn’t do justice to the subject matter. The constant references to photographs are necessary, as the book was written to complement an exhibit of photos at the new U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Ironically, this does not lead to vivid descriptions – as fourteen-year-old Zach says, “I wish he’d get his nose out of the photos and tell me what these people look like.” The narrative is weak and sketchy, offering no depth to Daniel’s character, or anyone’s else’s. The abrupt timeframe shifts may leave readers of any age confused.
Matas’ gift lies in her ability to accurately portray the senselessness of the Holocaust. She does not sugar-coat the details, yet the book never becomes too horrifying for young readers. Thirteen-year-old Robin says, “It was awful, but that’s what the war was probably like, for kids.”
Matas continues to emphasize that all people must maintain a basic level of respect for each other. Through the book, Daniel struggles to believe that most people are good at heart, and ultimately, this is what he comes to truly believe. However, readers looking for a young person’s gripping, realistic perspective on the Holocaust will do better with Number the Stars or In My Hands.