I recently finished reading Alan Gratz’s novel, Prisoner B-3087. It was recommended to me by my son, Cor. He’s recently become interested in the history of the Second World War, much like I was at his age. And when he told me about this book, it piqued my curiosity. The writing straddles some genre lines, containing elements of memoir, documentary, and historical fiction. The author, however, is clear on classifying it as a work of fiction, a novel. Even so, it’s a stark reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. And considering the recent rise in Antisemitism here in the United States, Prisoner B-3087 felt like a timely read. It also helped that the book was already downloaded to our family’s Kindle account.
Anyway, the story functions as a coming-of-age story in many ways. It follows a character named Yanek, who is just about to turn thirteen years old in Krakow, Poland, in the earliest days of Nazi Germany aggression. He experiences the forced migration of Polish Jews into the ghetto, followed by systematic deportation to work camps and death camps. In his early adolescence, he’s able to stave off the worst of the atrocities by hiding out in a pigeon coop… working family connections to get enough food to eat… and even observing his Bar Mitzvah in a clandestine basement ceremony, under the cover of darkness. But eventually, Yanek is captured, separated from his family, and deported.
Yanek finds himself trafficked through many of the most famous aspects of the Nazis’ “Final Solution:” Auschwitz… Birkenau… Bergen-Belsen… cattle cars… Josef Mengele… gas chambers and incinerators… He makes it through the war because he is relatively young and able-bodied. And because he’s lucky. Along the way, Yanek vacillates between single-minded, self-centered survivalism and others-oriented, future-focused hope in humanity. And this ended up being one of the most compelling parts of the story to me. He doesn’t really come to a final conclusion. The war runs its course and spits him out as one of the survivors. But he has no great moral to his story. He just lives to live. So, it’s up to us, as readers, to decide how we want to interpret this story. I appreciate it when stories do this.
Prisoner B-3087 reads quickly and compellingly. Even though it’s targeted towards Young Adults, it’s a worthwhile book for many audiences. I appreciated the opportunity to go back to that period in history. I noticed highly relevant themes for our times, even in a narrative now 80 years old. And I found myself praying that we would never experience such a horrible Holocaust again.