Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
It is often said by historians that one country suffered disproportionately more than any other in World War II, and that country was Poland.
On Sunny Days We Sang is a powerful Holocaust biography about the family of author Jeanette Grunhaus de Gelman, Polish Jews who lived through one of the worst times in human history.
This is a very special book to us in more ways than one. First of all, it is a terrific history of a time and a people. It is written in a way that is both enlightening, educational, and truthful while also being more eloquent and captivating than most novels. In the same way that Abraham Lincoln's Path to Reelection in 1884 brilliantly takes you into America during the Civil War, this book brilliantly and boldly takes you into Poland during World War II.
After reading Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again (which took place at the exact same time in Romania) and Holocaust Memoirs: A Candle & a Promise (which also took place at the exact same time in Poland), we are able to notice many of overlapping and familiar elements like the death of Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski in 1935, the Black Shabbat and other such massacres, and the use of secret police or collaborators among the persecuted people. One of the most interesting examples of the latter are the “sanitation workers” in this book.
The presentation of this information is done so well! There's an added layer of real-life suspense and drama knowing that death or imprisonment could await any of the people we're following. It's not “dry” or apathetic like some biographies and history-based books we've read. You really find yourselves behind these individuals, hoping against all hope that they can make it out alive and in one piece.
It is so easy to think of these events the way that they're shown in documentaries and in movies like Schindler's List: in grainy black and white. However, that's not how people at the time saw things. Not only did they see these turbulent events in-person and in full-color, they felt it. They experienced it.
In this book, we get a glimpse of life before and after the war. We see the family, Jewish Poles, singing, dancing, meeting, and practicing their religious/cultural traditions. It feels so real and so... human. It's because it is real and it is human. These are real people who actually lived, and these are the things they experienced. One thing we loved was the brief mention that it had become traditional for parents to buy new clothes for their older children but not for their younger ones on a special occasion, an economical practice because the younger ones would get hand-me-downs. This is how family units operated. It's a sobering thought to think that those terrible times were times where families generally stuck together. There was a structure and normalcy to the family unit.
That makes it all the more sad and tragic to see all of that challenged and all but destroyed by the tragic events that sweep through the country. We see men who sacrifice their safety and their freedom to be taken to concentration camps just in the hope of being with their children. It's heartbreaking.
Loss and death are sadly to be expected during the course of this book. Even from its first few pages, you're already made aware that many of the people mentioned in this book have passed away. Despite this, you're still on edge, and these deaths still hit hard.
One powerful thing that we hope readers will pick up in this book is how subliminally and gradually the processes of hate and persecution grow and operate. Socio-political cults can grow into full-blown movements that lead to wars and millions of deaths. This book does an excellent job at chronicling the rise of antisemitism and the Nazism from multiple perspectives: from the top-down (as has often been described in histories) and from the ground-up—from the very people experiencing this hate and persecution. It is frightening how—like a weed—the Nazi-German influence creeps its way into the world of the Poles. It first starts with some antisemitic signs, then laws that restrict business with Jews, then the segregation of Jews to ghettos (which the author's family preferred to called “Jewish sectors”), then outright genocide.
Another thing this book does well is in chronicling how the Nazis weren't alone as a threat to the Jews. At different points, the Soviets had control of Poland (or parts of it), and showed similar distrust and persecution. At one point, the NKVD tells a member of the family that they can't be real Jews because the Germans killed all of the real Jews (implying that the Russians came to view the surviving Jews as potential spies or collaborators).
One of the terrifying real-life scenes that just grabbed our hearts was when thousands of Jews were rounded up into a building by Germans only to have grenades tossed in and bullets fired at them. We are given the perspective of a child who somehow seems to have survived this massacre, emerging from the pile of corpses.
One especially interesting figure we learned about in this book was Bernhard Falkenberg, a German who was contracted to manage several projects for the German war effort. He reminded us a lot of Oskar Schindler or Willy Foerster, and we were a bit ashamed to only now hear about him. Apparently, Falkenberg slowly and subtly used his position of importance to the Nazis to save as many Jewish lives as possible, knowing that the Nazi plan was to exterminate them. This book does a fantastic job at not only educating us about him, but also showing that he wasn't an angel. Rather, he was very human and rough around the edges. This should be inspiring because it shows that anyone can step up to help prevent injustice and to do the right thing. You don't need to be Superman, Goku, or the President of the United States, you can do your part just as you are.
As is so often said but so often ignored, weak men create hard times, and all that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. Jeanette's family proved to be examples to the rest of humanity on demonstrating strength in trying times.
We are so grateful to this Jeanette and her incredible, inspiring family for allowing us to have this glimpse into their amazing lives.
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