Poppy Seed Torte

Be a hero, this book tells us. Each one of us can do this by living our lives, however tough the times, and standing up to bullies. Anita Ron Schorr relates her childhood in 1930s – 40s Czechoslovakia to illustrate her message.

Family photos help to bring the story and characters to life. Anita lived in Brno, a large town with a castle and river. Her family was quite well off and played tennis; her mother cooked plum dumplings, while her father worked in a family fabrics business and her grandmother and aunt told stories of bygone days. Anita enjoyed handcrafts but thought she would like to be a doctor. She and her little brother, five years younger, loved playing the piano.

Life changed after the publication of the Nuremberg Laws. Jewish people in Germany were taunted and harmed by bullies with impunity. Anita’s father was drafted into the army, but she was told not to worry as ‘it couldn’t happen here.’ However a political campaign began and Anita’s family had to surrender their house to German officers, while Jewish children were suddenly not welcome in school. By threatening to reduce Prague to rubble, in bombing raids, Hitler gave the president no choice but to surrender Czechoslovakia to his troops. Aged eleven in 1941, Anita with her family was forced to live in a ghetto, finding that not all Jewish people, including older relatives, survived the upheaval. Worse was yet to come, including labour camps.

Kindness became extraordinary, such as when, aged fourteen, Anita was doing hard physical work and a camp guard who had been a professor shared his lunches with her. She fought back against Nazi oppression by surviving despite the odds, and was unable to speak of the times for many years. She now speaks in schools against the culture of bullying.

Anita mentions the UNRRA; this was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration which looked after displaced persons, but the initials are not explained and I thought the information should have been provided for young readers. I was surprised to see Wikipedia quoted as the author’s source on WWII. The architecture, history and fabric trade of Czechoslovakia also seemed a little weighty for children to absorb, though fine for older readers. Recipes such as poppy-seed torte are a great idea and make the book more interactive as well as showing us Czech culture.

Having recently read The Roses Underneath by CF Yetmen, a novel set in Germany just after the war ended, I would recommend that book to any who wish further to explore this period. Another memoir, harder to find, is A Horse In My Kitbag by Olga Pyne Clarke, of an Irish woman who ran a field kitchen during the Allied advance and after the war ended. ANITA’S PIANO as told to author Marion Stahl presents a sharp contrast between the two halves of a child’s life, with the tearing apart of her family, and reminds us of the need to stand up for others. Young adults and adults alike can learn a lot from this richly described memoir.

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