Review: "A Holocaust Novel for Young Readers Today"
by Anna Smulowitz,
author/director of Terezin: Children of the Holocaust,
an NEA-endorsed play performed to wide acclaim throughout high schools
in the USA that is the true story of her mother's survival in the children's
concentration camp, Terezin.

We all know it is necessary for young generations to hear about the Holocaust. But how? In CEZANNE IS MISSING Frank McMillan has found a way to inform young people in a format that catches the reader off guard because one doesn't expect this greater story to unfold inside the other story. What's special and unique about it is that the author meets young people on their own ground.

One instantly trusts his very "now" 15 year old narrator right from the start. This wise-cracking, uptown, boy-crazy, punk rock-wired, bored, and very identifiable kindred spirit to many young readers gets pulled headlong into the subject of the Holocaust and its aftermath by an older woman who happens to be her neighbor and her art teacher -- and also a Holocaust survivor. One would never think these two lines would intersect: the very "now" hip teen and the distinguished survivor of the Holocaust. Just as one would never think what happened to six million ordinary people throughout Europe in the 1940's could ever come to pass. But Mr. McMillan has found a way to involve young readers and pulls this off remarkably.

His clever plotting situates the "everyman"/everykid narrator Lauren in the midst of dramatic events that involve the unknown life of her art teacher-neighbor, Mrs. Rosen, as a resistance fighter during the Warsaw Ghetto resistance. Infatuated with the woman's 15 year old grandson, Lauren is an innocent bystander who just happens to be present when art thieves burst in on them because they believe Rosen is the key to decoding an old diary. This secret journal, written long ago by Rosen's brother, describes a treasure trove of paintings by the masters hidden during World War II. Rosen's momentous decision to share her experience -- the wrenching, inspiring story of her brother and herself as teens fighting the Nazis but then captured by them -- is necessary for understanding the real meaning of the secret journal. Finally, Rosen's inevitable kidnapping sets the two young main characters in pursuit and changes their lives forever.

So on a marvelous double-track for young readers in the format of a thriller mystery set in New York City today with all the adventure and heroics that kids enjoy -- Mr. McMillan has found a way to involve readers by showing how the two young characters become the heroes of the day and outwit adults -- and at the same time have a chance to conquer their fears and stand up to evil and hatred. And win! But throughout this experience, unknowingly, unintentionally, they come across the overwhelming subject of the Holocaust, and they're not ready to hear it and yet realize nevertheless they need to be witness to it. And because of their respect for Holocaust survivor Mrs. Rosen, they fall into the past. They fall into it profoundly. And once they're there, they understand their connection to the generations, and their obligation, duty and responsibility to hear what they're not ready to hear, to bear witness to it, and then be able to retell it to their own children when the time comes.

Suddenly what seems like a separate story that has nothing to do with young characters' lives has everything to do with it. Underneath the level of relationships, one character grows and finds out who she is precisely in relation to the Holocaust, although she is neither Jewish nor has any family members whose lives have been affected in Europe. It's unusual to find a story with layers that one peels like an onion to get to the history and the true universal story that speaks to each of us at our very deepest, that tells us about ourselves at our lowest and at our best. The reader is shown in so many ways, even when reference is made to hate web sites on the Internet, how very much this most impossible of subjects still involves us all today and always. Mr. McMillan does this with storytelling at its most enthralling and its most searing, and he does so with intensity, urgency, and compassion.

While many young people know it's important for them to hear this message, they wouldn't necessarily go out seeking it. They wouldn't say: "Today I need to buy a book on the Holocaust and find out this information because I must tell my children one day." But if they kind of fall into this topic by getting pulled into the fiction, as in this book, something happens. It hits home with them. They wonder how they would be in the same situation. They wonder how this could ever happen. They wonder about the hatred and prejudice and fanaticism that they brush up against in their own schools, their own towns, or in the news when they learn of the bombing of churches and swastikas painted on temples. And they begin to recognize something about it. That it is not isolated and not something that has no bearing on their lives. That it is connected with an entire attitude that if allowed to go unchecked can wipe out whole peoples -- people who have names and faces and families and are like they are themselves. They see a connection. They make the connection. They are involved in the story in spite of themselves. Now they're in it, they're like the character in the book. They identify.

I know this because of the continual response from young people throughout the country when they see TEREZIN: CHILDREN OF THE HOLOCAUST, no matter where we are performing. The visual, alive experience of identifying with young actors from age 10 to 15 is so powerful for them because they're not offered this kind of drama about the Holocaust that involves them so personally and emotionally on their own age level. And I am always surprised and gratified and humbled by all the young audiences who tell me this repeatedly after seeing the play.

In the same way, these two kids in CEZANNE IS MISSING are bearing witness as the reader is. The readers gets to identify as a kid today, listening to this very difficult information, trying to comprehend it, trying to digest it, and seeing how hard it is for the girl who isn't a Jew and the boy who is a descendent to possibly fathom this: the girl-narrator apologizing for not being able to get this and the boy who says thank you for trying. This is what we're saying to the public. We know you don't understand this. We know this is overwhelming. But thank you for trying. And then they get it.

When you reach the last page and read the great surprise closing, it just hits you in the gut. You understand that the world did go on, and that there are survivors, and there now are three generations since that time, and that even though we go on, we can never forget. This books helps us with that. Frank McMillan has written a profoundly awakening book that should be read by young people everywhere. He has found another way to tell the story and it is brilliant. CEZANNE IS MISSING is deeply needed in our world today. I strongly recommend this book be on the recommended reading lists of schools and libraries everywhere.

Anna Smulowitz
Newburyport, Massachusetts