Bottom Line: Informative without being completely nightmarish, the story is a great introduction for children to the horrors of the Holocaust.
“Survive. At any cost.10 concentration camps.10 different places where you are starved, tortured, and worked mercilessly.It’s something no one could imagine surviving.But it is what Yanek Gruener has to face.As a Jewish boy in 1930s Poland, Yanek is at the mercy of the Nazis who have taken over. Everything he has, and everyone he loves, have been snatched brutally from him. And then Yanek himself is taken prisoner — his arm tattooed with the words PRISONER B-3087.He is forced from one nightmarish concentration camp to another, as World War II rages all around him. He encounters evil he could have never imagined, but also sees surprising glimpses of hope amid the horror. He just barely escapes death, only to confront it again seconds later.Can Yanek make it through the terror without losing his hope, his will — and, most of all, his sense of who he really is inside?”
Thoughts: The Nazi atrocities towards anyone they believed to be their inferiors is something that students must continue to learn and study if we hope to avoid something similar in the future. Yet, it is such a tricky subject to approach when children are younger. The need to protect a child’s innocence wars with the need to inform. Often this can result in a story that only hints at what happened, forcing children to infer the truth, if possible, or leaving the tougher questions for their teachers and parents to answer. Alan Gratz’s Prisoner B-3087 is one of the few novels that fully informs but does so without scarring or scaring its young readers.
Geared towards children through grade nine, Prisoner B-3087 is written in such a way that readers of all ages can appreciate Yanek’s story and learn varying lessons from it. For those older readers, including adults, the full horrors of Yanek’s experiences are difficult to believe and to stomach. Yet, for younger readers, they will be able to gloss over the more morbid details and focus on Yanek’s personal narrative about keeping his sense of identity and his will to survive. Each element of his story is important and vital for starting discussions, but it allows those discussions to be age-appropriate in a way few novels about the Holocaust are.
This is not to say that Yanek’s narrative is not without its sense of the macabre. No story about the Holocaust can be without discussions of the gas chambers, the chimneys, the starvation, the cattle cars, the humiliation, and the sense of isolation that the Nazis utilized so well. Yanek witnesses and experiences things no one person should ever have to see in his or her life time, and he does not hide those experiences. Yet, as If to ease the emotional turmoil of his story, it is Yanek’s profound sense of identity and his all-encompassing drive to survive upon which a reader focuses his attention. It is this desire to live which leaves a reader filled with hope rather than despair.
One grows up learning about the atrocities of various concentration camps – Birkenau, Bergin-Belsen, Dachau, Auschwitz, and too many more to name. The thought of someone surviving one of those locations is difficult to imagine, but to have survived living in ten different labor and death camps is unfathomable, which makes Yanek’s story so effective. If anyone has a complete understanding of the Nazi methodology and mindset, it would be someone who understood how to play their games and did so to survive almost unbeatable odds. Even though Mr. Gratz mentions that there is a fictional element behind his tale, Yanek’s story is still one of profound courage and strength of mind. The facts remain that Yanek Gruener survived not only the Krakow ghetto, he survived not one but two death marches, multiple journeys by overcrowded cattle car, labor camps, death camps, sadistic camp commandants, fellow prisoners, total starvation, and the mental and physical games the Nazis employed to further subjugate their prisoners. He not only survived but continues to share his story with others as a lesson in fortitude and human depravity. This is ultimately what makes Prisoner B-3087 so effective for readers of any age.