Kids Vs. Nazis: Resistance: Book 1

Posted by on May 5th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

written by Carla Jablonski, art by Leland Purvis; First Second; 128 pp., $16.99; Color, Paperback; ISBN: 978-1596432918

The cover of Resistance: Book 1 (of three) shows a child with a slingshot taking aim at a Nazi soldier. The Nazi’s face is out of the frame; only the emblematic uniform is clearly visible. It is his shadow, cast on an anonymous brick wall, that is centered in the image. Likewise, it is only the child’s fist, and his weapon, that appear on the front cover, but if you turn the book over, you see the kid’s other hand, drawing back the slingshot’s band, and his face, bearing an expression of grim determination.

It’s a nice image, but the resistance in the story is not so direct. The protagonists, the Tessier children, do not attack the Germans. Instead, they help a Jewish friend evade them: they hide him in a cave, they smuggle him to Paris to reunite with his family. And they serve as couriers for an unnamed underground group. No slingshots, in other words, but plenty of heroism nonetheless.

The relative absence of violence in the book — necessary, I think, for the young audience — is skillfully handled. Rather than presenting the horrors of the torture chambers and the concentration camps — which the children of Vichy may have heard of, but would likely know little about — the story exposes the general atmosphere of cruelty and fear that pervades the lives of those living under the collaborationist regime. The Nazis are shown forcefully rounding up their enemies, loading them onto cattle cars. There is a single summary execution. It is enough. It is the mere fact of the murder, its arbitrary nature — more than the scale of the killing — that is shown to be awful. The large number of those suffering similar fates is not addressed, but neither is it downplayed. The mass nature of the violence is instead allowed to remain as an unsettling possibility. It is through the portrayal of uncertainty, rather than that of atrocity, that the sense of terror is created.

By keeping the violence largely out of the frame, Resistance offers a chance to reflect on the ways hatred and fear can seep into the small interactions, the details, the texture of daily life. Suspicion and cruelty crowd out the opportunities for basic kindness. Silence becomes the main feature of many conversations, even family dinners, where no one dare discuss those things that are on every one’s mind. Children, meanwhile, taunt other children about friends who have disappeared.

The child’s perspective on these events, which Jablonski and Purvis capture so effectively, is at once naïve and refreshing. Marie, the youngest of the Tessier children, struggles to understand what is happening:

“Where did all the people go?” she asks her older brother, Paul.
“Away.”
“Like Mr. & Mrs. Levy?”
“Yes.”
“Because they are Jewish?”
“Yes.”
“Is it bad to be Jewish?”
Of course not.
“Then why –“
Paul, less impatient than frustrated, loses his temper: “I don’t know!”

A minute later, she changes tack: “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Marie asks.

An older girl tries to scare her: “I heard they drink the blood of little kids like you!

Marie knows better. She continues her inquiries, asking her friend Henri, the Jewish boy whom she’s helping to hide. He tries explaining: “Well, some people don’t eat certain foods,” he says. “And we go to synagogue instead of Church. Only we hardly ever went. Just a few times a year — on certain holidays.”
“Does that mean you don’t believe in God?” she asks.
“I’m not sure what I believe anymore,” he admits.
“Is that why your parents were arrested? Because Jewish people don’t believe in God?”
“Don’t be stupid.”

And she is being stupid. Marie thinks that if she knew more about Jews, she could understand why the Nazis hate them. But she’s looking in the wrong direction. She should be asking, What is wrong with the Nazis that they’re capable of such cruelty? Still, she’s right to be confused. Little Marie cannot understand anti-Semitism, not because she’s a child, and certainly not because she’s doesn’t understand Judaism, but rather because anti-Semitism doesn’t make any sense. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter whether she understands or not. Henri is her friend, and she wants to help him. She can see the unfairness of the Nazi policies, and she wants it to stop. There’s a kind of clarity there that the adult world seems committed to obscuring.

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