Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
Had her mother not left her with the important words of faith, "As long as there is life, there is hope," Ruth Minsky Sender may not have lived to enjoy a family of her own and share her poignant memories of the Holocaust with others. But this legacy played an integral role in Ruth's will to fight against the odds of survival in Nazi-dominated Poland in 1939 and the years of turmoil that would follow in The Cage.
In the town of Lodz, Poland, the beginning of World War II initiates the war against the Jews. Rifkele (the main character) sadly learns the ugliness of prejudice as her family is betrayed by their German neighbors who were once close friends. Soon "Riva," her mother and brothers are robbed of their valuables, thrown out of their home, and forced into the "cage." Life in the Lodz ghetto surrounded by barbed wire is one of hunger, disease, and bitter cold winters without warmth. Begging for food, studying books in secrecy, and forced labor make up the daily routine in this cage.
"I hear Mama's agonizing scream, and the wagon disappears from sight" (38). It is 1942, and yet another ghetto raid leaves families separated from their loved ones as Jews, scared and trembling, are ordered onto wagons by cold and commanding Nazi policemen. In this split second, 16-year-old Riva is transformed from an adolescent girl into a mother to her three younger siblings, Moishele, Motele, and Laibele.
Riva, her brothers, and their Jewish friends struggle for some sense of normalcy and dignity in the ghetto. They are determined to stay alive and hold on to memories of Pesach feasts, happy stories from school, and times when life was not so cruel. They live in constant terror of being caught by the Nazis and separated.
Ruth Minsky Sender's autobiographical memoir successfully grabs the attention of its readers, and her literary style suits the intended young adolescent audience well. Nothing in the plot is too graphic or explicit for teenagers studying the Holocaust. I would recommend this book for any student in grades 6-12 who wants some examples of the hardships that Jews faced in the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and labor camps.
The Cage clearly reminds its adolescent readers that the past must never be forgotten, and that intolerance and discrimination are harmful and must be replaced by cultural understanding and the promotion of personal differences. However, there are many lapses in the time settings of this book, and because the plot moves quickly, it leaves the author's day-to-day description of events undeveloped in places. The reader is aware of the struggles and feelings that the characters face, but may not be completely enveloped by the tragedy, as happens when reading some longer, more detailed Holocaust memoirs intended for adult readers.
In Part Two of this book, Riva escapes death when she is deported to Mittelsteine after spending only one week in Auschwitz. In Mittelsteine she is miraculously saved from a life-threatening illness by a compassionate Nazi commandant who claimed she "was sure [the Nazis] killed all [her] emotions, that all [she] can feel is hunger, all [she] can think of is bread" (234). These incidents were not typical Holocaust experiences, and seem almost benign. Students should be advised and directed to read other memoirs so they are exposed to various Holocaust testimonies from several survivors' viewpoints.
Although not as detailed as some other personal accounts, I like the book because it helps the reader see the systematic breakdown of social values and the gradual elimination of Jewish rights during the Holocaust years. Readers also learn the value of different forms of passive resistance such as quiet dignity and poetry writing, two methods Riva used for courage and hope.
What is particularly impressive and heart wrenching about this book is how such a young girl has the relentless mental strength, wisdom, and physical stamina to stay alive despite the daily struggle to hide and survive for six years. By sharing her personal experiences with adolescent readers, Sender successfully gets them thinking about the devastating results of hate and prejudice. The Cage is a sentimental and inspiring memoir that young readers won't want to put down.
The Cage is Ruth Minsky Sender's first book. Its sequel, To Life, continues her story through her liberation, reuniting with her surviving family members, and emigration to America.