Mandel Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Houghton MifflinThe Island on Bird Street 
Uri Orlev
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984

Reviewed by:
Marti Matyska
Menominee Indian School District
Kenshena, Wisconsin


There is a 17th Century writing on a gravestone that reads: “All that man needs are these: love, work, and hope.” The novel The Island on Bird Street by Uri Orlev, and translated by Hillel Halkin, exemplifies this epitaph written so long ago. 

In the Introduction to the novel, the author encourages the reader to imagine an occupied city; he sets you up for a personal experience, and you learn that he once lived in such a place. So, when you finish the novel, you know you were reading fiction based on someone’s personal experience.

German soldiers have separated the main character, Alex, from his father. Alex is a young, Jewish boy whose mother has already been lost to the Holocaust. He promises to hide and wait for his father at 78 Bird Street in the evacuated Polish Ghetto. Days go by; his father does not come, and he comes to understand that he must make himself a safe home. Then Alex realizes that his house is like an island, and he begins his life as a modern day Robinson Crusoe. He even has a buddy like Robinson’s man Friday; only Alex’s friend is a white mouse named Snow. Alex does have human contact---he is able to sneak out, and there are many people hiding in this supposedly empty Ghetto. Unfortunately, some of the people bring danger. It is interesting to watch how the boy handles both the people and the danger. 

This young adult book, translated from Hebrew, keeps the reader in suspense because, of course, you want to know whether or not his father will return; but, secondarily, you what to know what Alex will do next to make his hide-out better. All this emphasis on plot makes the story line stronger than most other Holocaust readings. There is a killing in the story, which may present problems to some younger readers. The event is presented as a necessary death. It would, understandably, be difficult to write about the Holocaust without referring to violence.

The Island on Bird Street is a good novel about life. Alex has all he needs. He has love with Snow and outside friends; he has work in the intensive maintenance of his temporary home; and, of course, he has hope that his father will return.


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