Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
Parallel Journeys was a book that I bought several years ago while attending the Belfer II Conference at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. At the time, I was in the process of trying to develop a syllabus for a Holocaust Literature elective course at my high school; and, after speaking with many Mandel Fellows, I decided to purchase certain books (at their recommendations) to review as possible inclusions for my course. As we know, time tends to be something precious and fleeting, and this particular book remained on my shelf as a "want to read." Eventually, I read Parallel Journeys, reviewed the book for the Mandel Fellowship Program, and now offer my perspective as a rural North Carolina high school teacher.
Parallel Journeys has been a wonderful addition to my Holocaust Literature course. The novel allows students to read about the Holocaust from the viewpoint of the perpetrators. But more importantly, the author intertwines basic occurrences of the Holocaust (and World War II) with the personal experiences of a Holocaust survivor, Helen Waterford, and Alfons Heck, a former Hitler Youth. Thus, if students read this book toward the end of my course, they will not only have the opportunity to review many important concepts and events of the Holocaust, but they will continue to view these events through the eyes of witnesses to Hitler's horrors.
The novel is easy to read and follow since each individual chapter (except Chapter Four which deals with both Heck and Waterford's experiences surrounding Kristallnacht) is devoted to only one person's experiences. For example, Chapter One focuses on Heck's childhood growing up in a Volksschule (German elementary school) where he learned he was fortunate to be one of Hitler's "Master Race." Subsequently, Chapter Two details Waterford's upbringing and the beginnings of her experiences with anti-Jewish legislation such as the Nuremberg Laws.
Author Eleanor Ayer masterfully intertwines quotes from both Waterford and Heck's own autobiographies so that their voices are heard. Ayer doesn't retell their stories; rather, she incorporates the events about which they speak around their own words, maintaining honesty and authenticity. She cites specific statistics, but only to emphasize the experiences of Waterford and Heck. This supports the USHMM recommendation to personalize statistics.
This text may be a type of "missing link" for my students. Like Heck, they too live in a very rural environment. Often they do not always understand why they believe in a certain idea. They just accept what parents and teachers say because they are told to. Heck says in the first words of Chapter One that he never thought of questioning what his teachers taught him. He was simply indoctrinated by SS teachers and Nazi Party members who ran the classrooms. In small town life, even in the 21st century, sometimes students are raised with prejudices they cannot explain. As a teacher, I attempt to explain how each individual must analyze his/her own beliefs for the presence of certain prejudices. But in Parallel Journeys, it is as if Heck shows students what I am trying to teach them: he simply falls in line with the majority. Heck's own words reflect the peril of actions such as when he says of himself and other German youth who were indoctrinated by Nazism: ". . .we are the other part of the Holocaust, the generation burdened with the responsibility of Auschwitz. That is our life sentence for having been the enthusiastic followers of Hitler" (204).
Students are then able to read about the consequences of actions such as those of Heck and other Hitler Youth in the plight of Waterford's journey through emigrating, hiding, entering ghettos, and the working conditions of every day camp life. She shares her struggles of giving up her daughter in order to "hide" her/protect her, as well as her feelings of loss when her husband, Siegfried, and other family members could not be located following the end of WW II. The fact that the chapters alternate between Waterford and Heck only magnifies the horrors that the victims of the Holocaust encountered at the hands of Nazis of all ages.
As the novel draws to a close, readers are faced with an Epilogue which explains more about Heck and Waterford's relationship with each other, describing how they met, how they decided to become a "team" when speaking to groups about the Holocaust, and ironically, the obstacles and prejudice Waterford had to deal with from other Jews because she chose to befriend a former Hitler Youth. In the Postscript, Ayer leaves us with Heck and Waterford's final statements to their readers. Heck shares his views of how simple prejudice and minor harassment, when allowed to grow and fester, can balloon into horrors like the Holocaust; and, that those who stand by and do not intervene become perpetrators as well. Waterford echoes his words: "Hatred and vengeance are the beginning of wars among countries. . .remember that hatred never brings satisfaction. . ." (228).
Heck and Waterford are both witnesses who speak for
their dead. I truly believe that students will "get this." Ayer's book is powerful from the first page: "It was a terrific time to be young in Germany. . ."(1)
to the final words quoted from Deuteronomy (also etched on the marble in the USHMM's Hall of Remembrance): "And you shall make them known to your children and your children's children" (228).