Prompt: Letter – Character’s development and central message.
Book: Then by Morris Gleitzman, historical and realistic fiction
This is a letter written from Felix’s perspective, the main character of Gleitzman’s Once, Then, Now, After and Soon series. It’s written to Zelda, whom Felix grew a bond with during the first two books, Once and Then. In this letter, Felix is eighty years old since he was eighty years old in Now.
*WARNING: SPOILER ALERT*
It’s been seventy years and I still haven’t forgotten the image of our kin, piled, bleeding, unmoving, dead.
You were crying at that time, and I couldn’t blame you. They were children, some younger than you and others older than me. They were like us, Jewish orphans trying to escape the wrath of the Nazis. But their fate ended in such a gruesome way, the picture of them has still not left my mind.
The Nazis. We used to think that they were after us only because they hated the Jewish books. Oh, how I wish I had that ignorance and oblivion now. I think we both began to realise the truth about the Nazis after seeing what we could’ve ended up as: lifeless bodies, shot and thrown in a bundle like they were nothing but rags.
A couple hundred dollars and a bottle of vodka. Remember that’s how much a Jewish person cost during the war? Imagine where we would have been if we had continued eating Mr. Krol’s turnips; somewhere in his bale of hay, unconscious and heading towards a fate similar to those in the piles of the dead. You were right in wondering why the Nazis didn’t understand that anyone, whether they were Jewish or Nazi, had a life that was worth infinite times more than a couple hundred dollars and a bottle of vodka.
Once, you made me promise that I would never leave you, and that we would find new parents together.
And then a ray of hope beamed through the dark clouds of despair. Finally, an adult who would take us in and not secretly trade us for a bounty. Remember when Genia said “I don’t like Jews. I never have. It’s how I was brought up.” (Gleitzman, pg. 45)? I never truly believed her, because of the gentleness she had when she bathed us, fed us, and provided us new hope for a new future. From thence, you and I became Wilhelm and Violetta, Polish kids who hated Jewish people. When we strode through town, proudly bearing our Polish identities, I know we both saw how much hatred the Polish community bore towards the Jewish. “Filthy vermins” (Gleitzman, pg. 132), they called the Jewish. “No dogs or Jews” (Gleitzman, pg. 67), people would nail at their doorway. I didn’t want to imagine what happened if I walked into town being Felix, not Wilhelm.
But being Wilhelm didn’t help us from suffering the consequences of being Felix. “Why are Nazi monsters so mean and horrible?” (Gleitzman, pg. 100), you once asked after Leopold was shot. Genia and I didn’t reply. What could we say, the Nazis were born like this? But I can’t, because that would be mean and horrible towards the Nazis.
Remember when I snuck out that night to hunt for rabbits and came home with a fish? I had originally grabbed hold of a rabbit, but looking into it’s big, dark eyes and feeling the “veins in its throat throbbing” (Gleitzman, pg. 111), I couldn’t bring down the knife without thinking about the rabbit’s own life, how it could live the peaceful life that we’ve always dreamed of if I didn’t kill it. I remember the kid, Dov, pointing a gun at the Nazi’s head, my breath caught in my throat. How could Dov kill a Nazi, when I couldn’t even kill a rabbit for food?
“I want Leopold’s friend [Dov] to teach me how to do it,” You had murmured, “How to shoot a Nazi.” (Gleitzman, pg. 121). Back then, I didn’t know how to fix this hatred between you and your parents. You kept throwing away your locket with the picture of your Nazi parents. Genia said that you were trying to forget about your parents, and that we had to help you do that. But she never understood, did she? “Kids like us don’t ever forget our real parents. Not ever.” (Gleitzman, pg. 83).
That was when I realised that we would never find new parents like this, with your hatred towards the Nazi interfering.
I realised that night that you would never be safe while I was around. Or so I thought. I thought asking Amon to protect you would keep the danger away while I was gone. I thought that preparing to leave you in the middle of the night after knowing that you acknowledged your Nazi parents would help. I thought that leaving you when you went to buy me a birthday present was going to relieve the danger off your shoulders. I was wrong. You never needed help. Even when you were just barely six, you understood loyalty and friendship better than any other adult could. You understood the pains of being Jewish more than I did. You understood the reality of war more than anyone did.
Then you broke your own promise.
I remember praying really hard that any second you would “come up behind me and give me a hug and you would tell me off for having smudgy glasses and not being able to see clearly” (Gleitzman, pg. 173). I remember seeing Mr. Krol first, the old man limp in the wind, slightly bumping the post. Then the breeze turned you and Genia around, and your faces stared at me, haunting me for the rest of my life. The faces that took care of me when I was sick. The faces that supported me through the war. The faces that kept me sane when all was failing. The faces that was my family. You were still dressed with the coat that you came back to get, Genia still in her usual clothes. The breeze had blown the hair out of your face, and I wished it hadn’t. Your eyes were closed, like you were sleeping peacefully. Your body was slack, lost of the energy that supplied me with hope. And the rope… the rope… the rope around your neck…
I’m sorry, Zelda. But after that, I lost the sanity that you had so carefully nourished. Dov and I strapped bombs on ourselves, murdering two Hitler Youth and disguised ourselves as part of the Hitler Youth. I remember striding in the Hitler Youth home, my eyes hard and empty. Dov and I didn’t say anything. There was nothing left to say.
I was so lost in pain and grief, Zelda, that I nearly forgot the times when you gave me hope. I nearly forgot that hope has the power to surpass all pain. I nearly forgot that leaving you wouldn’t help you; it would only hurt both of us. I nearly forgot about you.
But you didn’t forget about me, even when you were in heaven. You saved me from pulling the trigger to the grenade. You reminded me of the past Felix that couldn’t even bring a knife down on a rabbit. You saved me from drowning in the seas of pain and grief. You saved me from believing that the world was going to end because you were gone. You gave me the answer that violence was not the answer to suffering; violence would only worsen suffering. You let me realise that the suffering in war could only be cured through forgiveness, compassion, and the ability to let go. You reminded me that I was the only evidence of you, and that I shouldn’t be causing more suffering than there already was. You reminded me of what a wonderful future I could have if I didn’t pull the trigger. You reminded me that I had to keep your promise, that I would never leave you. You reminded me that you actually never broke your own promise, because you were always there, in my mind. You have taught me never to give up even when the sky is falling and the world is crumbling. You saved me from ending up like our kin, piled, bleeding, unmoving, dead. How? The golden locket with the drawing of me and you brought back my sanity, the one that you died getting for me.
Now I am all alone, living a perfect life that seems altogether empty without you.
Looking back, I don’t think I could’ve survived without you, Zelda. You were the beacon of hope in the mists of suffering. You helped me transform from an ignorant boy to what I am now, an old man learning to let go of your death. Ironic, isn’t it? Our story is so similar to the plot of World War Two, now that I research on it. The world was so oblivious of death and suffering, but after the war, it almost seems like it matured and learned it’s lesson after the war; that suffering can’t be solved with more violence. I hope the future generations don’t make the same mistake as we did.
But it’s not easy learning from your mistakes, isn’t it? The current generation is not listening to your teachings. Followers of Islam, namely a syndicate called Islamic State based on Syria, have been spreading terror around the world, much like the Nazis. Recently, they’ve murdered a hundred and thirty people in Paris, capital of France. The world was shellshocked from the news, for never had the Middle East terrorists reached to the heart of Europe. They’re followers of a religion, like me following Judaism. Their religion should be able to teach them about peace and harmony, yet why do they revolt against their religion and set the kindle to the fire of suffering? I’ve grown old, Zelda, but sometimes I wonder if it’s not their problem. Maybe the Muslims had harm done to them first. Maybe it started when the Jews took back Palestine and made it Israel, shunning and rejecting the Muslim Palestinians. Maybe they were also freedom fighters who just wanted to escape the suffering and unjust that was done to them by the Jews. Maybe they rose out of anger to revolt against the Jewish government, turning into a tumour known as the Islamic State. Maybe it was our fault that we caused the hundred and thirty deaths in Paris; maybe we Jews caused the birth of the notorious Islamic State.
Sadly, countries around the world are repeating their mistakes again. People are trying to bring down the Islamic State by causing more suffering and widespread pain. The United States, France, Russia, and now Britain have responded to Islamic State by bombing them, explosions decorating the sky above Syria. These countries don’t understand that by stopping the origin of suffering, you can’t do more suffering to them. They don’t realise that the cure to stop terrorism is to respond with something that they would never have expected: compassion.
Yet we haven’t lost hope. I’ve seen in the news of people doing compassionate, rightful acts against suffering. Bill Gates, a brilliant man who found Microsoft thirty years after your death and also the currently richest man alive, has devoted his life and money to solving the problems of the world, including many that we’ve faced in the Second World War: hunger, lack of education, environmental issues and so on. Little benevolent acts like defending a Muslim lady on a train counts too, on which I read about a British young man who protected a Muslim woman from being harmed because of her religion. I don’t resent the Muslims, Zelda, because I know how it is to be discriminated. To be teased, despised and snubbed by the entire world. To be thought of as a vermin or as filthy creatures bringing harm to the world. To be Jewish in the Second World War.
So thank you, Zelda. Thank you for supporting me throughout the war, bringing me hope and happiness. Thank you for being the candle of faith in the expanses of desolation. Thank you for teaching me that violence is not the answer to suffering. I will forever cherish your teachings and share them with the world.
Your friend who is still trying to let go of you,
P.S. After the war ended, I told everyone I met about you. I spread the story of your heroism. I expanded your library of evidence so that the world might someday learn from your wisdom. I told them, “She was only six, but she had the loving heart of a ten-year-old.” (Gleitzman, pg. 183). And I vowed that if people carried on hating each other, killing each other and spreading suffering, I would tell them this: “You can be like her. Don’t you know anything?” (Gleitzman, pg. 183)
Let’s see what they do then. (Gleitzman, pg. 183)
I hope you enjoyed reading this letter, and I also hope that when you leave, you have taken something out of this letter. Gleitzman wrote in his acknowledgement page that this series, Once, Then, Now, After and Soon, came from his imagination, but it was inspired by real history. This story of Felix and Zelda could have been real, looking at the state of suffering in the Holocaust. Nonetheless, no matter if this story is fiction, it portrays multiple strong messages that should be acknowledged by the world, including the fact that violence is not the answer of suffering. The Holocaust and many past historical events have been seen as merely fact, not lesson. I think that we should learn from the victims the same way as we learn from experience or from others’ teachings. The Jews who suffered in the Holocaust, especially the survivors, were extraordinary people who were scarred by war. As Morris Gleitzman said in his acknowledgement page, “This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable.”
MLA Citations: Baugh, Alex. “Then by Morris Gleitzman.” The Children’s War. Blogspot, 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
Yates, Jean. Then by Morris Gleitzman – Teaching Notes. Australia: Puffin, 12 Apr. 2010. PDF.
Murphy, Jill. “Then by Morris Gleitzman.” TheBookBag. Puffin, 28 Jan. 2009. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.