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Journey of Yanek Gruener's Survival During the Holocaust

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Have you ever heard of the word Holocaust? The word is derived from the Greek word holokauston. This comes from the Hebrew word olah, which means “burnt sacrifice.” In the novel ‘Prisoner B-3087,’ written by Alan Gratz, he takes the reader on the gripping and heartbreaking journey of Yanek Gruener’s survival during the Holocaust of WWII. Even though Gratz intended this book for younger readers, I believe an older audience would also find the novel quite gripping. This is an excellent book for anyone who is just learning about the Holocaust. Yanek Gruener’s true story of survival is an emotional rollercoaster ride. In fact, Gratz uses the theme of survival throughout the entire story, like a finely woven thread. He allows the reader to be a witness to Yanek going from a young, naive boy, to becoming a strong, determined man during the genocide that was taking place during WWII. I would recommend this novel for anyone interested in learning and understanding the atrocities that took place by the Nazis.

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Yanek’s story begins in the year 1939 in Krakow, Poland, his hometown, and ends years later at the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. Gratz is able to continually pull on the reader’s heartstrings from start to finish. By telling the story through Yanek’s eyes, we are able to get a greater sense of how emotionally devastating the Holocaust truly was. For example, Gratz begins the novel with Yanek and his family sitting in a warm, loving home discussing politics. Then, suddenly there is a broadcast over the radio,’Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this broadcast with the news that the German army has reached Krakow.'(pg 5) From this moment on Gratz begins to capture the horrors of 10 year old Yanek’s life. Quickly we see the young boy without a school, home and most devastating the slaughter of his entire family. Through all the tragedy, Gratz shows how young Yanek has a will to survive. He takes the words of Yankek’s father, ‘We must not lose faith. Let them take everything. They cannot take who we are,’ (pg 11) and shows how these words will remain a stronghold for Yanek thoughout the Holocaust. After losing his parents, Yanek is then taken by the Nazi’s to a labor camp at Plaszow. Here, 14 year old Yanek is stripped of his clothes and nearly starved to death. Yanek is determined to not become a Muselmanner. In Yanek’s words he tells us, “Muselmanners had given up, and there was no life in their expression, no spark of a soul. They were zombies, worked and starved into a living death by their captors.” (pg 82) Muselmanners lose all will to survive and eventually die. Surrounded by Muselmanners, and struggling to barely stand, Yanek chants in his head, “Be no one, care for no one. That’s how you survive.” (pg 88) This train of thought will help Yanek survive the Holocaust and never become a Muselmanner.

From 1944 to 1945, Yanek is moved from one concentration camp to the next. His nightmare begins in Birkenau where the Nazi’s pretend to kill him in a gas chamber. Then they shave his head and carve on his arm a “B” for Birkenau and 3087, his prisoner number. Yanek is quick to think, “Not Yanek Gruener who loved books and science and American movies. I was Prisoner B-3087. But I was alive.” (pg 132). Again, Yanek’s main focus is his will to stay alive. Months later he is moved to Auschwitz with over 5,000 men and boys. There, he watches prisoners both young and old be beaten to death or placed in the gas chambers. Soon after, Gratz tells of Yanek’s survival of the death march to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Men dropping from hunger and exhaustion, but Yanek stayed focused and pushed on. Gratz tells of the many horrors in Sachsenhausen. The camp filled with corpses sometimes 4 men deep, beatings that could no longer be felt, men lined up in front of ditches to be shot, and Nazi’s laughing as Jews were pushed into electric fences and left to die. Seeing this every day, Yanek continues to survive. The Nazi’s give him the job of chopping wood and he says, “Chop, chop, chop, chop. Every swing meant survival I told myself. Work to live. Live until the Allies come.”(pg 192) Yanek is now moved to his seventh concentration camp in three years at Bergen-Belsen. From there, he is taken to several more camps until he ends up in Dachau. One night in Dachau, bombs and gunfire rained down on the camp, the American Allies had reached them. Yanek finds himself for the first time in years, a free man.

Throughout the novel, Gratz does an incredible job of describing the horrific conditions that Yanek had to endure. Though, Yanek’s words are few, the choice words he does use along with describing the settings, places the reader on an uncomfortable edge. For example, placed in a salt mine at Trzebinia, the young boy was made to move heavy, rough rocks to one place and then back, with no wheelbarrow or gloves. He was yelled at and beaten for either moving to slow or not lifting a heavy enough rock. He was made to dig 6 foot holes and fill them back up again. Yanek states, “I was an animal to them, a pack mule. But beasts were never treated so poorly. Working animals were expensive. They had value. I was a Jew. We were lower than animals. They could kill as many of us as they wanted, and there would always be another trainload of us to take our place.” (pg 108) Yanek’s thoughts resonate throughout the story. Gratz tells of the young man’s train rides from one concentration camp to the next. How they were lined in cattle cars during the heat of summer or the freezing winters. How many never survived and the dead bodies would be propped up right next to you. Gratz also describes the death marches from one concentration camp to the next. Handed a piece of bread to last 3 or 4 days while marching on the frozen ground. As conditions continually worsened, and death seemed to be knocking at the door, Yanek finds the will to survive.

When reading this novel, you can’t help but reflect on your own life. Gratz is able to make the reader appreciate meals, school, friends, and most of all family. This novel captures the evils of genocide and the Holocaust. It is a reminder of how precious life truly is and how it is worth fighting for. In the final chapter of the book, we are given hope. Eventually Yanek finds his way to America. There he changes his name to Jacob Gruener and took to calling himself Jack. The story ends with Yanek’s words, “I stepped on board the train and didn’t look back. For nine years I had done everything I could to survive. Now it was time to live.” (pg 256) Gratz use of raw emotion in “Prisoner B-3087” is storytelling at its finest. I feel this novel is an important part of the history of WWII. It allows the reader to walk away with a more personal understanding of the evils that took place and how a young Jewish boy had the courage to survive. 

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