Both a gripping thriller and a heartbreaking drama of human kindness, this is sure to become a classic of Holocaust history. -Booklist, starred review
Clara Kramer was a typical Polish Jewish teenager from a small town at the outbreak of the Second World War. When the Germans invaded, her family home was given to a Volksdeutsch family, the Becks. Mr. Beck was known to be an alcoholic and a vocal anti-Semite. But on hearing that Jewish families were being led into the woods and shot, Mr. Beck took in the Kramers and two other Jewish families.
Although he didn’t “like” Jews, he did not think they should be killed. 18 people in all went to live in a bunker dug out of the basement. They were confident that the war would be over in a matter of weeks.
But the weeks turned into 20 months. Clara was 15 years old when she entered the bunker. An avid reader, she kept a diary, writing with a blue pencil in a little notebook. She wrote down details of their confined life: no one could hide anything from each other in the bunker, and their proximity to the Becks, with only floorboards separating them, meant she was aware of everything going on upstairs as well.
As time went by, the two parallel worlds became one. Mr. Beck fell in love with one of Clara’s neighbors. One day, Mrs. Beck came home to discover the affair. She faced the painful choice of sending the offending girl away to her death – and endangering the lives of 17 other people – or keeping her husband’s girlfriend under her roof. She chose the latter.
Clara became like a daughter to Mrs. Beck, and tried to atone for her cousin’s sins by sneaking upstairs when the coast was clear and cleaning the house. Clara relished the cleaning –a rare opportunity to stretch and move freely. Mr. Beck hustled and schemed to get money to feed and care for the three families downstairs. The logistics were perilous. With rationing, the SS, Gestapo, and informers everywhere, the task was not only to find the money, but also to buy enough food for 20 people without raising suspicions. Rumours started that the Becks were harbouring Jews – there was panic in the house.
Mr. Beck decided that the best way to deal with the rumours was to invite the SS and Gestapo in for a party. He was a gracious host and it was a small town without much to do, so the SS and Gestapo started to visit the Becks almost every night, drinking and laughing and singing to all hours. Meanwhile Clara and her family were just a few feet below, listening, in complete silence.
In a wonderful twist of fate, after the war, Clara’s diary saved the Becks. When the Russians arrived, the Becks were arrested and were to be sent to a camp. But through a Russian friend, Clara managed to get her diary to the Commissar in charge. He had it read and thanks to Clara’s account, the Becks were released.
Clara says that everything she has learned about life and love, courage and family, she has learned from the war, and in particular from the Becks upstairs. Clara’s diary is in the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The bunker in Poland still exists.