My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The title of this book is clever. It refers to the two journeys through WWII and the Holocaust the narrative traces of a Jewish mother and a boy in the Hitler Youth, it also refers to the structure of the book. The chapters alternate between Helen Waterford and Alfons Heck with no clue to the reader but context and the consistency of the shift in perspective.
I recently read Night again. I’ve read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and been to the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. Neither the books or experience provided the emotional roller-coaster found within Ayer’s book.
Helen Waterford’s story is heartbreaking, she goes into hiding with her family, her husband and young daughter, in order to protect their daughter they arrange for her to live with foster parents, they are found by the Gestapo (possibly because they were informed by the people hiding the Waterfords), husband and wife are separated – never to be reunited, she endures and survives death camps, finds her way back home, finds her daughter who looks upon her as a stranger and begins to rebuild her life.
Alfons Heck is a young boy when Hitler starts his rise to power. Taken in by the nationalism and propaganda Alfons joins the Hitler Youth. At sixteen, he became a Bannfuhrer, equivalent to the rank of a major general in the U. S., with 6,000 troops under his command. He believed whole heartedly what ever he was told about Germany, Jews, and the enemies of Germany. When the war ends Alfons is a prisoner, the French show him and other Nazi’s images of the concentrations camps which are regarded as forgeries by the Nazi’s (Heck included) to make them feel bad. They truly did not believe that Germany had perpetrated such horrendous crimes. He eventually comes to realize the truth. Heck moves to Canada to escape his past and then to the U.S. where Helen reads a column Alfons is writing and calls and sets up a meeting up with Alfons. They talk and then begin touring together talking about their “Parallel Journeys”
The story is told by Ayer, but within her narrative excerpts from Alfons and Helen’s personal stories are interspersed. Giving the history two very real faces.
The most interesting, sad thing that this book offers is how the youth of Germany were used, Heck calls these youth the other victims of the Holocaust. Seeing these two people travel through the war on their respective paths provides an illuminating and incredibly sad testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and the power of well crafted messaging to inspire hatred and violence.