Themes and Characters

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From the outset of her writing for juveniles, Matas has written books that contain a very strong social voice, one that has continued into her young adult titles. During her conversation with Jenkinson, Matas explained how such social content came to be part of her writing. To begin with, she was raised in a very political family. Her father was elected to the local school board, serving as its chairman, and he ran for other public offices, before being appointed as a judge. Consequently, politics was a natural part of dinner table conversations, as were current world events, activism, and ways of trying to improve the human condition. With this long interest in social concerns, Matas said it was just natural that, when she sat down to write, it was those things that came out in her writing.

In particular, Matas's social voice has found strong expression in her novels relating to World War II. While engaging in a dialogue with Nodelman, Matas observed that the period surrounding World War II offered her an incredible wealth of dramatic stories. It provided her with opportunities to explore issues and to place her characters in life-or-death situations where moral dilemmas had to be faced. In that same interview, Matas acknowledged her preoccupation with the Holocaust, saying that its unusual fascination for her is found in its evil. Studying the Holocaust, for Matas, is to study the very worst in human nature. Daniel's Story puts a personal face on this twentieth-century tragedy, one which is not found in the detached numbers used to quantify those who died. By using a chronological approach, Matas reveals how the evil, unchecked, grew in its scope and depravity. As Daniel observed:

Yes, I can see from going through these pictures how it all started slowly and then got worse and worse and how the German people didn't try to stop it and how slowly all our rights were taken away until we were nothing but bodies being shipped out.

Matas also shows those points where, had someone spoken up or acted, perhaps history might have been changed. For example, while the family was still in Frankfurt, Daniel observed, "The Germans would have gladly let us go, but no country would open their doors to us. They got together at a conference and decided that they didn't want us any more than Germany did. Yes, they took a few—just not too many."

In her autobiographical piece in Something about the Author, Matas identified the key scene in Daniel's Story. It occurs when Daniel's sister Erika expresses to Daniel and his girlfriend Rosa the view that the world is populated with human beings, each one of whom is capable of good or evil, and that they all have to accept that reality. Erika asks them, "What are our choices?" and then answers her own question by providing what she sees as the three possibilities. "We can despair and curse, and change nothing. We can choose evil like our enemies have done and create a world based on hate. Or we can try to make things better." In their very bleakest moments, both Daniel and Rosa elect the path of despair. In Auschwitz, Daniel sees bodies being burned in open pits because the crematoria cannot keep pace. It is at this point that Daniel contemplates suicide. "And I almost threw myself in with them. That was the closest I'd come to ending it all. . . . Perhaps it would be better to resign from the human race altogether." Rosa also has her moments of hopelessness, as when she says,...

(This entire section contains 1046 words.)

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"All this struggle . . . and for what? I still believe they'll try to kill us all before the war is over." When Buchenwald is liberated, Daniel finds himself presented with an opportunity to choose evil. He threatens to shoot the children of a German SS officer who had earlier shot a Jewish boy in cold blood. But instead of feeling elated about the fear he elicited in this man, Daniel "stalked away feeling dirty and miserable." In so doing, Daniel recalled Erika's wish that, should he and Rosa survive, they must "remember those of us who were destroyed by the worst in humanity, by its hate. . . . You must choose love. Always choose love."

Because Daniel's Story is a book largely of incident, development of virtually all of the characters is quite limited. Though the book's cast is quite large, most characters have what could be described as walk-on or cameo roles—they contribute some information or play a small part and then figuratively or literally disappear. Daniel's younger sister Erika is important, however. Wise beyond her years, Erika makes meaning of the horror around her. When the family members enter the death camps, they are segregated by gender. Rosa, the girl Daniel met in the Lodz Ghetto, remains focal in his mind throughout his time in the two death camps, but she does not reappear until the conclusion when Daniel finds her alive in Lodz.

Only Daniel remains before the reader throughout the book, and, as he ages twelve years over the course of the novel, his behaviors and his reactions to events remain consistent with his changing age. For example, a six-year-old Daniel responds to the boycott of his father's hardware store in a very immediate, personal way: "But why wouldn't they let people shop in our store?" A more mature fourteen-year-old Daniel, now capable of a larger world view, recognizes the broader implications of the boycott of the family's business. "I think back to that incident now and I wonder if the madness could have been stopped then." Even at age ten, Daniel still views events egocentrically. Following an anti-Semitic incident in his public school, Daniel is enrolled in a Jewish school. His reaction is one of delight. "I didn't care that I'd been forced out of my own school. I was thrilled at the idea of never seeing Mr. Schneider again and delighted that Uncle Peter would be my new teacher." However, at fourteen Daniel is able to appreciate the true impact of this event. "I look at this picture of the three of us smiling in front of the Jewish school and I realize that it was then that my life really began to change."