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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1245

Author: Aline Sax (b. 1984)

Translator: Laura Watkinson

First published: De Kleuren van het Getto, 2011, in Belgium (English trans., 2013)

Type of work: Graphic novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: September 1939 to May 1943

Locale: Warsaw, Poland

Principal characters

Misha, a young teenager

...

(The entire section contains 1245 words.)

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Author: Aline Sax (b. 1984)

Translator: Laura Watkinson

First published: De Kleuren van het Getto, 2011, in Belgium (English trans., 2013)

Type of work: Graphic novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: September 1939 to May 1943

Locale: Warsaw, Poland

Principal characters

Misha, a young teenager

His father, an unnamed doctor

Janina, his sister

Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Jewish resistance forces

Fromka, a female resistance fighter

The Story

Belgian author Aline Sax's historical graphic novel The War within These Walls, illustrated by Caryl Strzelecki and translated by Laura Watkinson, opens in Warsaw, Poland, in September 1939. Nazi Germany successfully invades and overtakes Poland, and a young Jewish teenager named Misha bears witness to it all. Misha watches the Germans' war for territory quickly evolve to one against his Jewish people. Jews are harassed, humiliated, and indiscriminately killed, and all their property and possessions are requisitioned. Like other Jews over the age of ten, Misha is forced to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David as an identifier. The Germans eventually establish a Jewish ghetto in the part of Warsaw where Misha and his family live, sealing it off with a brick-and-barbed-wire wall. Courtesy of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

The ghetto soon becomes overwhelmed by overcrowding, as all the Jews from in and around Warsaw are relocated to within its walls. Misha suddenly finds himself sharing his apartment with grief-and-disease-stricken strangers, some of whom exchange food with his father, a doctor, in return for medical treatment. However, in the ensuing days and weeks, there is no more food to barter with, as the ghetto becomes ravaged by starvation. Misha's hunger only strengthens his resolve, and he starts smuggling food to help his family survive, escaping to the Aryan side of the wall through the sewers and pilfering food from a variety of places.

Misha is forced to stop making these trips once the Germans start to combat his and others' smuggling exploits with flamethrowers, guns, and brute force. In his place, his younger sister Janina begins smuggling, slipping through one of the ghetto's gates at night without detection. One day, Janina does not return, forcing Misha to lie to his parents that he helped her escape. He subsequently becomes guilt-ridden over Janina's disappearance. Though Misha's father starts working at the hospital to pick up extra soup rations, his family's health gradually deteriorates due to malnutrition.

When the summer of 1942 arrives, Misha learns about the planned resettlement of all Jews in Warsaw. Much to his relief, his family is temporarily exempted from resettlement due to his father's position at the hospital. Still, the ghetto empties in brutally violent fashion, and rumors start to emerge about the true nature of the "resettlement" camps, which are revealed to be death factories. Misha's anger morphs into fear once his family's exempt status expires, along with the rest of the Jews in the ghetto. That fear is exacerbated after Misha witnesses a German soldier callously murder a woman and her baby outside a window of his building. While slumped down next to the window in shock, Misha encounters a young man named Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of Jewish resistance forces in the ghetto. Mordechai takes Misha to a basement command bunker and soon recruits him into the resistance, which has the added benefit of enlivening his spirit. Misha joins an intricate network of spies, couriers, and smugglers and learns how to become a soldier in preparation for an armed uprising. He keeps his activities a secret from his parents until the eve of the uprising, which is launched after information surfaces about the Germans' planned liquidation of the ghetto.

On the day of the uprising, Misha and Fromka, another resistance fighter, unload on German soldiers with a machine gun and Molotov cocktails. Along with other resistance fighters, they overcome the first wave of German troops. The next day, however, the Germans pound them with artillery, and in the following days, the Nazis drive out the ghetto's remaining residents. Out of weapons and ammunition, the fighters retreat underground, and Misha is appointed communications officer. Resistance counterattacks prove futile, and they are soon burnt out of the sewers. Misha narrowly escapes, but the Germans discover and gas the command bunker, killing Mordechai and everyone else inside. Misha dejectedly makes his way to the back of the building, where he is discovered by Fromka, who ultimately convinces him to flee the ghetto with her and to spread their message of resistance to the "eyes of the world."

Critical Evaluation

With The War within These Walls, Sax and Strzelecki offer a compelling portrait of Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. The graphic novel is based on the actual Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which Jewish resistance fighters led by Mordechai Anielewicz battled the Germans for nearly a month during the spring of 1943. Against this real-life historical backdrop, Sax tells a story of survival from the intimate perspective of a fictional young Jewish teenager.

Misha's harrowing experiences, from his overwhelming hunger to his torment while waiting for Janina to his dread upon learning about the death camps, are brought to life through Sax's clipped, terse prose, complemented by Strzelecki's stark bluish-gray illustrations. The structure of the graphic novel enables Sax to convey powerful emotions with just a few words, allowing Strzelecki's illustrations to speak for themselves. Early in the story, for example, when the ghetto starts running out of food, Misha's growing hunger is captured succinctly yet powerfully. "Food," reads the text on one page; on the reverse page, it continues, "We had to have food." Sax uses this approach to highlight the raw intensity of Misha's survival instincts, as well as the emotional weight of the horrors he endures throughout the novel.

Running in parallel to the theme of survival is Misha's search for personal identity. At the beginning , he is embarrassed after he is forced to wear the armband, which renders him an anonymous Jew. He is then struck by his father when he questions why they must remain in the ghetto. Unwilling to be labeled and confined, Misha finds new purpose after becoming a smuggler, and later is again revitalized when he becomes a resistance fighter. Sax emphasizes this personal development by leaving Misha unnamed until the penultimate page of the novel. By the book's end, the unnamed Jewish teenager has evolved into a survivor with a name and a story—a distinct identity.

Reviewers have noted that Sax's novel bears some similarities to Jerry Spinelli's historical fiction novel Milkweed (2003), which is set in Warsaw during the same time and also focuses on a young protagonist who becomes a smuggler. The extremely favorable critical response to The War within These Walls indicates that the Jewish experience during World War II remains a rich literary source, giving context to communicate deep emotional themes. The graphic novel above all demonstrates the power of hope and courage and helps introduce young readers to the largest single Jewish revolt that occurred during the Holocaust.

Further Reading

  • Review of The War within These Walls, by Aline Sax, translated by Laura Watkinson. Kirkus Reviews, 15 Aug. 2013, pp. 56–57. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=89968410&site=lrc-live. Accessed 5 Feb. 2018.
  • Review of The War within These Walls, by Aline Sax, translated by Laura Watkinson. Publishers Weekly, 16 Sept. 2013, p. 58. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=90272062&site=lrc-live. Accessed 5 Feb. 2018.
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