Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Nazi era Berlin, it doesn’t matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn’t practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn’t accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.
So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl’s father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.
But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max’s fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero’s sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm’s way?
I tend not to read books set before or during the Holocaust due to an ill-advised field trip to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. when I was nine. However, Thea from The Booksmugglers can be really convincing in her reviews, and her review of this particular book intrigued me enough to snatch it up from the library when I saw it. The main incentive was that the book supposedly didn’t spend all its time emphasizing the Jewishness of the main character and how he was really, genuinely Jewish. There is a reason I stopped checking out books from my synagogue’s library when I was a kid.
Happily, that is not the case. On the contrary Karl is decidedly not interested in his Jewish heritage due to growing up in a non-religious family, and he even looks German. It’s not that surprising that a part of him wishes he could join the Hitler Youth, what with all his friends doing it and looking cool and all that. He’s not targeted for violence due to outward, visible signs of Jewishness –his clothes, his physical appearance, even his name give him the appearance of a typical German. Instead, he’s targeted for “being” something he never felt any connection with in the first place. It’s this that legitimately gets him thinking about how Nazi propoganda spins everyone who isn’t “Aryan” as evil and degenerate, such as when he starts learning to box and the Nazis start saying Jews don’t have the physical ability to box because all they’re biologically capable of is doing stuff with money.
Like I said, I appreciated how Karl’s Jewish identity was portrayed in this book. On the whole, he was an engaging and likeable protagonist. He initially despises himself for his cowardliness and his inability to fight back against physical attacks at school, but he gains some inner strength as he learns to box. At the same time, I liked how he had two distinct passions in life that didn’t negate each other – boxing and cartoons. The book even included the comics Karl drew, which was a nice touch. At times though, he was pretty self-centered, which members of his family had no trouble pointing out to him. Still, this was something I also appreciated. While he’s worried about what’s going to happen to his family, his main concerns are mostly all about himself. How’s he going to hide the fact that he’s Jewish, can he become a better boxer, has Max Schmeling abandoned him now that he’s rubbing elbows with the Nazi elite? He’s still a teenager filled with teenage thoughts and worries, even with the political situation getting worse daily. Similarly, it felt really honest that there were times Karl hated his family and other Jewish people for being what they were when he himself can easily pass as “Aryan”. Although he doesn’t become religious, through boxing and his family, particularly his father, he begins to feel pride in an identity he used to feel no connection to and that can now get him killed.
I also really liked the Countess, a much-appreciated family friend, and I thought the author did a good job writing him without making him a gay or drag queen stereotype. I do wonder why and how he was still living in Berlin at the end of the book when things are just as horrible, if not worse, for gay people. I guess he’s really good at hiding?
The pace of the book was extremely brisk and I flew right through it, but at times it did feel like everything was happening too quickly. The book is divided into three parts, with the years being covered placed before each section, but I would have preferred the seasons and years to be above each chapter because sometimes half a year or the entire year would pass in a couple of chapters and I wouldn’t even notice.
I was pleasantly surpised and pleased by how much I enjoyed this book. It’s not always an “easy” book to read (is any book about real-life atrocities ever?) but it’s a good story that’s written well. I’m glad I read it.
Disclosure – library