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Run, Boy, Run
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by Uri Orlev

 

In 1996, Uri Orlev won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for writing for his contributions to children's literature.

 

            Run, Boy, Run is a harrowing account based on the real experiences of a Jewish boy's perilous adventures trying to evade capture in Poland during World War II.  Srulik, the hero of the story, is a "redhead with freckles, blue eyes, and a winning smile (2)."  In the book's opening pages, Srulik, his mother, and his father try to escape the Polish ghetto in Warsaw, where they have been relocated.  They manage to cross into the Polish side of Warsaw but elude detection for only a short time.  Srulik and his mother are returned to the ghetto, while Srulik's father escapes.  One day, while searching through "the ghetto's garbage bins (4)," Srulik's mother disappears. Srulik does not know the way to return home, since his family had only lived in the ghetto for just over a year.  He is left totally alone.

            At first, Srulik joins a gang of boys, who try to escape to the Polish side of Warsaw in garbage trucks.  Srulik barely misses being stabbed by a bayonet as a soldier prods the garbage, but he escapes to the other side.  The garbage wagon driver drops Srulik near a group of Jewish boys who steal for their needs during the day and hide out in the forest at night.  The boys help Srulik by telling him rules for survival:  a piece of broken glass becomes a knife (27); moss on trees helps to show the way (31-2); how to catch and cook food; and never to swim or remove his pants, as circumcision will reveal that Srulik is a Jew (30).  In return Srulik shows the boys which mushrooms are edible.  When a German raid disperses the group, Srulik is alone again.

            At times thereafter, Srulik lives and works with families; sometimes he survives in the forest, eating and cooking a hedgehog that he caught and raw squirrel (43).  Srulik takes on a Polish name, Jurek, to hide his identity.  A respite with one family is interrupted when German soldiers come to the family's farm to appropriate food.  Jurek runs to hide into the forest and, by chance, meets his father again.  Jurek's father diverts the soldiers chasing them and makes a father's supreme sacrifice for his son - father is shot and killed.  But Papa's words remain etched in Jurek's thoughts:  "…the most important thing, Srulik . . . is to forget your name.  Wipe it from your memory."  Hearing that Srulik has already adopted a Polish name, Papa adds a family name:  Staniak (the same name as the grocer in their small hometown).  Father adds:  "…even if you forget everything--even if you forget me and Mama--never forget that you're a Jew." (64)

            A friendly woman helps Jurek next, nourishing him, cleaning his sores - and teaching him the rudimentary elements of Catholicism.  Jurek never stays in one place for a long time.  At one farm, he is involved in an accident in which his arm is mutilated.  At the hospital, finding that the boy is a Jew, he is refused treatment, and he loses the arm.

            Russian soldiers befriend Jurek.  When the Russians proceed to Berlin, Jurek's Russian friend leaves him with a family, where Jurek goes to church, confession (165) and is confirmed as a Catholic. At war's end, Jurek ends up in a Jewish orphanage, a place where he doesn't want to be.  At first, the boy adamantly holds to his new religious heritage and does not want to claim his Jewish heritage. A kind woman, Pani Rappaport, takes Srulik back to his hometown of Blonie, where they meet the grocer, Pani Staniak.  She remembers Srulik's family.  From there, Srulik begins to remember, too, and starts to reclaim his family memories and Jewish heritage.

            There are few cultural markers in the book, since the book's plot is tied to Srulik's attempts to repress his cultural and religious heritage.  One cultural/religious exchange takes place when Srulik is talking to Yosele, one of the boys he first meets after he escapes the ghetto.  They are comparing notes.  Both boys' mothers "threw the clippings from my fingernails into the oven (32)."  Srulik's mother first mixed the clippings with feathers, while Yosele's mother did not.  Yosele reveals that this tradition was "so that your soul won't look for them [the clippings] on Judgment Day."

            Publisher Walter Lorraine won the Batchelder Award in 2004 publishing Run, Boy, Run.  In his acceptance remarks, Lorraine notes:  "…even though Uri Orlev's writings are based directly on fact--he himself is a survivor of the ghetto--he neither demonizes nor glorifies his characters.  His refusal to exaggerate gives his writing unimpeachable impact."[i]  Lorraine's characterization of Orlev's writing is correct.  Orlev does not glorify Srulik, his parents or his family, even in the emotional epilogue where Orlev says that hearing Srulik's story moved him to tears.  Yet the text is tightly written, keeping the reader on edge.  Orlev's style conveys just the right amount of description.  One understands the horror of the situation - Papa's sacrifice, the hunger, extreme conditions, prejudice and hatred.  Yet Orlev's telling of the story, interspersed as it is by scenes where people help the boy, moves the reader beyond a focus on the hatred into a hope that these scenes will never again be replayed in the world.



[i] Lorraine, Walter. 2004. Deep impact. Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 2 (3): 46.

 

 

 

Orlev, Uri. 2003. Run, boy, run. Trans. Hillel Halkin. Boston: Walter Lorraine Books/Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-16465-0

 

 

This review was written as part of a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

 

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