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A Childhood at War: The Stories of Uri Orlev

Imagine: the roads to your neighborhood are blocked by armed guards. You cannot leave without risking being shot. You have neighborhood stores, neighborhood meetings, and for a while, things go along in a scary way, and you get to the point where it seems almost normal. But people do disappear, a few at a time.

Every morning you follow your Dad into the rope factory where he and all the other men have been told to work. When your mother doesn’t come back home from visiting another walled off neighborhood, you don’t ask too many questions. She may come home, but she probably won’t. It’s better not to ask.

Then the day comes when all the men, with guns pointed at them the whole time, are loaded into the trucks. You, too. But at your Dad’s insistence, you make a break for it. You narrowly miss being shot and hide in an abandoned building, awaiting his return.

With no one left in the neighborhood but you and a few other desperate lurkers, it’s the start of a new existence. No more going out in daylight—you must be absolutely quiet lest you alert the soldiers--and each night is a scramble for food. Months go by and there is no sign of your father.

Why is this happening to you? Because you are Jew and you live in a Polish ghetto during World War II. You have done nothing wrong, but your world has gone crazy.

Uri Orlev, the author of the award-winning book The Island on Bird Street, lived in just such a place at just such a time. His father served as a doctor in the Polish Army and was imprisoned by the Nazis. His mother was shot by a firing squad. Uri, who was born with the name Jerzy Henryk Orlowski in 1931, survived by hiding for years. Unlike his young hero Alex, Uri did have some company. His aunt and his brother survived alongside him and he lived with Polish families. But in 1943, Uri and his family were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where they stayed until U.S. Army liberated them in 1945.

After the war, Uri and his brother went to live on a kibbutz in Israel. A kibbutz is a kind of Jewish commune where everyone, even the children, has work to do to help the community survive. They all share the same kinds of food and wear the same styles of clothes. Children sleep in boys’ dorms or girls’ dorms, separately from their mothers and fathers although the families do gather together at meal times.

While Uri was doing his required military service as all Israeli teenagers must, he met a very tall, very funny girl who shared her experiences of the war with him. Years later, when he finally started writing books for children, he remembered her stories and wove them into his novel for young people, Lydia, Queen of the Palestine. Lydia has what might be called very high self-esteem. Others might just say she was a brat. Probably a better word would be the Yiddish or Hebrew word chutzpah (often pronounced hutspah). Lydia has lots of chutzpah.

Growing up in Romania, she never had to hide in abandoned buildings, and she was never aware of serious personal danger from the war. But her parents’ troubled marriage and life alone at the Israeli kibbutz tested the courage of this little yenta in a different way from Alex’s dangerous adventures in the Warsaw ghetto.

Uri Orlev has said that it was his love of books and his imagination that helped him get through those terrible war years. Like his hero Alex in The Island on Bird Street, he found he was living an adventure story and that helped him cope with the day to day uncertainties.

It is interesting that Mr. Orlev does not consider himself to be a “Holocaust writer.” He writes of his childhood and of those of his friends which happen to take place in one of the darkest times in modern history—the Holocaust. He lives in Israel still and has written more than 30 books for children but only a few of them have been translated into English.

His books--which convey both real horror and redeeming hope--have won many awards internationally, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award for his body of work. Click here to see which of his works are available at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

Facts on Uri Orlev

Name: Jerzy Henryk Orlowski; given name changed to Uri, 1945, surname changed to Orlev, 1958.
Born: February 24, 1931, in Warsaw, Poland
Immigrated: to Palestine (now Israel), 1945
Served in the Israeli Army: 1949-1951
Lived on a kibbutz in Lower Galilee: 1950-1962
Began his career as a writer: 1962
Translator: Mr. Orlev has translated books from Polish to Hebrew for other authors

Online Resources:

9th International Literature Festival: Berlin, Uri Orlev
Biographical notes on the author.

"Until Then I Had Only Read about These Things in Books..." The Story of Uri Orlev
A lesson plan..."suitable for pupils in grades 5-6, enabling children to empathize with an individual victim in a world of hardship and difficult dilemmas."
Includes more biographical information.

Additional information on the author can be found in Contemporary Authors, Major Authors and Illustrators for Young Adults, St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, and Authors and Artists for Young Adults. All of these resources are available at no charge through Biography Resource Center—a CRRL OneSearch subscription database.