Anton, the title character of The Secret of the Village Fool by Rebecca Upjohn, was a real person named Anton Sukhinski. Although his fellow villagers considered him a fool for his simple ways, Anton managed to hide six Jewish people for nearly a year during the Holocaust. He saved them from their neighbors, from the Nazis and from the fate suffered by millions. The motivation for his self endangering kindness? His ridiculed foolishness, his empathy for all living creatures. As the fictional Anton says, "how could I not save you? I knew in my heart it was what I was meant to do. Life is precious--every life." If Anton was a fool, then we should all be so foolish.
The six people Anton saved, Tata and Mama Zeiger, their two young sons, Munio and Milek, and two other young girls, Eva and Zipora, never forgot their brave protector and what he did for them. They took care of him in his old age and gave testimony about his valiant deeds to Yad Vashem, "the Jewish people's living memorial to the Holocaust." This testimony allowed him to be remembered and honored at Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile, someone who risked his own life to help the Jewish people.
Even without the weight of its truthful core, this moving and harrowing story would stand on its own. Children (grades 3 and up) will relate to the worries and questions of Milek, the youngest child, who asks "What war? Who is Hitler?" and "Why do you hate us so so much?" Although in picture book format, there is enough drama and suspense to keep older children and adults reading to its conclusion.
The Holocaust is a difficult subject to address in books for children, particularly in picture books. Rebecca Upjohn, by focusing this story on the goodness found in one man, creates hope and helps us believe that good can win. Anton was just one man, and just a simple man, but he defied the odds, fought back against a giant enemy and triumphed with quiet, brave and dedicated perseverance. Renee Benoit gracefully illustrates life in a small village and the myriad of emotions experienced by the story's characters. Rebecca and Renee have created a book which gently but honestly tells the story of both the survivors and their protector.
The Secret of the Village Fool has many teaching points and will work well in both private and secular curricula. Some of the many themes I can envision using this book to teach are; Holocaust, Yad Vashem, righteous gentiles, survival, war, peace, hatred, loving kindness, religious (in)tolerance, respect, faith, differences, remembrance and honor. The Secret of the Village Fool, well told, beautifully illustrated and expertly researched (timeline, facts & photographs included in the after), belongs in your library.
Let me know if you read this book. I would love to hear what you think and how you might use it.
Disclosure: I received a copy of The Secret of the Village fool through the goodreads giveaways program.