Review of Daniel Half Human, by David Chotjewitz, translated by Doris Orgel. Atheneum Books, 2004.
Is there anything left to be told about the Holocaust experience? If you have any doubt about the answer, Daniel Half Human provides a stunning justification for the continuation of novels about this horrific era in human history. A young adult novel that captivated this adult reader as well, Daniel Half Human successfully explores the territory of national and personal history, leaving the reader to ponder the ultimate questions it raises.
The story is told in alternating time periods, beginning with 1945 when the main character, Daniel, returns to Germany as an American soldier. In between Daniel's adult reminiscences, we are thrown back to 1933, when Daniel, a young German boy, and his best friend Armin are teenagers infatuated with the Hitler Jugend.
As a teenager, Daniel enjoys being part of the Hitler Youth Movement until he discovers that his mother is Jewish, a fact which his parents have hidden from him all his life. In many Holocaust novels, this revelation might have prompted Daniel to embrace his Judaism. But perhaps the greatest strength of Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi is that it helps us understand how such news might have felt for a privileged and rebellious teenager of the time. Daniel's reaction is horror:
Daniel looked at his father. "Why did you do it?" he asked. "Why did you marry a Jewess?" Rheinhard stared at him. "Why I did what?" "That's why I'm half Jewish now," Daniel said. "Because you married a Jewess." Rheinhard didn't answer. He gave David a look that hurt more than the smack in the face he gave him next.
Daniel struggles to keep his secret from everyone, including Armin, and hopes that somehow his dream of joining the Nazis can still come true:
After all. He was only half Jewish. He'd heard that the Fuhrer sometimes made exceptions and personally granted honorary Aryan status to certain selected half-Jews...Of course, for this to happen, Daniel would have to leave home, disown his mother--which seemed not so terrible when he pictured himself standing before the Fuhrer, the Fuhrer pinning a decoration on his chest, clapping him on the shoulder: There; now you're an Aryan."
As pressures on Jews mount, both within Daniel's school and in everyday life, after his cousin Miriam is forced to live with his family when her father is taken away, Daniel is unable to keep others from knowing his secret. What shocks the most is the author's convincing portrayal of how Daniel feels about being Jewish, a feeling that has been nurtured by the attitudes and teachings of those around him:
I'm the lowest. That's how I felt. Someone you don't even greet. A nothing. And suddenly everything that I'd been keeping at a distance burst in on me: all the fear, all the shame, all the humiliation. I just stood there, on the sidewalk, in front of some store window as people walked by me. I stood in their way, got shoved, and a short man with a hat on said, "Look out," when it was he who should have looked out.
Although Armin resolutely remains Daniel's friend, he is also a rising star in the Hitler Youth Movement. His friendship with Daniel leads to a friendship, then a romance with Miriam. The story reaches a crescendo on Kristallnacht, when each of the characters must make choices that will lead to consequences for their friendships and their lives.
Daniel Half Human accomplishes something rare--a vivid portrayal of what it meant both to be a Jew and a German during this time. It helps us understand why Jews might have remained in Germany despite the growing horrors, and how a people can come to despise themselves because of the pervasive hatred in the culture in which they live.
Highly recommended for adults, mature middle-schoolers and older teens, Daniel Half Human is a remarkable new account of the Holocaust that vividly incorporates important historical events and a moving personal story.