The will to live

When Grownups Play at War

By Andrea Belcham

A review of When Grownups Play At War by Ilona Klutsztejn-gruda

Published on April 1, 2005

When Grownups Play At War
Ilona Klutsztejn-gruda

Sumach Press
$10.95
paper
124pp
1-894549-443-0

Since retiring from her position as professor of chemistry at a Quebec university, Ilona Flutsztejn-Gruda has helped numerous Holocaust survivors publish their memoirs; with When Grownups Play at War, she tells her own tale of coming of age in the shadow of the Second World War. While lacking in sophisticated literary style, her story is commendable for the glimpses of a bygone, strife-ridden time.

For nine-year-old Ilona, life in pre-war Poland is comfortable and happy, but for occasional altercations with her domineering mother. Her best friend is by her side, and their days are filled with games played on the streets of their small village outside Warsaw. Soon enough, however, the threat of German occupation permeates the Flutsztejn household, and Ilona’s father makes the widely scorned decision to move his family to Lithuania – fortuitously so, as it turns out, for many of Ilona’s secular Jewish family members and neighbours choose to remain and perish as a result. The harrowing journey that was to end in Lithuania instead continues through six years and many territories and towns, from Tajikistan to Moscow, as the Flutsztejns strive to evade persecution, stay together, and keep fed.

Flutsztejn-Gruda advances her narrative at a rapid pace, with only the sparest of passages devoted to self-reflection, though her attention to the physical details of the foreign lands and situations that she and her family encounter are astute. Yet sometimes cold facts are enough to stir a reader’s emotive response. Particularly engaging is the Flutsztejns’ term as custodians of a pig farm in Uzbekistan, with scenes of family meals being supplemented by the slop trucked in for the livestock, and the barefooted Ilona making her three-kilometre trek to school over the scorching hot earth because of her mother’s staunch belief that “war or peace, cold or famine (…) you had to continue your education.” When Grownups Play at War demonstrates the human capacity for bravery and endurance, in a simple but remarkable tale. mRb

Andrea Belcham lives in Saint-Lazare, where many of her best neighbours are trees.

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