When Grownups Play At War
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