Anna and The Swallow Man
by Gavriel Savit
Reviewed by Ralph Wintrob
Book of the Week
TORONTO. Nov. 14 2021– One of the hardest tasks a parent faces is how to introduce the Holocaust to children, without traumatizing the child by its horror. Reading Anna and The Swallow Man on the surface looks to be an answer.
Prepubescent Anna, suddenly orphaned, hooks up with the enigmatic Swallow Man, and together they take to Poland’s byways and forests to escape The Final Solution. The Swallow Man knows all Nature’s secrets, especially how to keep hunger at bay. For him, people mean trouble, especially for strangers, so they’re to avoided at all costs. The two become soulmates through many months of their wandering.
But then a chance encounter with an ethereal klezmer clarinetest, who prays three times a day, whom Anna is drawn to, joins them. A prickly relationship develops between the two adults, that comes to a head when a peddler with a bundle of wares stumbles upon them, asks too many questions, and The Swallow Man marks him as a threat to their anonymity, and when the peddler appears to want to stick with them, he has to be disposed of.
In a wrenching climax Reb Herschel condemns The Swallow Man’s lack of values, and demands that Anna choose between them. “I thought you cared enough to protect the holiness of every living breathing being, when the world is filled with men who decide who should live and who should die.”
The consequences of this existential debate are tragic: death, dementia, demoralization. Anna is forced to become guardian to The Swallow Man, and pays an impossible price to supply him a healing drug.
The denouement is murky, to say the least, with one major takeaway. Anna is now alone, leaving us wonder which path she will choose, the Swallow Man’s or Reb Hirschl’s. The war is not over yet. And the enemy is everywhere still.
This book is directed at Teens. That’s the way it’s labelled. But I would not recommend it to any teenager to read without a mentor to work through the existential choices that Savit offers as a Holocaust offshoot: pragmatism vs. moral idealism. Our tradition teaches a balance between them (our forefathers were the models). But Savit sees only an absolute choice.
It’s a great story, beautifully told…from Anna’s perspective, though sometimes with adult phrasing. But the agonizing questions it raises, perfectly suited to the Holocaust setting, are no doubt the choices that had to be made by many a Jewish teenager. But for the contemporary reader, they’re overwhelming.
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A complete list of Ralph Wintrob’s book reviews can be viewed under Book of the Week in the category section.
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Ralph Wintrob is a former journalist, teacher-librarian.
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