Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Let's Hear It for the Boys - The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

Published: April 2011
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 416
Copy: Received for review
Summary: Goodreads

Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Naziera Berlin, it doesn't matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn't practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn't accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.

So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl's father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.

But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max's fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero's sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm's way?

With The Berlin Boxing Club, Robert Sharenow has written a poignant and moving story about what it was like for a teenage boy, who happenes to be Jewish, to survive in Nazi Germany just prior to WWII.  Karl Stern is Jewish by birth, but he and his family are not practising Jews.  Karl doesn't even look like a Jew, but these facts are irrelevant.  Because of his birth, Karl has to live under a cloud and there is nothing he can do about it.

Karl is lucky enough to meet his hero, boxing champion Max Schmeling, and is introduced to the fighters at Max's boxing studio. His transition from skinny 14 yr old to a muscled and fit 17 yr old is interesting to watch. Karl is taught how to fight and takes part in some tournaments, but despite being a good fighter, he is never able to leave behind his heritage. An act of spite during one of these tournaments reveals Karl as a Jew and he is no longer able to fight.  Karl has become disillusioned with his hero Max, but after the events of Kristallnacht, when there were huge riots against the Jews, he has no option but to contact Max and ask for his help.

'I had plenty to be mad about.  I was a Jew living in Nazi Germany.  I had been kicked out of school and lost my girlfriend.  My father had been denied any chance at a legitimate livelihood, and our family had been evicted from our home.  I was living in a damp basement beneath my parents and sister, who had given up all sense of privacy, living in one room divided by bed sheets.  My "hero" Max had disappeared to America to chase fights with Joe Louis and Jimmy Braddock.  And my favorite uncle had just died in a prison camp, simply because he was a Red or a Jew or both.' (242)

This paragraph very neatly sums up Karl's life at the age of 16. Events are out of his control and he is struggling with his identity.  Sharenow manages to convey, with sympathy and compassion, Karl's feelings of  hopelessness and rage over the unfairness of life and his inabililty to do anything to help his family. It is easy to understand where Karl's anger comes from and why. The use of Karl's cartoons throughout the book help to illustrate his frustations, and make the story just a little different than the norm.

The Berlin Boxing Club is loosely based on the fact that Max Scmelling is known to have helped two Jewish boys on Kristallnacht, and this makes the events even more tragic.  It is a beautifully written story of courage and perseverance during terrible times, and reminds us that even the unlikeliest people can become heros.  Remember this one when ISU time rolls around.

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