I’m compelled to start backwards with a number: 84. As children’s writer (more than 25 times over) Maryann Macdonald explains in her ending “Author’s Note,” 84% of French children survived the horrors of World War II; in fact, “more children survived in France than in any other European country.” Macdonald, rightfully asks, “How did this happen?” When she happened on a copy of Doors to Madame Marie, the autobiography of Odette Meyers, one of the French children who managed to survive, at the American Library of Paris, she knew she had a story to tell …
“My name is Odette,” Macdonald’s compelling novel-in-verse for younger readers begins. “I live in Paris, / … My hair is curly. / Mama ties ribbons in it. / Papa reads to me and buys me toys. / I have everything I could wish for, / except a cat.” Odette is just 8 when “[a] funny-looking many with a mustache / shouts a speech. / His name is Hitler” – and war begins.
Life changes quickly, as Jewish homes are raided and destroyed, Odette’s father joins the French Army, and all Jewish people over the age of 6 must prominently display the yellow star on their clothing. “‘What makes us Jews?’ / I ask Mama one night,” for Odette’s family doesn’t go to synagogue, and “Mama and Papa don’t believe in religion.” The best answer she can understand is that “All our relatives are Jews, / so we are Jews.”
While living in constant fear, Odette and her mother’s greatest ally is Madame Marie, the apartment building’s caretaker with her husband, Monsieur Henri. The couple will save mother and daughter from the middle-of-the-night round-ups, protect Odette when her mother must flee, then securely deliver Odette to the messenger who will take her to shelter in the French countryside.
Safety for Odette comes at the cost of her very identity. No one can know that she’s Jewish, and so she must learn to be just like the other village children – by reciting the same prayers, invoking the same saints, going to Mass every Sunday. For a young child who grew up without religion, her new exposure to Catholicism brings her both comfort and conflict. “I know the reason I feel safe in the country. / It’s because here, / I am not a Jew. / In Paris, I am a Jew.”
Hidden in plain sight, Odette survives war, although she can never wholly escape its horrors. She is bullied and attacked by the same children who were her friends, and she falls silent from the relentless fear and trauma. She will not know who – or what – she is, living a lie, in order to live.
Like The Hidden Girl‘s Lola Rein, Odette’s survival depended heavily on the assistance and protection of non-Jews; unlike Lola who was forced into hiding – much of the time buried in a dark hole – only Odette’s identity was shrouded while she lived openly, attempting to be just like any other village child. Only when the war finally ends can Odette reclaim her true self: “Secrets stand in my way. / They stop me from knowing who I am. / I am a Jew. / I’m sure of it. / And I will always be one.”
Truly, the courage of children knows no bounds.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult