April 06, 2013

The Secret of the Village Fool

by Rebecca Upjohn
Illustrated by Renné Benoit
Second Story Press
32 pp.
Ages 7-10

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
E. F. Schumacher

We are all fools at one point or another so the antiquated idea of a village fool is and should be reprehensible.  But, as E. F. Schumacher recognizes in the above quotation, courage and genius can transform, as it does in Rebecca Upjohn's The Secret of the Village FoolIn the capable pen of award-winning youngCanLit author Rebecca Upjohn (The Last Loon, Orca, 2010; Lily and the Paper Man, Second Story Press, 2007), the true events upon which this picture book is based demonstrate the ignorance of prejudice and the courage of those who can see beyond it.

A sensitive man who talks to animals and plants and never eats meat, Anton is ridiculed for his weird ideas. But he recognizes kindness in others, like Milek and Munio's mother who sends food and clothes over to Anton who is poor.  He also sees the ugliness of those who warn him against fraternizing with Jews.  In World War II Poland, the fear of Hitler has many shunning their Jewish neighbours.  But not Anton.  He considers how to help them should the Nazis arrive in their village.

When the Nazis do arrive and they begin arresting Jews, targeting the boys first, Anton arrives at Milek and Munio's house with disguises for the boys. Later when whole families are being taken away, Anton keeps six of them hidden in his attic until an underground hiding place is constructed for them leading by tunnel from Anton's root cellar and by a shaft from Anton's bedroom.  Along with a young girl Ziphora and a family friend, Eva, the family hides away for months, enduring lice, dampness, hunger and cramped quarters.  Mama always reminds them of the risks Anton was taking daily to ensure their safety.  But, as Anton had always known, "Life is precious--every life."

With photographs, Rebecca Upjohn extends the story of Anton Suchinski and the Zeiger family to 1992 with Anton's official recognition as "Righteous among Nations" at the Holocaust Memorial and Museum in JerusalemThis recognition may have finally transformed Anton from village fool to village hero but his heart and valour have always identified him as a champion, choosing to live his life true to his heart, even when ridiculed.  The Secret of the Village Fool shows Anton to be not a fool, but an angel, especially to those whose lives he saved and to their children, grandchildren and others they were able to touch.  And to those of us fortunate enough to read this story. 

Thank you, Rebecca Upjohn, for giving life to this story and presenting it exquisitely, wisely tempering the horrors of a wartime genocide and human ignorance with Anton's compassion and wisdom and the learning that happens, so necessary for ignorance to be overcome.

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