“Please, be kind.
Please, be brave.
Please, don’t let it happen again”
(Romero 2017, p. 323).
Though I’ve begun to love reading historical fiction (especially historical fantasy), I’ve come to dread books about the Holocaust because they never fail to break my heart. The Dollmaker of Krakow was no exception to this rule. This book was both splendid and sad, heart-warming and heart-wrenching. The writing was simple, but easy for the reluctant reader to understand, and the fantasy elements perfectly mirrored the true horrors of the Holocaust. While most middle grade students are already aware of the atrocities that took place during World War II, this book could be an excellent way to start a discussion about painful historical events.
The Dollmaker of Krakow focuses on the journey of a doll named Karolina, whose soul has just been summoned to the human world for a purpose she does not yet know. Karolina has lived in the Land of the Dolls so long that she no longer remembers the human she once belonged to. While her friends lament losing their lives in the human world, Karolina busies herself by sewing wishes into the beautiful clothing she creates for others.
When evil rats from a nearby kingdom invade her home, Karolina flees with the help of a kind wind, soon finding herself in Krakow, Poland just before the Nazi occupation. There she meets a kind dollmaker named Cyryl, who is in the process of making a beautiful dollhouse for a young Jewish girl named Rena. As World War II begins and life becomes more and more difficult for Rena and her father, Karolina must find a way to convince the dollmaker that he has magic worth performing.
I’m not even sure where to begin with this book, as it was absolutely breath-taking from beginning to end. At first, I was a little skeptical about the idea of a quick, magical fix for the atrocities of the Holocaust, as it felt too much like lessening their impact. I was pleased, however, to find that the dollmaker’s magic can only perform small miracles, allowing him to save only a few people in the end of the story. The magic adds a whimsical aspect to the story being told, but does not in any way diminish the true horror of the Holocaust.
Because this is a middle grade novel, it is not explicit in describing what happened at death camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it leaves the reader with no doubts as to the fate of everyone sent there. Like Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo, the fantasy elements do not distract from the true lessons from history being taught to the reader, which I appreciated. I also really enjoyed the beautiful illustrations, as they added a visual element to the beautiful storytelling throughout the novel. My only gripe is that I wish they had been in full color!
The characters in this story were absolutely delightful, making it feel like a fairy tale tale rather than a novel. There is a very clear line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” even going as far as calling Nazi officers and Anti-Semitic Germans “witches.” Where The Apprentice Witch (the last middle grade novel I read) is too simple, however, The Dollmaker of Krakow is uncomplicated without ever feeling like the author is talking down to the reader. She makes it very clear throughout the novel (as well as in her Author’s Note) that even magic cannot mend the broken souls of those with hatred in their hearts, and I genuinely felt the losses and heartbreaks of each character as if they were real people.
Romero also avoids dumbing any of the characters down; Erich Brandt starts off innocent (when he first meets Fritz), but then shoes his true colors later on as his mindset changes. The reader also learns that hatred is not born, but learned; the child who injures Mysz is clearly only parroting behavior he has learned from the adults around him, as the dollmaker explains. Despite the simplicity of the story, I felt that this novel presented an excellent introduction to the Holocaust for young readers, likely causing them to ask questions about why the Jews were treated the way they were during World War II, and how Hitler could gain so much unchecked power so quickly.
Along with the characters, I thought the simplified metaphor was also a creative way to explain the Holocaust. In order to mirror the events taking place in the human world, Romero occasionally flashes back to the Land of Dolls, where Karolina must flee from evil rats who have killed her leaders and taken over her kingdom. At one point, the rats invade her home, injuring her and forcing her to leave while they take everything she owns away from her. Other dolls are forced to work for the rats, while still others are burned and tossed away.
Though simplified, this fantasy world represents very real horrors happening to Jewish people like Rena and her father in the human world. Though the rats instantly made me think of The Nutcracker, I loved that their story was used to help soften the blow of real-world horrors for a middle grade audience. After all, it’s much easier to read about the burning of dolls than it is to read about the burning of actual humans with chemical weapons. Despite this, you definitely still feel an emotional punch when things go badly for both the dolls and the humans in the story, so nothing of historical importance is diminished by the fantasy.
To me, the most important part of the novel lies at the end, when R.M Romero presents the reader with a timeline of the events that took place during World War II. For the uninitiated, this provides a helpful overview into what was going on in the real world during the time this story takes place. This lets young readers know that, while the elements of magic are fictional, the Holocaust was not, opening their minds to this tragedy so that it never happens again.
I was also incredibly touched by Romero’s Author’s Note, which explains that she was inspired to write this story after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for herself. Her last words in particular struck me as being incredibly powerful, especially when read by a middle school student, as it calls young people to action in a way that might not sway an adult audience. While the story itself captured me and tugged on my heartstrings, it was this Author’s Note that made me decide this was an incredibly important book.
It’s obvious to me that Romero took great care in being both sensitive and honest when it came to writing about such heavy historical events. Based on her Author’s Note, I can tell that her trip to Auschwitz deeply affected her, compelling her to write a story for middle grade audiences to teach them important history, while also enchanting them with the idea that there is real magic in acts of kindness. I highly recommend it to lovers of both fantasy and historical fiction, as it will both enchant you and make you think deeply about humanity and the way we should treat one another. As it is often said, those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it, and this book would compel any reader to seek meaningful change in order to make the world a kinder place in the future.
Romero, R. M. (2017). The dollmaker of Krakow. New York: Delacorte Press.