“The Safest Lie,” by Angelo Cerrito
Holiday House, New York, 2015, 180 pages, Grades 4-7.
Ethnic cleansing is methodical elimination of a national or religious group. It is occurring continuously today in the Mid-East with repeated accounts of Yazidis, Muslims and Eastern Rite Catholics being deported or killed. Ethnic cleansing can easily turn into genocide. The afflicted groups are first marginalized and then characterized with inhuman traits. This depersonalizes the groups and desensitizes members of the dominant culture. This desensitization in turn weakens the public will to oppose the coming assaults.
During World War II, all of these actions led to the Holocaust. This horribly evil event included the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, church leaders and other “enemies of the state.” Yet in these dark times, true heroes arose to help the victims. Often these courageous people were priests, nuns and dedicated members of the laity. In the novel “The Safest Lie,” Angelo Cerrito tells the harrowing story of a young Jewish girl, Anna Bauman, her struggle to survive, and the courageous actions taken by many Poles to save her.
All the Jews in Warsaw are ordered into a small, walled-in section of the city. Simply called “The Ghetto,” the Jews struggle to survive there each day. The Baumans make a painful decision and decide their daughter must flee this prison. Mrs. Bauman first tutors Anna to use the Polish surname of Karwolska. She is smuggled out of the ghetto by faithful Poles and taken to a farm in the country.
Within days the girl is taken to a convent where she is sheltered by a group of courageous nuns. Anna is one of many Jewish girls the nuns have rescued and protected from the Nazis. But Anna must begin living a double life to survive. She quickly learns Catholic prayers but lives with a constant inner struggle as she wants to remain Jewish.
After about a year, the sisters know they must move some of the Jewish girls to Polish families, to avoid having the convent discovered by the Germans. But fear and danger continue to follow Anna because now she is moved to a farm outside of a small town. The family who owns the farm shields her from the Nazis, at great risk to themselves.
Anna soon encounters Nazis close by her new home, in the nearby city and on the farm. Anna lies to deceive them. Lying troubles her but she is so vulnerable that she doesn’t know what else to do. Events quickly develop when her family becomes involved in the Resistance movement and World War II ends in Poland. But Anna soon learns that peace isn’t so pleasant either. What happens next?
Who helped Anna in the story? Why did so many people risk their lives to save these Jewish children? What is courage? Who shows Anna that she has courage? And finally, what is the safest lie? To find out the answers to these questions, go to the library and check out “The Safest Lie” by Angelo Cerrito.
I read this book from cover to cover at one sitting. I found the story compelling without being overwhelming. This is not an easy task, given the nature of the Holocaust. Cerrito does not give any easy answers in this book, but repeatedly shows the great love and courage of Anna and the people saving this child.
One of the characters in the novel is based on the life of the heroic Irena Sendler. During World War II, despite imprisonment, Sendler saved more than 2,500 Jewish children. This is a fine novel about a terrible historical event. Cerrito tells the story in a truthful manner, but also in a way that will not overwhelm children. I hope you get a chance to read the book or recommend it to middle school children in your family.