GREENHORN, a short middle grade novel by author and literary agent Anna Olswanger, is one amazing book. A mere 48 pages in length, it packs a huge punch as it reveals the friendship between Aaron, a stuttering boy in a boarding yeshiva in Brooklyn, and Daniel who is one of twenty boys sent to the yeshiva from Poland--boys whose parents died in concentration camps. Throughout this short work, the epigram resonates: A friend loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17).
With exquisite attention to detail and turn of phrase, Anna Olswanger enters fully into what it is like to be a young Jewish boy in 1946. The world is still reeling from the devastation of war and the systematic murder of millions of people, most of them Jewish, by the Nazi regime. Yet, over in America, the information the boys have is spotty. Their parents have talked about the Holocaust, but for them it is not quite a reality. As the conversation goes at the beginning of the story, one of the students (Ruben) tells Daniel "We heard our papa say that the Nazis marched all over Europe killing Jews like flies. Did that really happen?"
Yes, it did really happen, and Daniel carries the emotional scars with him, as well as a physical reminder of his loss in the small tin box that never leaves his side. Aaron, meanwhile, has scars of his own. Although feisty and intelligent, he stutters--and the other students call him Gravel Mouth. Daniel, being a newbie, is called Greenhorn. Yet, once he begins to study, he is a ferocious learner, translating Aramaic into Yiddish and reading commentaries in Hebrew, causing one of the boys to tell Aaron "Hey, he's even better than you."
Daniel does not join the other boys in giving Aaron a hard time for his stutter. The two boys are bonded, perhaps not even consciously, by their standing apart from their fellows. There is a powerful scene where Aaron whispers to Daniel (the reader isn't sure if Daniel is asleep or not) that "Friends don't keep secrets from each other." Aaron reveals that he wants to be a rabbi, like his father. But "how does a guy who s-s-stutters get to be a rabbi?"
Moments like this, beautifully understated, tug at the heartstrings. So does the profound ending, with Aaron and Daniel traveling to Aaron's home in New Jersey. Aaron talks about burying Daniel's box (the contents of which are now known to the boys in the yeshiva) and Daniel stops him.
"We don't ask other rabbi stand over my box," Daniel said, matter-of-factly. "Then you be rabbi. You read prayer for dead."
I stopped counting the number of Packards. "Who told you I wanted to be a rabbi?"
Daniel kept his eyes on the highway. "You told. Friends no keep secrets from each other."GREENHORN is a worthy addition to literature dealing with the Holocaust. Its length makes it accessible to even reluctant readers, and the publisher, NewSouth Books, has well-thought-out guides on its website for both family discussions and for use in the classroom. I also enjoyed the illustrations by artist Miriam Nerlove. One wonderful part of the story, which we learn in the end notes, is that the "real life" Aaron is Rabbi Rafael Grossman. Furthermore, Rabbi Grossman did meet "Daniel" again later in life, while visiting a hospital in Jerusalem in 1981. "Daniel" was a pediatrician with a wife and three daughters.
About the Author (From the NewSouth website): Anna Olswanger's Shlemiel Crooks (Junebug Books) is a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and PJ Library Book. In 2011 the Kaufman Center premiered a family musical based on Shlemiel Crooks at Merkin Hall in New York. Anna lives in the metro New York City area and is a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates. Her website is www.olswanger.com.