The Island on Bird Street by Uri Orlev

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Orlev, Uri.  Translated by Hillel Halkin.  1984. THE ISLAND ON BIRD STREETNew York:  Houghton Mifflin Company.  ISBN: 0-395-61623-9.

The Island on Bird Street is Uri Orlev's semi-autobiographical novel about a young Jewish boy surviving on his own in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.  Twelve-year-old Alex lives with his father in the Jewish part of the Warsaw Ghetto.  One day, the ghetto is raided and the Jews are rounded up to be sent to the concentration camps.  With help from a family friend, Alex is able to escape and hide in a ruined house at 78 Bird Street, where his father has told him to wait if they are separated.  Alex feels alone and isolated and compares himself to Robinson Crusoe and his hideout on Bird Street to Robinson Crusoe's island.  What is supposed to only be a few days wait turns into weeks then into five months.  During much of that time, Alex is on his own, with only his pet mouse, Snow, to keep him company, and must use his ingenuity and the lessons his father has taught him to survive.  When Alex's father returns to 78 Bird Street, he fears that his son is dead, but instead he finds that his son has grown into a man and done a remarkable job of taking care of himself.  After their reunion, father and son go to join the partisans in the forest.

As he did in Run, Boy, Run, Orlev again manages to bring the modern reader back in time and make him/her understand the struggles of a boy, alone, and in constant danger.  Alex must forage through abandoned houses searching for supplies.  He must avoid policemen, soldiers, and looters, some of whom have crossed to the wall between the Jewish ghetto and the Polish part of the city and would kill him for whatever he owns.  He must find a safe place to stay and be ready to hide or flee at a moment's notice if the police or soldiers are too near.  Alex does all these things and more.  He figures out a way to hide on the third floor of an abandoned apartment house by using a rope ladder, which he can raise and lower from the ground using a system of wires.  Following an uprising in another part of the ghetto, he saves the lives of two Jewish men by shooting a German solider, and then he tends to one of them who is wounded, even crossing over to the Polish side of the wall to bring a doctor who is sympathetic to the resistance, to see him.  When one of the resistance fighters offers to let Alex move in with him and his wife on the Polish side, Alex refuses because he still holds the belief that his father will one day return and wants to be there when he does. 

Many Jewish customs and superstitions are mentioned in The Island on Bird Street.  Before her death, Alex's mother tells him that he is born lucky because he was born with a "hat on." 

What that really meant, mother said, was that some babies were born with part of the sac that enclosed them in the womb still over their heads.  It was just a superstition, but lots of superstitions proved true.

Alex also mentions his grandmother's insistence that all fingernail clippings be collected and burned or the person's soul would have to wander the earth looking for them when they died. 

Food is another item described in great detail in the book.  After a raid on a neighboring bunker, Alex looks for supplies and is excited to find carrots.  His diet consists primarily of canned milk, crackers spread with jam or chicken fat, and, if he is lucky, sardines or salt eggs (pickled eggs).  He is able to use a kerosene burner to "cook" and to make "tea," heated water sucked through a sugar cube.  Luckily Alex's building still had running water, so until the pipes froze in the winter he did not have to carry water to his hideout.  When the pipes froze, he made his "tea" with melted snow.

The Island on Bird Street won the 1995 Mildred L. Batchelder Award, an Association of Jewish Libraries Best Book Award, was an ALA Notable Book, a Booklist "Editor's Choice," and was a Jane Addams Children's Book Award Honor Book.  Orlev who has written over 30 books, received the 1996 Hans Christian Andersen Award.  The jury explained its selection by saying: 

Uri Orlev's experience as a Jewish boy in war-torn Poland is the background of this outstanding writer for children. Whether his stories are set in the Warsaw ghetto or his new country Israel, he never loses the perspective of the child he was. He writes at a high literary level, with integrity and humor, in a way which is never sentimental, exhibiting the skill to say much in few words. Uri Orlev shows how children can survive without bitterness in harsh and terrible times.

It is first person accounts of the Holocaust like Orlev's that will prevent something so horrible that from happening again.

Works cited:

Uri Orlev entry in Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.  Accessed April 22, 2006.

by Monica Wood