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Inky Blog Book of the Month: The Boy Who Didn't Want to Die by Peter Lantos

A story of love, hope and survival.

After a never-ending journey, the train came to a final stop… There was silence. Then we heard shouting in German and dogs barking… “Out, out! Faster, faster!”

It’s the summer of 1944, and Peter and his family have been on what feels to a young boy like an unforgettable adventure. But as bombs fall from the blue sky outside Vienna, Peter realises this adventure must surely be a nightmare. Along with his parents, he arrives at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp and the horrors they have tried so hard to shield Peter from are now impossible to avoid. But, even in the face of terrible losses and unspeakable hardship, Peter and his mother do not give up. They must never stop trying to get home.

Peter Lantos is one of the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust and the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Realising that the current cohort of school children would be the last to have the opportunity to meet a real-life Holocaust survivor in person, Peter felt a responsibility to record his experiences for today’s children and future generations. What has resulted is a deeply moving tale of courage, survival and hope in the face of unimaginable adversity.

Peter’s memoir begins with his early childhood in Makó, Hungary, where aged 5, he would play around the family timber yard with his cousin, Zsuzsi. As the effects of Nazi ideology reach their small town, they are forced to leave their home, their business and their belongings behind as they embark on a never-to-be-forgotten journey across war-torn Europe. What starts as an adventure for the young Peter soon becomes a living nightmare as the reality of their situation becomes clear: freezing temperatures, violence and an ever-present hunger mean survival is not guaranteed and the fear of death is a constant companion.

…the bridges spanning the river had all been blown up.

Five long and arduous train journeys, where they were transported like cattle, took them from the ghettos of Makó, through Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and finally into Germany. A split-second decision by Peter’s parents over which train to board was the difference between ending up in Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, a decision which saved Peter’s life.

Cold and hunger followed them to the concentration camp, but Peter recalls the boredom as being the worst until his mother began teaching him maths, which he credits with sowing the seed of his aptitude for the subject. Many years later, he trained to become a doctor, moved to London and became one of our most renowned researchers in the field of neuroscience. His profound experiences during the war led him to a profession where he could help those in need.

The silence was broken by my mother’s cry – it was a cry I had never heard before.

This is an extremely gripping and powerful story: despite the necessary inclusion of the horrors of the Holocaust – fear, violence, starvation, infection and inevitably death – Peter does not dwell unnecessarily on these facts or sensationalise them. His recollections are told in a matter-of-fact manner through the voice of young Peter.

Their liberation from the Nazis comes approximately halfway through the book, and while their journey back home is not plain sailing, the remainder of the book is filled with hope, marred only by the heart-wrenching discovery of the fate of their family members.

I did not know it then, but it was at this moment that my life, which had hovered between survival and death, became firmly anchored in hope.

This is a fantastic book to help teach children about the realities of the Holocaust. While marketed for ages 8-12, due to the strong themes within the book we would suggest it is more suitable for independent readers aged 10+ and that readers under 10 years share the book with an adult.

Dedicated ‘To the memory of my mother… and to all the children who died in the Holocaust’, this is a thought-provoking and hugely important reminder of the world’s triumph over evil and a moving memorial to the countless lives that were lost.

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