Set in Budapest, Hungary beginning on October 30, 1944.
As Brother Ferenc begins to counsel the boys in Hendrik’s class about their upcoming confirmation, he tells them that in the future their religious life will not be governed by their parents, but that they themselves will have to take responsibility for it, that they will have to make a choice to follow the church. Hendrik remembers his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah and his mind begins to focus on his family in the Jewish quarter, in Pest. Following his Uncle Peter’s detention and deportation to a work camp in 1939, Hendrik’s father had moved them to Buda. He and his parents had taken on Christian identities complete with false identity cards. He was told never to talk about his old life or the relatives they had left behind. From the moment he moved into their new apartment, Hendrik became best friends with Ivan, son of a ranking member of the Hungarian Nazi Party, the Arrow Cross. Brother Ferencs’ words cause Hendrik to wonder if his father’s decision had been the right one. Would his choice have been different?
Hendrik wants to sort all of this out for himself. He wants to confide in Ivan, who is preparing to join the Arrow Cross, but has second thoughts. He decides to visit his aunt and cousins in the Jewish Quarter in Buda and bring them food. After being asked for his papers, and finding a way to get over the ghetto wall being built around the Jewish Quarter, Jakob finds that life has changed. Jews are wearing yellow stars on their clothes, emaciated people are huddling in doorways. Jakob makes it to his aunt’s apartment where Aunt Mimi rushes to greet him but his cousin hides nervously in the shadows. When it becomes time for the Arrow Coss’s daily patrols, Aunt Mimi hurries him out, but as he is leaving, he runs into Ivan’s father. When asked what he’s doing there, he responds that he’s not Hendrik, but rather Jakob Kohn and a Jew. As Jakob and his family are being taken away in a truck, he sees his friend Ivan coming around a corner. Ivan’s father orders him to go back to their neighborhood and alert the patrols that the Vargas family is Jewish, and should be rounded up immediately along with their Christian housekeeper.
Jakob winds up being taken to Auschwitz, where he makes two friends though he understood that making friends was not a safe thing to do. Antol rescues him at his first roll call, and who, having been there for several months already seems to know how to survive the horror. The other is with an observant Jewish boy who teaches him Hebrew prayers. What keeps Jakob going, though, are his plans to seek revenge against Ivan when the war is over.
Jakob’s story is based on the experiences of the author’s father, Frigyes Porsht. Although ably told as a novel, there are several points that bother me.
One is the title, The Choice. I cringe to think that some readers may think that Hendrik made the “choice” to be taken by the Nazis. Clearly his own parents had failed to explain the situation to him, but how could a child have begun to understand.
The other problem I have with The Choice is the use of documentary photographs. Mostly they are pre and post war photographs of the city of Budapest, as well as barracks at Auschwitz. I found it strange that these were used; in some ways the story was more powerful than these photos which are somewhat grainy and taken from far away. These give the book the look of a nonfiction book and I wonder why it wasn’t written as such. Perhaps the photos were used to bar against holocaust deniers. In fact, the Holocaust is barely taught in high school these days. Young people first encounter it in literature.
As Jakob witnesses first hand the starvation, killing and gruesome humiliation of people he knows and other Jews, I would recommend it for grade 8 and up.