(2013, DK Montague, ISBN: 978-0-615-41295-6; davidkarmi.com)
By Joey Madia
Every now and again I am sent a book for review that breaks down the partitions that I have constructed to separate the various aspects of my professional life. David Karmi’s Survivor’s Game is one of those books. I am going to review this book specifically from the point of view of my role as an artistic director and as resident playwright for two theatre companies that specialize in social justice and story-based education for young audiences and as a writing teacher and the author of the novel Jester-Knight.
Survivor’s Game is specifically named to evoke popular adventure books for young readers like Hunger Games. From there one instantly thinks of the Harry Potter series, Chronicles of Narnia, and other best-selling series where young people come of age through life-threatening circumstances. These much-needed stories at the core of modern culture serve as essential rites of passage. The very popular George R.R. Martin series A Song of Fire and Ice (which just finished its third season on HBO as Game of Thrones) features several young characters, making it appealing to teen readers/viewers. My novel Jester-Knight has seen a similar trend.
There are also several video games, such as Skyrim, that use these genre devices.
As timeless and powerful as these stories are, they are fantasy. They happen in worlds completely or substantially different from our own. And although the authors strive to make their characters relatable and their worlds detailed and inviting to immerse into, there is always the recognition that “this isn’t real, and could never actually happen to me.”
Put Holocaust survivor David Karmi’s memoir in their hands, and they cannot use that “out.”
I am impressed with Mr. Karmi’s engaging narrative style. The book reads like a first-person novel. To borrow from scholars like Joseph Campbell and script and story advisors like Christopher Vogler, it is constructed like a classic Hero’s Journey, with an easily identifiable three-act model of Separation, Initiation, and Return. It begins in the Ordinary World, with a loving Jewish family with strong traditions culturally and religiously and quickly moves to the Call to Adventure as the Nazis gain power and young David’s family is deported from Hungary into Poland (Separation), where they are pulled apart at Auschwitz. From there (Initiation), David is taken to the Warsaw ghetto and on to Dachau and Landsberg in Germany, culminating in a death march to the Tyrol Mountains on the Italian border where the Allies finally free he and his fellow prisoners (Return).
It could have ended there. But upon David’s return to postwar life, he chose to not play it safe, but heeded at least two more Calls to Adventure. He first went to Palestine, fighting for the independence of the Jewish people (including enduring the use of gas by the British army to remove passengers from a transport ship [the British were siding with the Arab nations because of access to petroleum]) and then joining the Army in the new nation of Israel, where he met Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and served under future Prime Minister Ariel Shanon. He later went to America and built hundreds of homes in Brooklyn and elsewhere before turning to the construction of office buildings and condos.
David survives by using his wits and instincts and by knowing when to trust the advice of the mentors he encounters in the camps. He also demonstrates a fierce work ethic and the ability to not only earn money, but to employ it wisely to further his chances of success.
Survivor’s Game is filled with heroes and villains, threshold guardians and mentors, including a Wehrmacht lieutenant that arranges for David to be his orderly and personal messenger, eventually taking him to dinner with his family. It uses short chapters that serve like “episodes” and subtly employs narrative devices like foreshadowing and explores all of its major themes on micro and macro levels.
I defy any young reader to brush off the impact of what Karmi describes in the camps, whether it be the living and work conditions, the incessant death, the chilling irony of the sign that hung at the entrance of the concentration camps that read arbeit macht frei [work will make you free], or the SS officers that decided who lived and died by the direction in which they chose to point their thumb.
In the end, what resonates most clearly in Survivor’s Game is Karmi’s unwavering sense of hope and faith. He writes, “If you lost your belief or will to endure and suffer, you might as well have walked out toward the nearest fence and let the guards shoot you down.”
He also chooses to focus on Forgiveness instead of Revenge, an invaluable lesson for our immediacy-driven, cyber-times, and the violence that they bring.
Survivor’s Game is a welcome addition to books like Diary of Anne Frank and Eli Wiesel’s Night and with its fresh approach and appealing narrative style, could be used in classrooms and as a discuss starter for community groups that work with teens.