White Bird by R.J. Palacio is an award winning historical fiction graphic novel written in 2019. The story is about Sara Blum, a Jewish girl in hiding for survival in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. She happens to be the grandmother, Grandmère, of Julian Albans, Auggie Pullman's tormentor in Wonder and Auggie & Me. The story begins with Julian speaking to his beloved Grandmère over FaceTime. He asks her to share her experiences of growing up in France during World War II. She has shared bits of the story before in Auggie & Me. In White Bird, Julian asks Grandmère to expand on what she told him about Tourteau and how she survived the Holocaust. At first, Grandmère is hesitant as the memories are so painful. But eventually she agrees, telling Julian, "Those were dark times, yes ... but what has stayed with me the most is not the darkness but the light. That is what I have held onto all these years ... and that is the story I want to share with you now."
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"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Author R.J. Palacio places this profound quote by George Santayana at the start of the Prologue, setting the tone for the reader. Sara Blum had an idyllic childhood with her loving Maman and Papa in a picturesque town in France beside a fairytale forest. Her father was a successful surgeon and her mother a mathematician, the first woman professor in the town. The family enjoyed picnics among the bluebells at the edge of the forest where Sara's father would swing her in the air so she could "Fly high like a bird". Their innocent game of flying high above the world like a bird is woven throughout the book as the white bird symbolizes the beauty and interconnectedness of humanity.
Grandmère explains the incremental ways the Nazis and their French collaborators stripped the rights of Jewish people, oppressed them, and dehumanized them in propaganda. Sara also introduces us to Tourteau, her classmate at school who has always been tormented by bullies. She has not, herself, teased the boy, but she has stood by and watched. The classmates nicknamed him "Tourteau" as a cruel joke. It means "crab" in French and it was given to him because his legs had been partially paralyzed by polio as a child and he walks with crutches. His real name is Julien Beaumiers. Despite the fact that Sara sat next to him for three years in school, she never knew his name and only refers to him as "Tourteau" throughout the beginning of the story.
Then the worst happens. The Nazis begin rounding up Jewish people all over Sara's town. Her teachers try to hide the Jewish children, but they are caught by the Nazis and the children are sent to their deaths in concentration camps along with a teacher who wouldn't leave their side. Sara manages to escape! She hides in a bell tower and is discovered by Tourteau. He helps her sneak through the sewer tunnels which he knows well because his father is a sanitation worker. Tourteau brings Sara to his home and hides her in his barn. When Sara expresses her gratitude, she finally learns his name, Julien. Grandmère tells her grandson, "And that is the name, of all the names in the world, that I have held closest to my heart since then. It is the name I gave to your father. It is the name he gave to you, Julian."
Julien and his parents, Vivienne and Jean-Paul Beaumier, care for Sara throughout her time in hiding. They bring her food, clothes, and blankets. They visit daily; Vivienne helps Sara wash and Julien plays games and teaches her what he is learning in school. However, the Beaumiers were always in fear of the Nazis. If they were caught hiding a Jewish person, they could be executed. They feared their neighbors, the La Fleurs, because they had become withdrawn and the Beaumiers were sure that the La Fleurs were Nazi collaborators. Despite the isolation, the bats and mice, and the sadness over the loss of her parents, Sara perseveres throughout her years in hiding. Julien and Sara became best friends, confiding in one another; their feelings even blossoming to love.
One day, Julien sees Sara's treasured sketchbook in his principal's office at school. He secretly takes it as a present for Sara because he knows how much she loved to draw in it every day. Sara is delighted but their joy is short lived. Vincent, a classmate who became a Nazi and who passionately hates anyone who was different from him, follows Julien and accuses him of stealing. He beats Julien ferociously until Sara starts to stand up in hiding and bats swoop down from the loft and scare him away. Later, Vincent realizes that Julien must be hiding Sara, the one Jewish classmate who escaped the Nazi roundup. Vincent has the Nazi's kidnap Julien while he is walking to school. The Nazis abduct Julien along with patients from hospitals and mental institutions. Then, Vincent sneaks out to the Beaumiers and into the barn where Sara is hiding. He shoots at her and barely misses, but she is able to escape through a window and into the nearby woods. By chance, while she is running from Vincent, a wolf leaps out, attacks, and kills Vincent. Sara sees her sketchbook lying next to Vincent and realizes that he must have taken it from Julien. She knows that Julien must be in danger. She rushes to tell Julien's parents. They try in vain to rescue Julien, but the Nazis murdered Julien along with the other hospital patients. Grandmère describes it as the Massacre of Mernuit Forest in May, 1944.
Sara manages to survive the war with the help of the Beaumiers and is eventually reunited with her father. But, her beloved Julien, her mother, her Jewish classmates, and 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis along with 10 million Russians, Poles, Serbs, Romani, disabled, LGBTQ, and others in the Nazi's evil effort to eliminate anyone who was different from them. At the close of her story, her grandson, Julian, tearfully promises his Grandmère that he will help to ensure that no one ever forgets and that history does not repeat itself. Julian says, "I will never let them forget. I will shine my light ... for you." Grandmère reminds Julian and the reader that, "Evil is only stopped when good people come together to put an end to it."
Check out other lesson plans on history and literature during World War II and Holocaust
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