Parallel Journeys Summary

Eleanor H. Ayer

Parallel Journeys

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Parallel Journeys Summary

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American author Eleanor H. Ayer’s Parallel Journeys(1995), a children’s nonfiction history book, was written with help from the subjects of the book, Helen Waterford and Alfons Heck. Set during the rise of Nazi Germany, it is the story of two German children born only a few miles apart in the German Rhineland. As the Nazis came to power, their lives took drastically different paths. Helen and her Jewish family found themselves brutally persecuted and driven out of Germany. They hid in Amsterdam, but were eventually found, and Helen and her family were taken by cattle car to the Auschwitz extermination camp. Alfons, meanwhile, was inducted into the Hitler Youth as most German children were. Bombarded with propaganda, he became a devout believer in Hitler’s rule and rose to a high rank in the youth corps. By the time he came of age, he was a commander of frontline troops more than willing to fight and die for the Nazi regime. Parallel Journeys tracks the lives of these witnesses to the horrors of WWII and how they changed over the years. Critically acclaimed and frequently used as an educational text in middle school curricula on the Holocaust, Parallel Journeys was named the ALA Best Book for Young Adults and won the Christopher Award.

Parallel Journeys is a true story, told through recreated narratives, as well as first-hand narratives from two people involved. Helen Waterford grew up as a Jewish girl in Frankfurt, Germany during the early 1900s. By 1933, she was married to a Jewish man named Siegfried Wohlfarth, who had a strict and exacting personality. As Hitler rose to power, Germany became deeply hostile to Jewish people, and Helen and Siegfried fled the country to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. There, they were able to live a normal life, having a daughter named Doris in 1937. However, as the Nazi war machine marched across Europe, Jewish people in the countries Hitler invaded were rounded up and deported. When the Nazis arrived in Holland searching for its Jewish population, Helen and Siegfried were able to find a safe home for Doris before they were taken. Helen and Siegfried, thankful to have spared their daughter their fate, were loaded onto a cattle car and taken to a concentration camp. They were soon separated, and Helen never saw her husband again.

Meanwhile, Alfons lived nearby. As a young boy, he had been inducted into the Hitler Youth, the indoctrination organization that trained future soldiers for the Nazis. Alfons quickly found himself drawn to the zealous propaganda promising a new and better Germany. Excelling in the organization,he became a glider pilot, and eventually a high-ranking officer commanding more than six thousand young soldiers.

As Alfons’s meteoric rise continued, Helen was struggling to survive hell on Earth. She was first at Birkenau, then transferred to the Kratzau work camp for women in Czechoslovakia. Although the women were promised that this was a labor camp and not a death camp, the conditions were extremely brutal. Eventually, the war ended and Helen was liberated by the allies—extremely weak and sick, but overjoyed to be free and to have survived. For Alfons, the end of the war brought stark revelations. He returned home to find his village destroyed, and was soon arrested by American soldiers. Although he was cleared of all charges, he was struck by a crisis of conscience when he realized the scope of the Nazis’atrocities. He attended the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and eventually left for Canada, leaving Germany behind. Years later, he moved to the United States. Helen, meanwhile, made the long journey back to Amsterdam to find her daughter. With the help of friends, she was able to find meager housing for herself and her daughter, and she received some settlement money from Siegfried’s former boss. Eventually, Helen and Doris decided to leave Europe and head for the United States to join her parents, who had fled a few years before the war. Both Helen and Alfons were living in the United States when Helen saw a newspaper article he had written about the war. She contacted him, and they discussed their parallel journeys. Eventually, the two started a lecture series to educate people about the Holocaust and how two people so close geographically could have such diametrically opposed journeys.

Eleanor H. Ayer, born Eleanor Ann Hubbard, is an American author and historian who graduated from Syracuse University and specializes in biography, non-fiction, and history writing for a young audience. She has written biographies of prominent figures including Charles Dickens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and travel guidebooks for California, Arizona, and Colorado. She is best known for her non-fiction books focusing on the Holocaust, which are geared to a middle school and young adult audience. Many of her books include first-hand testimonials from survivors of the camps and ghettos. In total, she has published more than fifty books, as well as running her own publishing company with her husband and coaching multiple teams to the National Geographic Geography Bee finals.