The Final Journey
(1996) is a historical young adult novel by German-Czech author Gudrun Pausewang, translated into English by Patricia Crampton. Set in Nazi Germany, the novel follows naïve 12-year-old Alice as she and her grandfather endure a long, cramped train journey, in a carriage full of other German Jews, to an unknown destination. The Final Journey
has been hailed as a powerful introduction to the Holocaust for young teenage readers: “The brutal message of Pausewang's novel lingers long after the last agonizing pages are closed” (Kirkus Reviews
). It won the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation and cemented Pausewang’s reputation as a major YA writer on social and political issues; her previous works include Fall Out
, about nuclear war, and another Holocaust novel, Traitor
. Pausewang, who trained as a teacher before becoming a writer, was born in 1928 in what is now the Czech Republic. Her father was killed fighting for Germany in 1943.
“The sliding-door of the railway truck closed with a deafening clang.” The novel opens as 12-year-old Alice adjusts to her new circumstances. She and her grandfather have been herded aboard a train carriage with 40 or so other people of all ages. All they have in common is the yellow star sewn on their clothes. Alice has no idea what is happening. For the last two years, she has been hiding in a cellar with her grandparents. When soldiers found them, her grandmother was extremely frail, so she was taken away. Alice believes—because her grandfather told her—that her grandmother was being taken home. She also hopes that wherever they are going now, she will see her parents there.
It quickly becomes clear that conditions on the train are appalling. There is no food, no water, no fresh air, no bathrooms. Alice—shy and squeamish about dirt—is forced to urinate on the floor of the car, in front of the large crowd. A young mother, Ruth, takes Alice under her wing and introduces her to her two sons. Together, they approach the other children on the train. The usual rules of childhood apply, even here: Alice is too shy to talk to the older girls. Nevertheless, from the other children, Alice learns a story very different from the one her grandparents have been telling her.
As she talks with the other passengers and learns their stories, she remembers and re-evaluates her own. She recalls the years of Hitler’s rise to power and the night her family’s temple was burned down. She remembers her father losing his business, and the family’s decision to go into hiding. One night, her parents disappeared and never returned. Alice’s grandparents told her that her mother had needed emergency dental treatment. Eventually, Alice realizes that many of the people on board fear the worst:
“The train was still standing in the afternoon sun. ‘This is murder!’ shouted a man's voice from the neighboring truck. Alice's eyes opened with shock. ‘And God lets it happen!’ screamed a woman. ‘What have we done? Just lived our lives like everyone else!’ ‘Those people outside see the trains passing and no one does anything about it,’ moaned the woman. ‘Saw nothing, heard nothing.’”
Alice re-reads the typed letters her parents have been sending her since their disappearance. Noticing that the “D” is always blotted, she remembers that this is a fault her grandfather’s typewriter has. The full truth dawns: her grandfather has lied to her about everything.
Angrily, Alice confronts her grandfather, demanding to know the truth about her parents and grandmother and why he has been lying to her. He explains that he only wanted to protect her, but the anguish of the conflict is too much for him, and he suffers a heart attack and dies.
Alice grieves, but by now her grandfather is not the only casualty of the trip. Meanwhile, a baby is born. Taking comfort in the strength and self-sacrifice of her fellow passengers, Alice resolves to be strong in the face of whatever is to come. She finds a knothole through which she can see the outside world. She is the first person in the carriage to read the signpost for their destination: Auschwitz.
Alice is marched off the train, holding hands with Ruth and her sons. Promised a shower and hot coffee, they are led to a place where they can undress. Keeping her mother’s jewelry on to keep it safe, Alice is led naked to the “showers.” As she enters the building, her first period begins.
“Alice tipped back her head. Soon, soon, water would pour down over her from the nozzle up there. The water of life. It would wash her clean of the dirt and horror of the journey, would make her as clean as she had been before. She raised her arms and opened out her hands.”