Sunday, June 27, 2010


Last Tuesday I enjoyed my first encounter with Broadway in Boulder's musical Grand Hotel at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Based on the 1929 Vicki Baum novel and play, Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel), the musical focuses on events taking place over the course of a weekend in an elegant hotel in 1928 Berlin and the intersecting stories of the eccentric guests of the hotel. The cast is made up of talented 15-24 year olds from Boulder County, Arvada and Denver, several of whom are headed to prestigious musical arts programs in the fall.

Imagine my surprise when I started Kathryn Lasky's latest historical novel, Ashes, on Wednesday and found references to People in a Hotel throughout the book! In Ashes, the rise of the Nazis in 1932 Germany is seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Gabriella Schram, who is a privileged German child. Gaby is a passionate reader, whose favorite book is Vicki Baum's People in the Hotel. Blond Gaby looks like the Aryan ideal, but her anti-Fascist family members are called white Jews, because of their political sympathies. Her father, an astrophysicist at the University of Berlin, is a good friend of their neighbor, Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity is termed Jewish physics by the Nazis. Her mother's best friend is the celebrated Jewish newspaper columnist Baba Blumenthal, whom Gaby adores.

While the intellectuals in her parents' social circle anxiously debate what to do about the looming Nazi rise to power, Gaby observes those around her with Aryan sympathies, such as their pro-Hitler maid who is looking to rise above her poverty; Gaby's elegant literature teacher, who wants her to become a leader in the Hitler Youth group; and her sister, whose boyfriend is an ardent Nazi. Gaby begins a Diary of Shame, listing private moments, where she gives in to peer pressure, such as when a gang of boys forces Gaby and her best friend to return its "Heil Hitler" salute, rather than stand up for what she believes is right.

Each chapter of Ashes begins with a quote from a book that she is reading, by authors such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London, that foreshadow elements of the chapter. The prophetic opening quote, by Heinrich Heine -"Where they burn books, they will end by burning human beings."- sets the stage for this compelling story. When book-burning threatens Gaby's beloved books, as well as free thought in Germany, she and her family must determine how to proceed in the future.

In answering the question, "How did you come to write Ashes?", Kathryn Lasky replied, "What fascinated me most was what led up to the all-time catastrophe, the tragedy of modern times. I did not want the perspective of a Jewish person, but a gentile—in other words not a girl whose life was threatened, but whose sense of humanity was threatened; where she begins on some level—most likely a subconscious level—to question what it means to be human." This well researched portrait of pre-WWII Germany eloquently chronicles this volatile time in human history. When I attend the final performance of Grand Hotel at the Dairy tonight, I will do so with a much deeper understanding of Germany during this era.

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