The Island on Bird Street (Ha-I Bi-Rehov Hatsiporim)

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THE ISLAND ON BIRD STREET (Ha-I bi-rehov hatsiporim)

Children's Novel by Uri Orlev, 1981

In the introduction to his novel for children The Island on Bird Street (1984; Ha-I bi-rehov ha-tsiporim, 1981), Orlev asks his readers to imagine a city occupied by a foreign army and divided by walls that separate neighborhoods in which people have been imprisoned and separated from each other based upon some arbitrary characteristic such as the color of their skin or of their eyes. In this imaginary city the rich can still buy what they want, but the poor die of hunger. This city resembles Warsaw, where Jerzy Henryk Orlowski, known as Uri Orlev, was born in 1931. The hero of The Island on BirdStreet, Alex, also strongly resembles the boy Orlev once was, though Alex is a fictional character.

Orlev uses literary models and a mixture of keen observation of reality and his main character's imaginative inner life to convey the experience of surviving alone in the ghetto during German occupation after his father is deported. His primary literary model, which becomes a metaphor for Alex's isolation, is Robinson Crusoe's sojourn on a distant island. Alex scavenges to survive, as Crusoe did, and he feels as distant from the rest of the world as his literary role model did. Alex also is aided in his struggle to survive by his pet mouse, Snow, who takes on almost human characteristics in Alex's imagination. But most of all, he endures because he has hope: he is waiting for his father to return. He has to deal with neighbors with whom his father established a hidden cache of food, but who, now that his father is gone, refuse to share the food with him. Instead of casting his lot with these untrustworthy neighbors, he decides to attempt to survive on his own. He observes the life in the neighboring Polish street from his hidden lookout and eventually even dares to venture out into the Polish sector, in search of companionship with other children.

The novel is not only a vivid depiction of the fear and pain of living under the threat of death, it is also a philosophical exploration of the ambiguities of good and evil, fate, and human nature, from the perspective of a thoughtful and imaginative 11-year-old. For instance, thinking about the process of "selection," Alex reflects on what it would be like to be someone on whom others' lives depended. "I'd think, for instance, that if it were up to me, I'd decide to save anyone who had a big space between his front teeth, because I had one myself. But father and Boruch didn't have spaces. It would have to be something else, then, like blue eyes." But he quickly realizes the absurdity of using any criteria to select some people for survival and allow others to be destroyed.

Alex also confronts the question of violence and its justification in self-defense. His father teaches him to shoot, and says, "What counts most is the element of surprise. They'll never guess that you're armed. Take your time. You'll be more accurate from close up. If one is behind the other, you can thread them both with one shot." Alex laughs at the idea of "threading" people he shoots "as if they were a bunch of beads," but he is also keenly aware that his mother would not laugh at this. She hates the war books and stories Alex loves. "If you relate to people with trust and human kindness, they will always help you," is his mother's teaching. These con-flicting messages are difficult for Alex to reconcile. His father says, "Be kind but trust only yourself."

Alex has to act on his father's advice when he encounters a German soldier pursuing two fleeing men during the Uprising. Alex shoots the soldier but goes into shock later. With great ingenuity and courage, he aids the two underground fighters, crossing over into the Polish sector to find a doctor to operate on the one who is injured. Despite hunger, danger, and long stretches of loneliness, Alex endures for five months until his father, against all the odds, returns. Alex is both child and man, seeing the surreal world of the ghetto and its surroundings with convincing clarity and retaining his sanity in an insane universe. Oddly, yet believably, Alex's ordeal is not bleak, though it is terrifying at times. It is a heroic story about a boy who is forced to become a man but who does not lose his childlikeness or his humanity.

—J.D. Stahl