Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott & illustrated by Josée Bisaillon

By Maureen Tai, 10 November 2018

“Rosentrasse was still a busy street, but the people were no longer friendly.” – Benno

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The endpapers – the first and last two spreads of illustrations – in  Benno and the Night of Broken Glass convey the essence of the story.  In the first spread, an orange tabby cat pads along a street where only the pedestrians’ calves and colourful shoes are visible. The pace is leisurely, some feet stroll but most just stand, suggesting that people have stopped to chat, or to exchange some news. In the final endpapers, the tabby pads along the same street but the mood is palpably different. The menacing, clunky black boots of soldiers fill the pages and the other civilian feet hurry past. The cat’s face is expressionless but his tail is no longer happily upright. Instead, it is limp, and weighed down.

Something terrible has happened in Rosenstrasse.

Benno, the tabby cat, lives in an apartment building at Number 5 Rosenstrasse. He belongs to no one and as such, roams freely and easily to and from all the apartments in his building.  He is welcomed into the lives of all the inhabitants: by the Adler family who light Sabbath candles and share challah bread on Friday night dinners, by the Schmidts who have lunch together every Sunday after church, even by the bookish Professor Goldfarb who allows Benno to nap amongst his papers.

Benno is similarly welcomed by shopkeepers in the neighbourhood. He gets scraps from Moshe the butcher, loving ear scratches from Frau Gerber, the grocer’s wife, and permission to sleep in the sun on bolts of fabric from Mitzi Stein, the dressmaker.  The two communities – the Jewish and the German – work, play and live together in an easy and warm harmony.  We sense Benno’s contentment from the collage-style pictures and from his keen observations which are never emotional or judgmental. This neutrality and distance make Benno the ideal narrator of the shocking anti-Jewish attacks that take place over the next two days – 9 and 10 November 1938 – that have come to be remembered as Kristallnacht or the “Night of Broken Glass.” *   Under the cover of night, terror is unleashed as Jewish-owned shops are ransacked and store windows shattered. Jewish homes are invaded and their inhabitants dragged away to meet unspeakably dark fates. Even the sacred is not spared. The beautiful Jewish house of worship, the synagogue, is set aflame and the Torah scrolls are trampled in the streets. To cater for sensitive younger readers, the illustrator has depicted the violence and destruction thoughtfully.  The “bad guys” are shadowy figures with grabbing hands and the main focus of the pictures are the ruptured buildings and smashed objects.  The only Jewish person we see in pictures is Professor Goldfarb as he is dragged away from his precious books. It is a chilling detail that my eyes return to, time and time again.

In the cold light of morning, when the screams and shouts have abated and the flames have turned to smoulders, Benno sees that daily life continues as usual for the German residents of Rosentrasse.  But for the Jewish people in the community, their lives have been drastically and tragically altered by the anti-Jewish malice and hate that has by then reached a tipping point.  The Holocaust is about to begin. Rosenstrasse and the world will never be the same again.

For ages 7 and up.

* According to the website Holocaust Encyclopedia, Kristallnacht owes its name to the shards of shattered glass that lined German streets in the wake of the attacks – broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence. For further reading, see Holocaust Encyclopedia.

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