I found this to be a gripping, unputdownable sort of read, in the way of some books when you don’t really like them – you’re not having a good time because everything is so horrible and you’re 99% sure it can’t end well - but you still have to keep reading to find out what happens.
Max is born on Hitler’s birthday under the Nazi "Lebensborn" program, Hitler's Aryan baby production line scheme (which produced about 8,000 children in Germany, between 8 and 12,000 children in Scandinavia, and hundreds in several other occupied countries). So Max is special, baptised by Hitler himself.
The narrative device/pov is quite peculiar, beginning from Max’s time in the womb but with no concessions whatsoever to developmental realities or likely knowledge base. Max understands exactly who and what he is from the moment of conception, and expresses himself with highly articulate clarity and an in-depth understanding of Nazi ideology and the Lebensborn program. From the stage of, you know, a marble-sized cluster of cells or so.
Which is a little weird, but in the main it does work: suspension of disbelief kicks in and the reader absorbs that this is what the program wants Max to be – a high-on-Hitler junkie – even though in reality no child could possibly express himself like this.
What works slightly less well are the modernisms sprinkled throughout, which jar, and may be due to translation rather than the original story.
The Lebensborn program is a less well known aspect of the Nazi obsession with Aryan supremacy and eugenics, and so there is an element of horrified fascination: how these supposedly educated and civilized adults could become so warped that, for instance, they would send the “rabbits” (defective babies – asthma etc) off to be experimented on and dissected.
And for all the slight weirdness of the pov, it is fascinating to see the system from inside: how it might appear to a child who has known nothing else, how he is formed and his attitudes/ideology/mindset developed.
I did feel there were some slight inconsistencies: for instance, Max is perfectly well aware from marble-cell stage of what is going on – the code words used, the function of camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz, the fact that he’s using soap made of Jewish fat, the constant fear that he may not make the Aryan grade because the less perfect are “relocated” (he knows they’re killed) – but then at some much later point he’s told about industrialised death-dealing by his friend Lukas, and is apparently struck dumb amazed??? Also that he knows all the insignia of rank from a very young age (like, birth). And like the fact that he doesn’t know what happened to his collaborator friend who was helping him round up Polish children, and then quite a bit later suddenly he can see precisely how she was executed.
And most of all, the fact that this eugenically pure indoctrinated super-Nazi doesn’t shop his friend Lukas when he finds out he’s a Jew. There’s not really been any hint, up till then, that Max has had any doubts about his ideology. So not sure that the sudden about-face is entirely plausible – but obviously it makes for gripping reading, because you’re never sure which way Max is going to go with his knowledge.
There are extremely abusive, invasive sexual examinations of children, brutal violence, mega-death, grim stories of the ghetto, rape, and graphic language (also odd, that baby Max is such a foul mouth?? Where is he hearing it?) Like so many books, it is a puzzle to me that this is considered a YA read. Because of the age of the protagonist? If that were the criteria for readership, then this should be read by four year olds – because for much of the story Max is four. Even at the end he’s only nine. Hm. I read Babi Yar when I was twelve, so there’s no doubt a young adult could read it. But it’s nightmare material, I would say.
I would give this four and a half stars. It’s powerful and disturbing reading. It deserves five really, but was too depressing.