The Keeper of Hidden Books
by Madeline Martin
Publisher: Hanover Square Press
Release Date: August 1, 2023
Reviewed by PJ
All her life, Zofia has found comfort in two things during times of hardship: books and her best friend, Janina. But no one could have imagined the horrors of the Nazi occupation in Warsaw. As the bombs rain down and Hitler’s forces loot and destroy the city, Zofia finds that now books are also in need of saving.
With the death count rising and persecution intensifying, Zofia jumps to action to save her friend and salvage whatever books she can from the wreckage, hiding them away, and even starting a clandestine book club. She and her dearest friend never surrender their love of reading, even when Janina is forced into the newly formed ghetto.
But the closer Warsaw creeps toward liberation, the more dangerous life becomes for the women and their families – and escape may not be possible for everyone. As the destruction rages around them, Zofia must fight to save her friend and preserve her culture and community using the only weapon they have left - literature.
I've read a fair amount about the effects of WWII on the populace of France, Italy, England, etc. What I don't know as much about is what happened during this time in Poland. Or, I didn't, until reading Madeline Martin's The Keeper of Hidden Books. What an intense, inspiring, heartbreaking, hopeful, poignant story, authentic story about a group of Poles (both Christian and Jew) working together to fight their Nazi occupiers in a courageous effort to protect the treasures of Poland: her citizens, her history, her cultural heritage, the knowledge of her leaders (doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc.), and perhaps most important of all, her humanity.
This book was almost impossible to put down. The characters are so incredibly well developed and complex. They put a human face on a devastatingly difficult time in our world's history, immersing me in their lives in a realistic and relatable way that left me in tears more than once. Martin doesn't shy away from the heart-wrenching realities of the Nazi regime. That, and her impeccable research, bring an authenticity to the events in the book that affords intimate insight into Zofia, Janina, their family, and friends. It's that intimacy that brings these characters to life as they risk everything to protect all they hold dear, including one another.
As a lover of books and a staunch believer that all books should be available to all people, I was especially impressed to learn that this book is based on actual people who risked everything during WWII to preserve and protect the libraries of Warsaw and the books housed within. It speaks to the knowledge to be found in books, to the free thought, ideals, patriotism, and resistance within. To the empathy that occurs from learning about and understanding other people, religions, and cultures rather than attempting to homogenize a populace by denying access to any book that goes against the government's chosen ideals. It's no wonder the Nazis were determined to ban and then destroy the literature of Poland. There's a lesson there that all generations should take to heart.
The Keeper of Hidden Books is a powerful, thought-provoking, beautifully-written story. I highly recommend it.