Although this is a story of atrocities committed against Jewish people during World War II, it is also a story of faith and hope. And although this is a story for young adults, it leaves out none of the horrors of living in a ghetto and being taken to a concentration camp. The black-and-white paintings beautifully render both the sadness and hope for better times felt by Isaac’s family.
The story begins with young Isaac, who is happy and proud to be attending his older brother’s bar mitzvah even though their synagogue has been looted and vandalized by Nazi soldiers. Looking forward to his own bar mitzvah helps Isaac cope with the violence on the streets and beatings by other children.
Conditions for the Jews in Warsaw temporarily improve when they are walled into a ghetto. There are still soldiers standing guard, but the Gentiles are not there anymore to threaten them. Uncle Adam is appointed the Jewish leader of the ghetto and is in charge of food distribution and the orphanage. Isaac’s brother Simon is not convinced, and is soon fighting in a rebel group to overthrow the Nazi control of the ghetto.
Soon, though, the food runs out, and people are starving in the streets. Isaac’s mother dies in childbirth, and the baby dies without milk. A typhus epidemic breaks out and kills Isaac’s younger brother and sister. Isaac and his father remain strong and hopeful through prayer and holiday celebration.
The unthinkable happens next. Isaac’s family is scheduled to be taken on a train to a work camp. Uncle Adam kills himself in shame. Isaac’s father remains hopeful, and tells Isaac to think of the better life they will have with food to eat and work to do. The night before they leave, Isaac’s father gives him tefillin and a prayer book to celebrate the bar mitzvah they are unable to have for Isaac.
They are thrown onto a train and crushed in hordes of people. No one has room to move or anywhere to go to the bathroom. Even though they have great thirst and hunger, Isaac and his father pray to stay strong. After days, the train arrives at Treblinka, a concentration camp. Isaac notices that a great many people have died on the journey.
Simon is immediately given work detail, and Isaac and his father are herded into an open space where they sleep on the ground with hundreds of others. The next morning, they are told to undress for delousing. As they are piling their clothes on the ground, Simon rushes over with a note for Isaac and his father. Death is certain, and Simon has lost his faith.
Isaac’s father weeps and asks Isaac if he still believes. Isaac affirms his faith with his father, and they pray together. Isaac feels proud to be with such strong men of faith and looks forward to seeing his mother and siblings in heaven.