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the secret of Gabi's dresser

by Kathy Kacer | April 20, 2001

April 23 is Canada Book Day. We are pleased to spread the work of Kathy Kacer’s book, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, which was her first. First published in 1999, it won the Ontario Library Association Silver Birch Award (every spring, thousands of Grades 4, 5 and 6 students across on Ontario vote for their favourite book by a Canadian author) and the Jewish Book Award. Kathy has just published a new book, Clara’s War. It is the first book in Second Story Press’ Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers. So, go to any library or bookstore in the next few days and check out all the wonderful writings by women who live in Canada – this is a taste of the feast for heart and head that awaits you.

From The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser:

chapter four

I entered my bedroom and slumped on my bed, grabbing the china doll that rested on my pillow. Nina had given me the doll as a gift for one of my birthdays. Her porcelain face was hand painted in the softest shades of colour – pink for the lips and blue for the eyes – making her look almost lifelike. Her black hair glinted in the light, and her handmade party clothes were embroidered with silk thread. She was one of my most precious possessions.

Cradling my doll in my arms, I thought back over the conversation with my parents. It made no sense to me that bad things could be happening to Jews. But what I had told my mother and father about Martin and his angry warning to me was only the beginning. I had not told them about the other happenings at school.

Only yesterday, there had been a scene in the schoolyard. My friend Armin had been stopped by some boys and pushed down and punched so hard that there were bruises on his face today. Mr. Reich, who had come running outside to help Armin, was one of the few teachers who seemed to care about this hostility. When Dora told me I had done poorly on my spelling test because I was Jewish, it was Mr. Reich who interrupted her and told her she was talking nonsense. After Martin said that pretty soon I wouldn’t be able to go to school, Mr. Reich kept him in after school for being disruptive. Most of the other teachers didn’t seemed bothered by the changing atmosphere and some almost seemed to approve of it; they turned their backs and pretended nothing was wrong. I was puzzled and worried by all this. What was so wrong, these days, with being a Jew?

These thoughts swirled through my mind as I prepared for bed. I was so preoccupied with my thoughts that I did not even hear my father enter my room. “What stories are filling your head now, Gabi,” he asked as he sat heavily on the side of my bed, wiping a fine sheen of sweat from his brow. His breathing was difficult from the short climb up the stairs. When had climbing become so hard for him, I wondered briefly.

“Papa,” I began slowly, trying hard to stay calm. “Please tell me the truth. I’m not a baby any more and I know when things aren’t right. Even Nina has been acting strange lately, and she’s my best friend! Just yesterday, she said her parents might not let her play at our house any more. None of this makes any sense to me.”

“Gabilinka, believe me, it makes no sense to me either.” For the first time I saw the confusion and sorrow in my father’s eyes. I realized that he had been worrying about these changes more than he had let on. “Some people like to think they are stronger, smarter and better than we are,” he said with a sigh. “And they blame the Jews for just about everything. They blame us when businesses fail, when others don’t have enough to eat, even when their children do poorly in school!”

“But why blame us, Papa?” I asked. “What has it got to do with us?”

Papa sighed again. “It has absolutely nothing to do with us,” he assured me. “But our people have often been wrongly blamed, Gabi. We are seen as being different, and when things go wrong it’s easier for people to blame us than to look at their own responsibility. It’s also easier for the government to pretend that everything is someone else’s fault. In this case, the authorities are making Jews the scapegoat for poverty and unemployment.”

“But, Papa, how can people believe that?”

“You know people in Germany have had some hard times,” he reminded me. “When people are feeling desperate, they look for someone to blame. And they also look for an easy answer. Some people have convinced themselves that if they can only get rid of us, all their problems will disappear. You and I know this is nonsense, but some people will believe anything that makes them feel better. They are the ones causing all of these problems. And unfortunately, they are convincing others to believe this nonsense as well.”

I understood what my father was saying to me, and I felt very grown up to be talked to this way. But it didn’t help my worries. Slowly I began to tell him the things that had been happening at school – my spelling test, and Dora, and how Armin had been knocked down. I told him all about my Jewish friends being teased and bullied. When I thought of all these things together, it seemed that my whole world was out of control.

“Papa. I’m scared,” I said softly, and tears gathered in my eyes and streamed down my face. I was frightened – frightened of what was happening to my friends and happening to our family in Germany. I was afraid that awful things might soon happen to us. I cried and cried, letting my fears pour out of me.

“Gabi, listen carefully,” my father said firmly, cupping my tear-stained face in his hands. “There is something you must always remember. Your mamma and I love you very much. We are here to protect you and keep you safe.”

I hugged him as tight as I could ...

“Papa, what if something bad starts to happen to me? What if someone tries to attack me? What do I do?” I asked.

“Gabi, I will fight with my last breath to make sure no harm comes to you.” Papa spoke with such certainty that, for the first time since coming up to my room, I took an easy breath. I hugged him again.

“I learned a new piano piece this week, Papa. I want to play it for you in the morning.”

“Sleep tight, my Gabilinka.” My father held me close and whispered in my ear the words that were my nighttime lullaby:

I will shelter you from harm,
You must have no fear,
You’ll be safe, my precious child.
You’ll be safe, my dear.

There in my father’s arms, I believed that everything would be all right. I knew that my papa loved me, and I felt hopeful that I would always be safe, no matter what.

resources for this story
  • Clara’s War, by KATHY KACER, Second Story Press, written for young people over ten, ISBN 1-896764-42-8 | 2001
  • The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, by KATHY KACER, Second Story Press, written for young people eight and up, ISBN 1-896764-15-0 | 1999
  • Visit Second Story Press for more information on this publisher and its books, or contact it at 720 Bathurst Street, Suite 301, Toronto, ON Canada M5S 2R4, tel. (416) 537-7850

This excerpt is from The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser by Kathy Kacer, and is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Second Story Press.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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