Title: I Am Sasha
Author: Anita Selzer
Genre: Historical Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Published: 2nd April, 2018
Synopsis: One boy’s extraordinary experience of wartime survival. One mother’s incredible courage. Based on an astounding true story. It is German-occupied Poland in 1942, and Jewish lives are at risk. Nazi soldiers order young boys to pull down their trousers to see if they are circumcised. Many are summarily shot or sent to the camps.
A devoted mother takes an ingenious step. To avoid suspicion, she trains her teenage son the be a girl: his clothing, voice, hair, manners and more. Together, mother and son face incredible odds as their story sweeps backwards and forwards across occupied Europe.
Based on a true story, I am Sasha is the story of the author’s father, who spent his teenage years from 1942-1944, after the Soviet liberation of Poland, hiding as a girl, under false papers that also hid his, and his mother’s Jewish identity from the Nazis as they marched and invaded their way across Europe. Larissa, Sasha’s mother, ensures his safety as they move back and forth between Polish towns, avoiding the ghettos and transports to camp. After seeing what happens to boys from their hiding place in a barn, Larissa concocts a plan to turn Sasha into a girl – Sala – to keep him safe. Their lives are constantly under threat though, and they’re always moving finding new places to live and settle, until they find somewhere they are able to stay until the Soviets liberate Poland, and a place where Sasha’s mother begins work for the Zegota, a Jewish underground resistance that helps Jewish people escape the Nazis.
At the end of the war, their story is followed until their arrival in Australia, and their reconnections with their family, friends and the new friends they make in the displacement and refugee camps as they journey to their new home in Melbourne.
I am Sasha was inspired by a family’s history, a grandmother’s memoir and a father’s short story, given to a daughter and granddaughter to retell for the world. In 1994, Larissa gave Anita the manuscript, written in English – because she wanted to reach as many people as possible with her story, explaining to Anita that she wrote it in English to reach a wide audience – an audience that would include those affected and those not affected, and those all over the world who wanted to know more.
It is a story of sacrifice and the drive to do whatever one can to survive, whilst witnessing the depravity of humanity, and what humans are capable of at their worst, but also, what people will risk to save themselves, and keep others safe – what they will sacrifice or potentially lose just to keep friends safe – as Bella, Larissa’s gentile friend did for Larissa and Sasha throughout the years, before disappearing to Warsaw shortly before the end of the war.
Larissa and Sasha showed great resilience through their years of hiding and Sasha pretending to be a girl – Sala – under false papers, in a regime where you never knew who you could trust and where your landlady, or neighbours could turn you into the Gestapo at any time, on the mere suspicion of being Jewish, or a Communist or anyone who was against the Nazi regime. It is just one of many stories about the Holocaust and the horrors of World War Two around today.
Never forget are the final two words in the author’s note, and the horrors of the Holocaust, of stories like Sasha’s, Anne Frank and many more are a part of history we should never forget, and never let happen again. We should never forget the millions of people the Nazi’s persecuted based on religion, race, politics, sexuality or anyone who simply tried to resist them, and the brutality that these people faced, and the survival stories as well as the tragic ends. None of this should be forgotten. This is why Sasha’s story is an important one, and why it was important for Anita, his daughter, to tell.
Stories like this remind us of why we must resist regimes and abuse, and why we must speak out and stand up for what we believe in, because otherwise, the people who commit these atrocities and who support them win. I found this story to be powerful and moving, and as such, I read it very quickly. Whilst it is aimed at a Young Adult audience, I feel anyone interested will be able to read this and understand it.