A German philosopher disappears during World War II in an attempt to flee his country.
This unusual book from Switzerland is based on the real life of Walter Benjamin, a writer who tried to escape Nazi persecution by traveling across the Pyrenees with a group of refugees under the guidance of an Austrian woman named Mrs. Fittko. In the story, Mr. Benjamin insists on dragging a very heavy suitcase along, the contents of which “can change everything.” He is turned back at the border and never seen again. Speculation about what was in the suitcase ranges from weapons of war to his favorite foods, occupying the final several pages of the story and leaving readers wondering as well. In her first children’s book, Chang uses mixed-media illustrations to convey the bleakness of Mr. Benjamin’s journey. Matte collage with cutouts of white-skinned people and a classic newspaper typeface hint at political cartoons of the era. Starkly rigid figures of officers with not-quite swastikas on their sleeves are the only clue to the story’s setting, in keeping with the vaguely ominous feel of the simple text. It’s likely that Walter Benjamin’s story is more widely known in Europe than in the United States; the brief biographical notes about Mr. Benjamin and Mrs. Fittko provide some further information.
The emphasis on the mysterious and unknowable contents of the suitcase seems misplaced in a story whose real message is about the ease with which governments, then and now, can disappear individuals, especially those with “extraordinary ideas.” (Picture book. 7-10)