T4 by Anne Clare LeZotte offers readers tremendous insight into an aspect of the Holocaust not frequently explored in books for young people: the Nazi program to murder the mentally ill and disabled. The title of this verse novel comes from the name of the program itself, called after the address of its headquarters in Berlin, on Tiergartenstrasse 4.
The narrator/poet is 13-year old Paula Becker, who became deaf before she turned two and communicates with her family through her own form of sign language. She tells the story of her initial challenges communicating with her family, her happy days spent helping her mother at home and playing with her dog and learning to read, and feeling the church organ’s music shake her “body and soul.” This comfortable life changes forever when the Nazis’ eugenics program begins to target people like Paula, branding them “unfit to live.” She is forced to leave her family and go into hiding, moving from one place to another whenever her refuge becomes unsafe. The novel follows her through the war, and we meet those who protect her, and others who are hiding too. Paula is one of the lucky people who returns to her home and her family, everyone safe after all of that suffering.
You cannot say that T4 is a book you “enjoy” reading, better to notice that it is compelling and moving and difficult. LeZotte has created a story that takes you in, poem by poem, and then by the end, you realize that you’ve taken this story inside yourself. This is not a book you can read and forget. The poems are simple, but deceptively so. They have a direct, unflinching quality that feels authentic, as if the narrator just sat down and started remembering, telling you, “This is how it was. Just like this.”
T4 is a survival story, a story about family and trust and difference. Readers will know that they have gained new perspective into this historical period. It will certainly inspire many questions from young people, and so it is a book that requires maturity and some prior understanding of the nature of the Holocaust. Ann Clare LeZotte proves that telling a story simply, in very few, carefully chosen words, makes for a profoundly affecting reading experience.
T4 is available now and is published by Houghton Mifflin.