In Parallel Journeys, Eleanor Ayer tells the true story of two very different people who lived through World War II. Helen Waterford was already a young woman, married with a child, when she went into hiding in Amsterdam because she was Jewish. Alfons Heck was just a boy when the war began. By the war's end, he was a high-ranking officer in the Hitler Youth. Although Helen was able to find a safe home for her daughter during the war, Nazis discovered Helen and her husband in their hiding place. They were separated at a concentration camp, and she never saw him again.
Because Alfons was just a young boy, he was easily brainwashed by the power and the flash of Hitler and his promise for a new Germany. He eagerly participated in youth rallies, and was chosen to lead groups of young boys into war. As Germany's forces were depleted, Hitler depended more and more on the Hitler Youth. When he was just 15, Alfons became a top-ranked glider pilot. At sixteen, he became a Bannfuhrer, equivalent to the rank of a major general in the U. S., with 6,000 troops under his command. By the end of the war Alfons had lost many friends and found his hometown reduced to rubble. He could only hope that the occupying forces of the United States and France would not deal with him too harshly.
At the same time that Alfons was rising through the ranks, Helen was suffering through the miserable conditions of concentration camps. During her two months at Auschwitz, where two million people perished throughout the war, the smoke from the crematoria was always in view. Helen was then shipped to Kratzau, a work camp where the women were given little to eat and lived in freezing barracks filled with lice. She was extremely weak and ill by the time Russian troops finally reached Kratzau to free her and the other survivors.
After a difficult journey, Helen eventually managed to return to Amsterdam, where she was reunited with her daughter. Later, she moved to the United States to be with her parents. For Alfons, the post-war years were filled with work rebuilding his grandparents' farm, and with the struggle to come to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust. Alfons actually went to the Nuremberg Trials to see the men he had idolized explain what happened. Later, Alfons also moved to the United States, after living in Canada.
Alfons Heck and Helen Waterford took very different paths during World War II. Yet both saw friends and loved ones die as a result of Hitler's policies. Eventually, both Alfons and Helen came to believe in the importance of sharing their experiences. Each wrote a book about their lives, and they went on joint lecture tours so that audiences could hear their stories together. Why do you think that Alfons and Helen believe so strongly that people should never forget what happened? What good can come of remembering the Holocaust?
Parallel Journeys is a nonfiction book — everything that is described in it actually happened. Eleanor Ayer uses the writing of Alfons Heck and Helen Waterford, as she describes what happened to them. Why do you think that Ayer includes their own words instead of just describing their experiences? Do the first-person accounts help you better understand how these people felt about what they were going through?
One major conflict presented in the book is the conflict between non-Jewish Germans and European Jews. Many Germans during World War II may not have known about the genocide taking place in concentration camps. However, they certainly knew that Hitler was anti-Semitic and blamed Germany's problems on Jewish people. Yet many Germans still supported Hitler, even when it was clear Jewish people would not be allowed to live and work as they had in the past. Why do you think Germans "looked the other way" at what Hitler and some of the top-ranking Nazis did to Jewish people?
Important People During World War II
Jo Vis and others like him helped Helen and other Jewish people survive the Holocaust by finding hiding places for adults and finding homes for their children. Why do you think these people, who weren't Jewish themselves, took such risks to help others? Do you think that you would have the courage to risk your own life to save others?
- When Alfons Heck was a young teenager, he thought that Hitler was a great hero who would save Germany. Much later, he realized the terrible damage that Hitler caused, both to Jewish people and to the young Germans who followed him. Do you think people who are not fully adult should be held responsible for their decisions and actions? Do you think that you are completely responsible for the decisions you make for yourself now?
- During the speaking tours that Helen Waterford and Alfons Heck made, audience members were sometimes angry at Helen. They believed that she should be less forgiving toward a former member of the Hitler Youth. Why do you think that Helen believes so strongly that we should not hate all the members of any group? Do you agree with her?
- Near the end of World War II, even after Hitler had committed suicide, many members of the Hitler Youth fought and died for Germany and Hitler. Why do you think they were willing to die for Germany, when it was clear that Germany would lose the war?
- After returning to Amsterdam, Helen found her daughter, Dora. While Helen was in concentration camps, Dora had been safe and happy living with another couple. When Helen took Dora to live with her, Dora had a difficult time adjusting to living with her mother. At one point, she even said, "I wish you had never come back!" Why do you think that the change was so hard for Dora? How does the author make you feel sympathy for both Helen and Dora?
- The stories of Alfons Heck and Helen Waterford have been told in separate books. Why do you think that the author chose to tell these stories together? What does one gain by reading one chapter about Alfons followed by one about Helen, instead of reading their stories apart?