"Daniel's Story" is a fascinating mirror to Elie Wiesel's "Night" -- both have young male Jews thrust into the center of unspeakable horrors, and both are rightly acclaimed by the Holocaust Museum as examinations of the period from a victim's point of view. Unlike "Night," however, "Daniel's Story" uses its fictional structure to examine themes of oppression, religious sensibility, human resilience and fragmented memory.
Like Wiesel, Daniel suffers horrible losses at the Nazis' hands but, because she is writing fictionally, author Carol Matas is much more categorical in describing the privations, as Daniel's family loses bit by bit what all Jews lost: religious freedoms and the rights to vote, to assemble, to work. Daniel also describes the reduction of humans to an animal state as a universal experience, as all German Jews are transported to camps in cattle cars. He goes on to detail the grisly death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald as a trial everyone in the world suffers.
Religious Sensibility: Where is God?
Another theme is Daniel's loss of faith as his family members die around him, and his rage at God takes on Biblical proportions: "I thought perhaps it was time for another flood." Eventually he assumes that God hates the Jews, that they are "a species that didn't deserve to exist." Daniel's father provides an ironic counterpoint to his disbelieving son, insisting not so much on faith as on existential hope; he reasons that if the Nazis "kill all those who remember what it is to human, what will be left?"
Resilience Against Despair
Matas refuses to let her characters dissolve in despair, and strongly advocates human resilience in the face of horrors. In the Polish ghetto at Lodz, Daniel falls in love with Erika, a Jewish girl who reminds him "always choose love," even though she is as doomed as he. When Buchenwald is overrun by American liberators, Daniel's father insists on bandaging his enemies: "we are not like them ... every live Nazi is one we can put on trial." When Daniel feels only murderous rage, his father reminds him "if they make us into them, they've succeeded."
Memory as Fragments
Contemporary reviewers have pointed out the most interesting theme in "Daniel's Story," that of memory and its fragmentation. The book's four chapters are labeled "Pictures," Frankfurt to Buchenwald, a reminder that Daniel himself does not so much endure events of the Holocaust as he experiences fragmentary moments, kept alive in photographic images and memories. Memory as image is perhaps the most genuinely universal theme in the work.