Holocaust through the eyes of “Rose Blanche” by Roberto Innocenti

In this book I wanted to illustrate how a child experiences war without really understanding it.

Roberto Innocenti

The multi-award-winning “Rose Blanche” is a genre-defying book by the celebrated artist and illustrator Roberto Innocenti. Set in Nazi Germany during World War II, the story draws on Innocenti’s childhood memories and experience of war in his hometown of Bagno, a small Italian city near Florence:

I was a little child when the war passed in front of my door. One day, two very young German soldiers, wearing gray uniforms, came to our house and begged us to hide them. They probably weren’t even 18 years old…We were hiding them in the basement when we saw a German truck passing by, taking away a family. The mother was holding a tiny baby wrapped in a pink blanket. My father did not want to answer my qusetions, but I knew then that something terrible was happenning.

Rose Blanche – The Book Review

“Rose Blanche” relates the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes and lived experience of an innocent girl called Rose growing up in a small village in Germany in the 1930s. Rose observes the first signs of the war when soldiers depart for the eastern front. Like most wars, there is an initial groundswell of patriotic optimism, unwavering purpose and a lot of cheering and flag-waving. Good and evil, right and wrong, blame and wrongdoing are clearly delineated in the hearts and minds of those on both sides of the conflict, justifying all manner of irrational and nefarious responses in the name of God and country.

Rose stands on the side of the road and innocently waves a swastika flag as one of the crowd, too young to understand what is happening or what is to come. She begins her account of the events in a matter of fact, innocent and naive way that only children are capable of:

Sometimes it seems things haven’t really changed. But my mother wants me to be careful crossing the street between the trucks. She says soldiers won’t slow down… They drive tanks that make sparks on the cobblestones, they are so nosiy and smell like diesel oil. They hurt my ears and I have to hold my nose when they pass by… The trucks are fun to watch…

Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials

One day Rose witnesses a young boy escaping from the back of a military truck. He is promptly recaptured by the mayor of the town who hands him over to the soldiers. It all happens very quickly, and like young Roberto Innocenti himself in a similar memory from his childhood, Rose must have intuitively understood that something terrible was happening.

Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials
Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials

Rose is compelled to follow the truck through the streets of her town. Its tracks lead to a frozen forest protected by barbed wire fences on the outskirts of town. There she discovered a hidden reality, one that existed in parallel to her own world – the reality of the Holocaust victims kept in a concentration death camp. “Some of them had a star pinned on their shirts. It was bright yellow“…

Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials

Over the coming weeks, Rose visits the pyjama-clad prisoners behind the barbed wire fence with food she smuggled from her home. “Rose Blanche was getting thinner. In town only the mayor was staying fat.”

Rose disappears that winter. Her fate is not explicitly stated but “there is a shot”, and the reader is left with little doubt that Rose is the innocent victim of that fatal gunshot, be it accidental crossfire or intentional. The heart-wrenching conclusion of the story juxtaposes a mother’s grief with the glorious rebirth of nature in spring as if nature was celebrating the brave little child with a big heart who sacrificed her own life while helping her ill-fated fellow humans:

Rose Blanche’s mother watied a long time for her little girl… The crocuses finally sprang up from the ground. The river swelled and overflowed its banks. Trees were green and full of birds. Spring sang.

This beautiful image reinforces the ironic truth that the backdrop of war stained with futility, folly and innocent blood provides fertile soil for tales of beauty, courage and humanity at its very finest.

Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials

Rose Blanche – From Painting to Published Picture Book

The genesis of this book is an interesting story in itself. In the introductory note, Roberto Innocenti reveals that he chose “Rose Blanche” as the title for this book as a homage to the resistance group known as “The White Rose” which was led by five young students from the University of Munich and their philosophy professor. The intellectual resistance group published leaflets rebelling against Hitler’s regime and their activities eventually lead to their execution by the Gestapo in 1943. As put by Roberto Innocenti:

They have understood what others wanted to ignore. They were all killed. In this book fascism is a day to day reality. Only the victims and the little girl have known its real face.

In the early 1980s, inspired by this group of brave individuals, Innocenti created three paintings. He submitted the paintings to a number of Italian publishers, along with a proposal for a picture book based on the Holocaust theme. Perhaps the subject matter was too unpalatable for most publishers and he was rejected by all of them. Innocenti decided to put the project on hold and it wasn’t until 1983 that Pierre Lamuniere, the president of the Swiss publishing house Edipresse, agreed to fund “Rose Blanche”. Innocenti created a rough draft along with short summaries of how he believed the illustrations should be interpreted in the story.

Edipresse then engaged the services of Swiss writer and journalist Christophe Gallaz to write a story to accompany Innocenti’s illustrations. Gallaz is the author of several novels and aside from “Rose Blanche”, his most famous picture book was “The Wolf Who Loved Music” published in 2003.

In 1985, the US publisher Creative Education Inc. obtained the rights to “Rose Blanche” and engaged Martha Coventry to translate Gallaz’s original French text. Not happy with Martha’s work, they then hired Richard Graglia to redo her translations. The book reviewed in this post is the first US edition, which credits the text authorship to both Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti and the English translation to both Martha Coventry and Richard Graglia. There have been at least a dozen translations since this first English translation, however, it wasn’t until 1990, many years after Italian born Innocenti’s book was rejected that “Rosa Bianca” was published in Italian.

The British publisher Jonathan Cape went one step further and decided to remove Gallaz’s text entirely when he brought in award-winning British novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan to provide a retelling of the story. Best known for his novels “Atonement” (2002), which was later adapted into an Oscar-winning feature film, and “Saturday” (2005), McEwan’s version is distinctly different and uses a third-person narrative. However, most international translations derive from the original Gallaz’s version written to accompany Innocenti’s illustrations. And perhaps it is for this reason that Innocenti is sometimes credited as the primary creator of “Rose Blanche”.

A Tale of Two Author’s – Gallaz vs McEwan

Most picture books are born from the text of the author and it’s the publisher’s job to find an illustrator to match the words. In this instance, we have two authors, Gallaz and McEwan, who have written a story to match Innocenti’s power images. Whilst the fundamental story arc of Rose Blanche has remained faithful to Innocenti’s illustrations by both authors, the tone varies considerably.

Neither text can be judged as better or worse but instead comes down to a personal preference of how one interprets the images with the written word. My personal preference is the American translation of Gallaz’s original French text, which is what I am reviewing in this post. By way of comparison I present the following texts that accompany the first illustration in the book:

Je m’appelle Rose Blanche. J’habite une petite ville d’Allemagne. Elle a des rues étroites, des fontaines, des maisons hautes et des pigeons sur leurs toits. Mais un jour les premiers camions sont arrivés, et beaucoup d’hommes sont partis. Ils étaient habillés en soldats. L’hiver allait commencer.

(Original French text by Christophe Gallaz)

My name is Rose Blanche. I live in a small town in Germany with narrow streets, old fountains and tall houses with pigeons on the roofs. One day the first truck arrived and many men left. They were dressed as soldiers. Winter was beginning.

(American translation by Martha Coventry and Richard Graglia)

When wars begin people often cheer. The sadness comes later. The men from the town went off to fight for Germany. Rose Blanche and her mother joined the crowds and waved them goodbye. A marching band played, everyone cheered, and the fat mayor made a boring speech. There were jokes and songs and old men shouted advice to the young soldiers. Rose Blanche was shivering with excitement. But her mother said it was cold. Winter was coming.

(English translation by Ian McEwan)
Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials

Firstly I decided to translate Gallaz’s French text using DeepL (my favourite online translator) and was immediately struck by how accurately it corresponded to the American translation. Try it out for yourself.

In the first sentence of the American translation, the first-person narrator (Rose) introduces herself and describes what she sees in short simple sentences. It allows the reader to stand with her at that moment and observe what she is experiencing. It’s curious to note that from her childlike perspective she doesn’t immediately recognise the men leaving town as soldiers but rather “dressed as soldiers”. No judgement, just a child’s observation. The American translation is sparse in contrast to the detailed imagery and doesn’t overstate what is obviously beyond Rose’s cognition like war, soldiers and swastikas.

McEwan on the other hand offers a broad statement about war as a third-person narrator and foreshadows its sad conclusion. I feel like McEwan’s text is coloured by a distant perspective of past events and what is known of their consequences. It’s like he doesn’t trust the reader to interpret Innocenti’s illustrations through their lens of reference. In contrast to the spontaneity of Rose’s first-person narration, we don’t get to see directly from Rose’s point of view what she is perceiving and comprehending at that moment, which is what Innocenti wished for when he said “In this book I wanted to illustrate how a child experiences war without really understanding it.”

Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials

Roberto Innocenti – Illustrator and Author

“Rose Blanche” has been distinguished with many awards: Golden Apple at Biennale of Illustrators Bratislava in 1985, Notable Book citation by American Library Association (ALA), Honor Book citation by Boston Globe-Horn Book, and Mildred L. Batchelder Award (ALA) in 1986. Its critical acclaim is often attributed to Innocenti avoiding sentimentality whilst delivering a hard-edged message. 

It has not been without its controversy and criticism though. The work’s disturbing themes have sparked considerable debate regarding its appropriateness for children. And despite its illustrative format, some critics object to its classification as a picture book.

Although this book is fictional, it is grounded in historical reality and the illustrations accurately reflect the historical details of the people and places of war-time Germany in the 1940s. Roberto Innocenti is known for his hyperrealistic and highly detailed painterly style, as is amply evident in “Rose Blanche”. His style can not be mistaken for anybody else’s, instantly recognisable are his delicate palette, refined draughtsmanship and interesting compositions. He has been referred to as ‘modern-day Brueghel’, which I find a very fitting comparison.

Many find his extraordinary mastery highly surprising given that Innocenti is completely self-trained in art. Born in a small town near Florence, Italy, just after the outbreak of World War II, young Roberto left school at age thirteen to help support his family by working in a steel foundry. Later he moved to Rome and found work in an animation studio, which has set him on a journey toward his future career in illustration. Back in Florence he illustrated posters for movies and the theatre and began designing books. In 1970 Innocenti met American artist John Alcorn, who convinced him to try his hand at book illustration.

Roberto Innocenti’s awards make a long list. Notably, he has been awarded Kate Greenaway Medal twice – for “Pinocchio’s Adventures” (1988) and for “A Christmas Carol” (1990). Mary M. Burns reviewing Innocenti’s “Pinocchio’s Adventures” noted that: “Innocenti must now be considered the foremost interpreter of Pinocchio. The full-color paintings are marvels of content, composition, color, and perspective.” In 2004, Innocenti has been nominated for Hans Christian Andersen Award (affectionately known as the little Nobel prize for contribution to children’s literature) and in 2008 he has won this coveted Award, a pinnacle of any illustrator’s career. Numerous honourable mentions of his work range from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair to the New York Times jury which is annually selecting best-illustrated books and many others.

Browse more of the enthralling illustrations from “Rose Blanche” below and watch out for my upcoming review of “The Adventures of Pinocchio” illustrated by Roberto Innocenti.

Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials
Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials
Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials
Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials
Holocaust through the eyes of "Rose Blanche" by Roberto Innocenti Feelings and Emotions, Middle Grade Fiction (13-16) Home Library Essentials


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Petal Cassidy
Petal Cassidy
4 months ago

Thought provoking book…. .. Natalia review & research is fabulous and is well worth reading. In our troubled times this book is a reflection of sad past historical times.

Lux
Lux
4 months ago

Such an interesting post! I much prefer the first person narrative, how strange that it was changed to third person in the UK version ….

Richard
Richard
4 months ago

This is a beautifully sombre book. The story is a timely reminder that it’s the innocent who suffers from wars. The images match this story perfectly. The way you’ve explained and compared the different translations and texts is so fascinating and informative. Thank you once again Natalia for bringing these rare gems to my attention.

Richard
Richard
4 months ago

I think I prefer the Gallaz version for the same reasons you expressed in your post, that Innocenti said he “wanted to illustrate how a child experiences war without really understanding it.” 
I can’t argue with that:)

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