Mitch Albom book excerpt: New novel ‘The Little Liar’ set in middle of Holocaust

by | Nov 12, 2023 | Comment, Detroit Free Press, News | 0 comments

Mitch Albom’s new novel, “The Little Liar” is inspired by true events. It begins with an 11-year-old boy named Nico Krispis who has never told a lie in his life. When the Nazis invade his city, they take him from his family and trick him into telling the biggest deception of all, knowing others will believe him. The book follows Nico, his family, and the girl who loves him through the next 40 years, showing the price we pay for the truths we hide and the lies we tell.

1943

“The train is going north,” Nico whispered as he moved between bodies. “It’s all right. Don’t be scared.”

Faces turned his way. Anxious eyes. Trembling lips.

“What did you say?”

“I heard it from a German officer. They are sending us to Poland. We will have new homes. And jobs.”

“Jobs?”

“Yes. And our families will be together again.”

Wherever Nico went, murmurs followed behind him. Did you hear? We will have jobs. It’s not so bad. You might ask why these captive travelers would believe this little boy. But in desperate moments people hear what they want to hear, despite what horrors they might see right in front of them.

Nico kept moving, weaving through the crowd. The platform noise was deafening, so many people crying, yelling questions, as guards shouted orders.

“Families will be reunited,” Nico whispered. He put a hand to the side of his mouth as if sharing a secret. “There will be jobs. I heard it from a German officer!”

He felt sweat dripping under his arms. He wished he could finish and go back to his house.

And then he saw Fannie.

She was holding on to the arm of a woman in front of her. Her head was down. Her raven hair was tucked under a cap.

“Fannie! Fannie, it’s OK! We will all be together! They’re taking us someplace safe!”

Fannie cocked her head. She smiled. Then her gaze lifted to someone behind Nico — which is when the boy felt two thick hands grab him under the arms and raise him off the ground.

“Stop telling people that!” a deep voice grumbled. “It’s a lie. They’re taking us to die.”

Nico was dropped. His shoes smacked the platform and he tumbled over. He looked up to see a large man glaring at him as he boarded the train and disappeared.

Gathering himself, wiping his palms, Nico tried to find Fannie, his friend. But she, too, had been swallowed by the crowd.

Nico felt a burning in his stomach. Until that point, he was merely doing what the German officer had told him to do, certain it was the right thing. Herr Graf had promised they would all be getting jobs. Reuniting families. The large man was the liar! He had to be!

Nico spun, searching for the Hauptsturmführer, but there were too many people. The words of the large man kept repeating in his ears. For a few moments, they were all he could hear.

Then Nico heard something else.

Something he’d been yearning to hear since the morning his family was taken as he hid in that crawl space under the steps.

His mother’s voice.

“Nico!”

It was unmistakable, even in the din of a thousand other voices. The boy turned and his eyes widened. There was his mama, maybe forty feet down the platform. There was his papa, standing beside her. There was his grandfather and his grandmother and his aunt and uncle and his older brother and his two younger sisters, all staring at him in disbelief.

“Mama!” he shrieked.

Suddenly they were all hollering his name, as if the whole of their language had been shrunk to a single word:

Nico!

Tears filled his eyes. He felt his legs running without even thinking. He saw his mother running, too.

And then, in an instant, he couldn’t see her anymore. Three bodies in gray uniforms stepped in front and accosted her.

“NO!” he heard his mother scream.

Nico felt someone grab him from behind, and a forearm shoot across his neck.

Udo Graf. The Nazi officer.

“My family!” Nico yelled.

“I said you would see them.”

“I want to go with them! Let me go with them!”

Udo tensed his jaw. I should let him go, he told himself. Be done with him. But he knew certain death awaited Nico where this train was going. And in that moment, Udo struck back against the rules.

“No,” he said. “You stay here.”

By this point, Nico’s entire family had been shoved inside the wooden boxcar. Nico couldn’t see them anymore. He began crying hysterically and writhing under the German’s grip.

“Let me go!”

“Easy, Nico.”

“You promised! You promised!”

“Nico —”

“I want to go to Poland! I want to go to our new homes —”

“There are no new homes, you stupid Jew!”

Nico froze. His mouth dropped. His eyes bulged.

“But … I told everybody …”

Udo snorted. Something about the child’s face, so stunned, so shattered, made him look away.

“You were a good little liar,” he said. “Be grateful you’re alive.”

Steam hissed. The train engines roared to life.

Udo motioned to a Nazi soldier, who swiftly pulled Nico away.

Then, without another look at the child he’d broken in half, Udo strode to the front car, angry that he had to get on this transport, angry that his contributions weren’t being recognized, angry that this petulant child didn’t appreciate how he’d just saved his life.

Minutes later, the train pulled out. The soldier holding Nico, uninterested in playing babysitter, let go and headed for a cigarette. Nico raced down the platform and jumped onto the tracks. He stumbled hard and broke his fall with his hands. He rose and kept running, ignoring the scraped skin of his palms and knees.

Three German troops watching from the platform began to laugh.

“You missed your train, boy!” one of them yelled.

“You’ll be late for work!” yelled another.

Nico ran. He ran beyond the platform and out into the open spaces where the tracks were surrounded by gravel. He pumped his arms and churned his legs, between the stock rails and past the switch rails, his feet slapping hard on the horizontal wooden planks. Under the hot morning sun, he chased that disappearing train until he couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t run and he couldn’t see it anymore.

Then he collapsed in a sobbing heap. His chest was burning. His soles were bleeding inside his shoes.

The boy would survive. But Nico Krispis would die that afternoon and his name would never be used again. It was a death by betrayal, on a day of many betrayals, some on a train platform, and countless more inside those suffocating cattle cars, now heading to hell.

This is later. On the train.

“It’s a lie.”

The large man’s voice was deep and hoarse.

“What’s a lie?” someone whispered.

“Where we’re going.”

“They’re taking us north.”

“They’re taking us to die.”

“Not true!”

“It is true,” the large man said. “They’ll kill us once we get there.”

“No! We’re being resettled! To new homes! You heard the boy on the platform!”

“To new homes!” another voice added.

“There are no new homes,” the large man said.

A shriek of train wheels silenced the conversation. The large man studied the metal grate that covered the only window in this lightless wagon, which was intended to carry cows, not humans. There were no seats. No food or water. Nearly a hundred others were crammed inside, a solid block of human beings. Old men in suits. Children in their sleeping clothes. A young mother cupping an infant to her chest. Only one person was sitting, a teenaged girl with her dress hiked up over a tin bucket the passengers were given to relieve themselves. She hid her face in her hands.

The large man had seen enough. He wiped sweat from his forehead then pushed through the bodies toward the window.

“Hey!”

“Watch it!”

“Where are you going!”

He reached the grate and jammed his thick fingers through the holes. He grunted loudly. With his face contorting, he began to pull.

Everyone in the cattle car went silent. What is he doing? What if the guards come?

In the corner, a lanky boy named Sebastian stood against the wall, watching all this unfold. Next to him was most of his family, his mother, his father, his grandparents, his two younger sisters. But when he saw the man pulling at the window grate, his focus turned to a thin dark-haired girl a few feet away.

Her name was Fannie.

Before all the trouble began, before the tanks and the soldiers and the barking dogs and the midnight door-pounding and the rounding up of all the Jewish people in his home city of Salonika, Greece, Sebastian believed that he loved this girl, if there is such a thing as love when you are fourteen years old.

He had never shared this feeling, not with her or anyone else. But now, for some reason, he felt swollen with it, and he focused on her as the large man wiggled the grate until it loosened from the wall. With a last mighty pull, he ripped it free and let it drop. Air rushed through the open rectangle, and a springtime sky was visible for all to see.

The large man wasted no time. He pulled himself up, but the opening was too small. His thick midsection could not fit through.

He dropped down, cursing. A murmur went through the train car.

“Someone smaller,” a voice said.

Parents clutched their children. Nobody moved. Sebastian squeezed his eyes shut, took a deep breath, then grabbed Fannie by the shoulders and pushed her forward.

“She can fit!”

“Sebastian, no!” Fannie yelled.

“Where are her parents?” someone asked.

“Dead,” someone answered.

“Come, child.”

“Hurry, child!”

The passengers shuffled Fannie through the scrum of bodies, touching her back as if sealing wishes upon it. She reached the large man, who hoisted her to the window.

“Legs first,” he instructed. “When you land, curl up and roll.”

“Wait—”

“We can’t wait! You must go now!”

Fannie spun toward Sebastian.

Tears filled his eyes. I will see you again, he said, but he said it to himself. A bearded man who had been mumbling prayers edged forward to whisper in Fannie’s ear.

“Be a good person,” he said. “Tell the world what happened here.”

Her mouth went to form a question, but before she could, the large man pushed her through the opening, and she was gone.

Wind whooshed through the window. For a moment, the passengers seemed paralyzed, as if waiting for Fannie to come crawling back. When that didn’t happen, they began pushing forward. Ripples of hope spread through the boxcar. We can get out! We can leave! They crushed up against one another.

And then.

BANG! A gunshot. Then several more. As the train screeched its brakes, passengers scrambled to put the grate back over the window. No luck. It wouldn’t hold. When the car stopped moving, the doors yanked open, and a short German officer stood in blinding sunlight, his pistol held high.

Udo Graf.

“HALT!” he screamed.

Sebastian watched the hands fall away from the window like dead leaves dropping from a shaken branch. He looked at the officer, looked at the passengers, looked at the teenage girl crying on the waste bucket, and he knew their last hope had just been extinguished. At that moment, he cursed the one missing member of his family, his younger brother, Nico, and he swore he would find him one day, make him pay for all this, and never, ever, forgive him.

Except from “The Little Liar” by Mitch Albom, Harper Books, all rights reserved, “The Little Liar” is available for pre-order. It is being published this Tuesday.

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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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