Once is the heartbreaking, harrowing but ultimately hope-filled story of Felix, a ten year old Polish Jewish boy living through the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Holocaust. He lives in an orphanage in the Polish mountains - his parents, who are booksellers, left him there when they went off to solve all sorts of book-related emergencies (according to Felix).
Life in the orphanage sounds pretty sad and desperate - the conditions are pretty basic, there's notmuch food and thenunsare pretty strict - but very gradually you learn the truth - that the nuns doing all they can to keep the Nazis away from the orphanage so keep the children (including a number of Jewish children) safe.
Gradually, Felix comes to realise the truth about the Holocaust and the Nazis and what is happening to the Jews in Poland (spoiler alert: nothing nice). We're shown some of the atrocities of the Holocaust through the eyes of a ten year old child which somehow makes them all the more horrifying.
One of the most heartbreaking things I found about the story (apart from the whole Holocaust thing, which obviously gets top spot) is the way Felix makes up stories in his head as a way of trying to explain away the awful things that are happening around him. It's just so sad. And his horror and bravery when he realises what's going on - you really forget that this is just a little kid.
Even though there have been a lot of stories written about the Holocaust, this book ought to be required reading. It was one of the biggest (if not the biggest) atrocities of the twentieth century and I don't think it's the kind of subject that will ever be 'done with'. And that's the whole point. As long as we keep reminding ourselves about what happened, then maybe we stand a chance of not repeating our mistakes.