Children’s Writers on the Holocaust
Kathy Kacer, co-author of Whispers from the Ghettos, Whispers from the Camps, 2009 and Whispers from Hiding, 2010.
To read more stories about the Holocaust go to: http://www.azrielifoundation.org/memoirs/
Whispers from the Ghetto:
We made seven trips back and forth to the synagogue that day. Those books were my education, my entertainment, and my friends. Those books became a part of me. The Nazis could take what Papa called our ‘trinkets,’ but they could not take away what was most important to us- the knowledge that books gave us. And they could not take away the love and pride I felt for my parents. Never.
“Just when you thought there was not much more compelling information about the Holocaust, there comes this book; a series of short vignettes detailing children’s and young adult’s experience during that brief period of time between the assignment of a ghetto and actual deportation to one of the concentration camps. …The attraction of this collection is its breadth of geographic and national contexts. These youths were from different countries and different backgrounds. The one unifying factor is that they were singled out for being Jewish; nothing else.” Resource Links, February 2009
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, Spanish philosopher.
About the Christian-Jewish Dialogue.
About the program / Why teach about the Holocaust?
About the Writers.
Hosting a Writer and Holocaust Survivor
Preparing your students
Questions – from students
Recommended, age appropriate, reading
Holocaust Educational web sites
Questionnaire for teachers
- "The Rescue" sample story
[Document prepared by Sharon McKay and Barbara Boraks]
1. About the Christian Jewish Dialogue
Since inception in 1975, the Christian/Jewish Dialogue (CJDT) has proven itself to be a creative and responsive partner in the design and delivery of interfaith dialogues and programs.
During its thirty-year history, the central focus of the organization’s work has remained clear – address the vital need for people of different faiths and cultures to work together on common concerns.
CJDT's core competency, bringing people together to solve problems, has taken many different forms, but the common denominator is active facilitation in an open and respectful climate, thus enabling participants to identify community solutions that they can undertake together.
2. About the Program
The question that must be answered initially is ‘why teach our children about the Holocaust?’
There is a great urgency to teach all children of all faiths about human rights. Genocide is the ultimate violation of human rights. The Holocaust, perpetrated by one of the most civilized and sophisticated societies in the world, rallied its population to commit mass murder. How? Why?
What needs to be understood, and what this program explores, is that with the right political climate, no people, no nation or culture is immune from barbarism or from becoming the victim of barbarism. The Holocaust stands as a horrific example of how an advanced civilized culture can be motivated to violently turn against a group within its own population.
As a long-standing member of the Holocaust Remembrance Committee, CJDT, I book Holocaust Survivors into churches during Holocaust Remembrance Week(s). Over the years it has become apparent that our Survivors need to have the burden of their message shared. Children and young adult writers (Y/A) who write specifically on the Holocaust are in an excellent position to provide this support. Further, their books provide yet another resource once they have left the school.
Note: A Y/A writer is defined as an author/writer who is published by a recognized publisher and is preferably a member of the Writer’s Union or Children’s Book Centre. (See the section enclosed, “About the Writers.”)
This program is aimed at non-Jewish schools. The writers will provide a program to 60-90 children for one hour or less. To be absolutely clear, this is not about lecturing great numbers of children from a podium-on-high. This is about creating a meaningful dialogue between child and writer.
In 2006 a Survivor may also accompany the writer. The Survivors that participate in this program have extensive in-classroom experience, some are retired teachers, and typically speak after the writer for 45 minutes.
The Survivor will speak after the writer about his or her experiences throughout the war.
The cost to the school for the entire program is $100. payable on the day. The Christian Jewish Dialogue will pay all other fees.
This program is available between Friday, October 27th to Friday, November 3rd, on a first come-first serve basis. Bookings will take place during the first two weeks of September.
Contact info: Sharon McKay,
Box 729, Kilbride, Ontario. L0P 1G0
3. About the Writers
Young adult writers (Y/A) who write specifically on the Holocaust are experienced in the classroom and adept at teaching difficult material to the younger children.
This program has been created by Sharon McKay, two-time Governor General Literary Award nominee and long time member of the Christian Jewish Dialogue. Kathy Kacer, an award winning children’s writer and daughter of Survivors, will spearhead the in-classroom presentations in the company of survivors.
Short CV’s on the writers:
Sharon E. McKay
Phone (905) 319-1816
Currently Sharon is enrolled in Yad Vashem course, “At the Edge of the Abyss: The Holocaust of European Jewry.” She has spoken to hundreds of school age children across Canada on the topic of war and has been a member of the Christian/Jewish Dialogue for fourteen years.
Sharon’s current publications of historical fiction include Esther, Charlie Wilcox and Charlie Wilcox’s Great War along with four books from the Our Canadian Girl series. All books published by Penguin, Canada.
In total Sharon has published twenty-five books and is currently under contact to publish five more including the new series, with Kathy Kacer, called Whispers from the Holocaust.
Awards include the Sydney Taylor Book Award, U.S. Notable Children’s Book of Jewish Content, Association of Jewish Libraries. IBBY, International Board on Books for Young People, Honour List, IODE, National Chapter of Canada, Violet Downey Book Award. Geoffery Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. UNESCO International Youth Library - White Raven Award, Europe. Hackmatack Children’s Choice Book Awards, Atlantic Provinces.
Sharon has been twice shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. Other awards or mentions include The Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award, Mr. Christie Award.
Sharon is a member in good standing with the Writer’s Union of Canada
And the CJDA, Holocaust Remembrance Committee, 1989 to present.
Telephone: (416) 229-9011
Kathy is dedicated to writing about the Holocaust. In the past three years, she has spoken in over 200 schools, libraries, colleges, and universities across Canada and in parts of the United States and Germany.
Published Works includeThe Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Clara’s War, The Night Spies, The Underground Reporters and Hiding Edith, published by Second Story Press. The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, was produced by Te-Amim Music Theatre Productions, Miles Nadal Theatre in Toronto, 2004.
Kathy has also published four books inPenguin’s Our Canadian Girl series.
Kathy is currently working on the series Whispers from the Holocaust with Sharon McKay
Awards and Nominations includethe Geoffrey Bilson Award, the Canadian Jewish Book Award, Young Adult Fiction category
Hackmatack Children’s Choice Award, the Red Cedar Book Award, the Silver Birch Book Award, Two Honourable Mentions for the Sydney Taylor Book Award, American Association of Jewish Libraries, amongst others.
Memberships include The Writer’s Union of Canada and CANSCAIP (Canadian Society for Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers.)
Kathy is the child of Holocaust Survivors.
Note: A full biography for either writer may be provided upon request.
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4. Hosting a Writer and Holocaust Survivor
Will the writer or Survivor require anything special?
Discuss the needs of the writer directly with the writer. The writer will convey any requests from the Survivor to the school representative. The most that will be required is a black/white board, overhead projector, a bottle of water and if the venue warrants it a microphone. If there is any payment required from the school (see below) then please deal with it upon arrival as opposed to the end of the day when everyone, including office staff, is otherwise occupied.
How many students can be accommodated in one session?
This is a difficult question to answer and often depends on the space available. Gyms are often not the best venue particularly for the Survivor who is, inevitably, a senior citizen. Echoes and a poor sound system often conspire to make what should be a personal experience decidedly impersonal. The best in-school venue is usually the library and attended by three classrooms or approximately 90 students.
What are the responsibilities of the teachers during the presentations?
Students look to their teachers for examples of appropriate behavior. A teacher who chats with another teacher or marks papers at the back of the class (it’s happened!) gives unspoken permission to students to behave likewise. Please note, a writer or Survivor is not in a position to chastise misbehavior. While rare, if a student does act out, please take immediate control of the situation.
One of my students has Tourette’s Syndrome while other is hearing impaired. Can these students be accommodated?
Absolutely. Please advise in advance.
We have a student newspaper. Would it be possible to interview the writer and Survivor?
Great fun! Every effort will be made to accommodate would-be reporters. That’s why we are there. When time is short (buses await) then students may be encouraged to ask questions via e-mail.
May we inform the local media of this event?
We have no objection to established and recognized media people attending the event and leave it to the school to check references. Please inform these individuals at the onset that this presentation is for the students. If the media have any questions they may ask them at the end. Teachers are invited to ask questions on behalf of their students however visiting parents and others are respectably asked to also save their questions to the end.
Can a teacher talk directly to the writer before the presentation?
Once the program is booked into the school the teacher and the writer must talk directly to confirm date, time and get directions. The writer is responsible for booking and confirming the Survivor. Home phone numbers and email addresses for both Sharon McKay and Kathy Kacer are included in this package.
Can this program be taped?
This must be discussed with the writer in advance. The short answer is no in accordance with the Writer’s Union mandates.
Is there any follow-up to the program?
Both Kathy and Sharon will answer letters or e-mails directly from the students however, unusual circumstances permitting, this contact is limited to one letter or one e-mail per student. No phone calls from students please.
Letters to the Survivors from students are welcome and should be enclosed with the teachers questionnaire included in this package and directed to Barbara Boraks. Letters will be forwarded from that office.
About the Event
Each presentation will take an hour with the writer and, in most cases, 45 minutes with a Survivor. The specific contents of the presentation will be discussed with the teacher in advance.
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5. Preparing Students for the Classroom Program
It is expected that teachers will prepare the students with background information relating to the Holocaust. In the middle grades (6 to 8) students will be expected to know the dates of World War 11, the countries under the Allied flag and the German flag. It is hoped, although not necessary, that the students will be given the enclosed list of suggested reading suitable to their age group and that the school library will have on hand a selection of Holocaust books.
High school students will be expected to have a broader understanding of the war as the writer will not be spending more than 10 minutes discussing the overall history of that period (1933 – 1945.)
The bulk of the presentation to both groups will be on understanding the factors that contributed to the Holocaust and, based on this knowledge, looking at the role that we as human beings can play in shaping a constructive world.
In most cases the story of the Survivor is read (two examples enclosed) and the Survivor is introduced to the students.
The Survivors role is to personalize the story, to give it a face and a voice. The Survivor will also be encouraged to answer all questions ON THE HOLOCAUST, no matter how politically incorrect or sensitive assuming that they are asked respectfully and honestly. (Examples: “Why do people hate Jews?” “Why didn’t the Jews just leave?”) With respect to our multicultural society many children (from Africa, India and so on) will not have the cultural background to put this material in context.
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6. Example Questions a Teacher/Writer/Survivor Might Encounter from Students:
How come the Israelis in Israel are bombing the Lebanese?
Given the media coverage of current events, it is extremely easy to get sidetracked. While this question is valid this is not the venue to answer it. The Writers and Survivors have expertise on the Holocaust, not necessarily current day Middle East politics.
My grandfather said that the Holocaust was exaggerated.
Such sentiments must be addressed immediately and without wavering. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister, proved that any lie, if repeated often and with enough assurance, was bound to be believed. The Holocaust was the most documented period in history and oddly most of the original documents were produced by the Nazis themselves. There is no controversy here. What makes this statement particularly disturbing is that it falls under the heading not necessarily of denial of the Holocaust, (which in itself is considered a hate crime) but of revising history.
Such revisionists attempt to reduce the murder of millions and millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Homosexuals, the impaired and anyone who got in the way of the Nazi machine, to a mere few and relegate the entire event as “over-blown.”
Will Muslim students be offended?
Would any child be offended if taught about the Crimea War, the Boer War, or any point in history? What about the Crusades? The Holocaust was a specific event in history that, if taught with grace and care, can profoundly move all students, help develop insight into morality, bravery, citizenship, justice and ethics. A solid background in the mechanics of the Holocaust, in the use of propaganda, the media, justice system, and so on, will encourage children to think critically and recognize devices that cultivate prejudices.
Will teaching this history make the children of German heritage feel badly?
Germany is on the forefront of Holocaust education. Holocaust education is a compulsory course in all German high schools. Germany today works hard at educating the public on the Holocaust and in this regard, has a great deal to be proud of. Holocaust education is also compulsory in the United States.
A question for debate in Canadian classrooms might be, “Given the growing intolerance in the world, should Holocaust education be compulsory in Canada?”
When did the Holocaust start?
In recent history anti-Semitism was overtly present in Europe after WW1. The Nazi persecution of the Jews began with Hitler's accession to power in January 1933 and the opening of the work camp Dachau, l933, (initially a concentration camp to re-train communists and other disreputable fellows.) Historians consider this the start of the Holocaust era.
What was the Holocaust?
The Holocaust was the murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. Between the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Nazi Germany and its accomplices attempted to murder every Jew under their domination.
I keep hearing the work "Shoah” in reference to the Holocaust. What does it mean?
The word Holocaust, used since the 1960s in the English-speaking world, has come to refer to this specific time in history. The word Shoah is Hebrew and means a “very large catastrophe.”
How many Jews were murdered in the Shoah? How do we know?
Most research confirms that the number of victims was between five and six million, the figure commonly used by Adolf Eichmann, a senior SS official. Different studies come up with different number: 5.1 million (Raul Hilberg) to 5.95 million (the demographer Jacob Leschinsky). Yisrael Gutman and Robert Rozett in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, estimates the Jewish losses at 5.59-5.86 million, and a study headed by Wolfgang Benz presents a range from 5.29 million to 6 million.
These statistics are comparisons of pre-war censuses with post-war censuses and population estimates, as well as contemporary documentation, such as the daily reports of the killing units, collections of deportation lists and so others. The Jews were not the only victims of Hitler's regime, but they were the only group that the Nazis sought to destroy entirely.
Did the Nazis keep meticulous lists?
Most German Jews were registered, but not all. Almost none of the Jews shot in the territories conquered from the Soviet Union were registered. Nor were Jews who died from starvation or illness particularly in the smaller ghettos in Eastern Europe. There were many Jews hunted down in fields and forests and millions who were simply pushed off trains and into gas chambers.
How do you define a Shoah victim?
At Yad Vashem in Israel (www.yadvashem.org) Shoah victims are Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis or their accomplices during the years of Nazi power, i.e. 1933-1945. Jews who fell as soldiers in the Allied armies are generally not regarded as Shoah victims but as soldiers killed in war. The exception is that tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers serving in the Soviet and Polish armies, who were taken prisoners and selected for death in Nazi POW camps.Jews who lived and died under Nazi rule and engaged in armed resistance, however, are counted as Shoah victims.
Teachers are encouraged to call with difficult questions that students have asked. While we may not have the perfect answers we encourage open communication and together we will find the answers.
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7.Suggested Reading List of Holocaust Literature for Young People
This list is tailored to Canadian children and all books listed are in print and/or widely available in libraries.
By Visiting author: (see also After the War, in Canada)
Kathy Kacer, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Second Story Press, 1999
Kathy Kacer, Clara’s War, Second Story Press, 2001
Kathy Kacer, The Night Spies, Second Story Press, 2003
Kathy Kacer, The Underground Reporters, Second Story Press, 2004
Kathy Kacer, Hiding Edith, Second Story Press, 2006
Shulamith Levey Oppenheim, The Lily Cupboard, Harper Collins, 1992
Early Chapter Books:
Karen Ackerman, The Night Crossing, Random House, 1994
Isaac Millman, Hidden Child, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2005.
Irene Watts, Good-bye Marianne, Tundra Books, 1998
Irene Watts, Remember Me, Tundra Books, 2000
Lowry Lois, Number the Stars, Dell Publishing, 1989
Jack Kuper, Child of the Holocaust, Key Porter, 2006
Eva Wiseman, My Canary Yellow Star, Tundra Books, 2001
Lillian Boracks-Nemetz, The Sunflower Diary, Roussan, 1999
Lynne Kositzky, Candles, Roussan, 1998
Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Penguin U.S., 1990.
Ruth Minsky Sender, The Cage, Aladdin Paperback, 1986
Carol Matas, Daniel’s Story, Scholastic, 1993
Faye Schulman, A Partisan’s Memoir, Second Story Press, 1995.
Elie Wiesel, Night, Banton Books, l982.
Milton J. Nieuwsma, Kinderlager, An Oral History of Young Holocaust Survivors. Scholastic. 1998.
Susan Goldman Rubin, Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin, Holiday House, 2000
Karen Levine, Hana’s Suitcase, Second Story Press, 2000
Peter Schroeder ands Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, Six Million Paper Clips, Kar-Ben Publishing.2004
After the War in Canada: 8+
Kathy Kacer, Margit: Home Free, Penguin Books Canada, 2003
Kathy Kacer, Margit: A Bit of Love and A Bit of Luck, Penguin Books Canada, 2005
Kathy Kacer, Margit: Open Your Doors, Penguin Book Canada, 2005
Myra Paperny, The Greenies, Harper Collins, 2005
Irene Watts and Irene Boracks-Nemetz, Tapestry of Hope: Holocaust Writing for Young People, Tundra Books, 2003
Irving Abella & Harold Troper, None is Too Many, Key Porter, l983.
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8. Recommended Holocaust Educational Web Sites
Students who goggle “Holocaust” will come across sites produced and published by deniers – misguided individuals who propagate anti-Semitism. These nefarious people have paid for the sites to surface before legitimate sites. Please discuss this with the students before assigning them homework or projects.
The Unites States Holocaust Museum www.ushmm.org
Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre www.vhec.org
Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre www.mhmc.ca/en/hes/index.html
Holocaust Centre of Toronto www.jewishtoronto.com/content_display.html?ArticleD=150528
Kamp Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland (good source of information on Anne Frank) www.kampwesterbork.nl
The Cybrary of the Holocaust www.remember.org
Ken McVey Nizkor site (also called Nizkor Project) www.nizkor.org
Anne Frank, official website: www.annefrank.nl
Yad Vashem, Isreal Holocaust Centre. www.yadvashem.org.il
B’nai Brith Canada (includes teachers’ guide) www.bnaibrith.ca/league/hh-teachers/guide00.html.
Teachers Guide to the Holocaust -- http://fcit.coedu.usf.edu/holocaust/
Cultivating Peace www.cultivatingpeace.ca/main.html
Please go to this site before recommending it to high-school students.
Aish HaTorah – The Poisonous Mushroom
Amnesty International: amnesty.org
Human Rights Watch: hrw.org
B’nai Brith International: bbinet.com
Simon Wiesenthal: wiesenthal.com
The International School for Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem has launched its first online course in English called, “At the Edge of the Abyss.” It is inexpensive, manageable and consist of five sections, each section comprised of 10 lessons. Visit www.yadvashem.org/education for more information. This online course is suitable for teachers, individuals and senior high school/college/university students.
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9. Teachers Questionnaire
Completing this questionnaire is required as it is very important for us to monitor the effectiveness of the program and to plan and incorporate future improvements. The following provides an outline for the areas we hope the will be addressed in responding to the Questionnaire.
Please mail the completed Questionnaire to:
Barbara Boraks, Executive Director
4211 Yonge St.
Toronto M2P 2A9
Or e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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10. Sample Story
The Elly Gotz Story
Kovno, Lithuania, l941
By Sharon McKay
To be published in Whispers, Penguin Canada. 2008.
“What is it?” Mama jolted forward so quickly in her chair that her sewing slid to the floor.
“Another directive,” Papa spoke softly as he removed his coat and hung his battered felt hat on the hook. The hat fell to the floor.
“Let me, Papa.” I picked up his hat and replaced it on the hook.
“Ah Elly, my son.” Papa’s smile was thin and sad. He was worn to the bone, the lines around his mouth and eyes appearing deeper because of the dust. Before the Nazis invaded Lithuania, Papa was an accountant. Now he broke rocks ten hours a day at the Flugplatz, the new Nazi airport enlargement project. Not willingly. Not likely. Of all the worksites that employed slave labor, this detail was the worst. Not only did Papa break rocks from morning to night, but it was a three hour walk to and from the site. And then there were the beatings. Papa had often come home with marks across his face and back. He never spoke of it, not once.
“Another directive? What do they want now?” Mama reached into the sleeve of her sweater and pulled out a tattered lace hankie. Today had been hard for her too. Mama was a nurse. At the hospital, a small girl had died in her arms for lack of medicine. Mama twisted the worn handkerchief in her hands. “Always with the directives. They have already stolen everything that we have - our wedding rings, silver, your own papa’s coin collection, my fur coat, they even took that mangy little fur stole.” Mama dabbed her eyes. I wanted to add, ‘what about my bicycle?’ but I kept quiet. The Nazis’ appetite for our treasured possessions was insatiable.
We had given up our property without a fight. To hide an object would result in the deaths of ourselves, our neighbours, our friends. Men, boys, women too, were lined up against a wall and shot – all because someone could not part with a candlestick. But Mama was right. What did they want now? We had nothing left!
“Books,” Papa said simply. “They want our books?”
Books? What would the Nazis want with books? Thugs did not read. But even as the question formed in my head, I knew the answer. The books would be burned or turned into cardboard.
Mama sank down onto the wooden chair. Although she was very thin, it wobbled under her weight. “We should not have brought them.” She spoke softly, sadly.
My parents never argued but they had disagreed on what to take from our beautiful apartment on Laisves Avenue into the Nazi-made ghetto. Papa had insisted that we bring almost all our books. Mama was more practical. Books were heavy; books could not keep us warm. “The mind must be fed too Sonja,” Papa had said gently. And so, books went into the cartons.
“Come Julius, eat.” Mama filled a bowl of thin soup from a hot plate and placed it on the table. Papa nodded a thank-you as he bent his tall frame over the table and brought the spoon to his lips. The small movement seemed to cause him pain. It was then that I noticed that the knuckles on his right hand were badly cut and bruised. Mama noticed too. She dampened a cloth, laid it gently over his hand, and looked into his eyes. “Etto nichevo. Me ich perezhiviom, dorogaya,” he whispered. I looked away. He said, It is nothing. We shall outlive them my dear, in Russian. We spoke mostly Yiddish at home, sometimes German, or Lithuanian. But when my parents did not want me to understand they spoke Russian. Why would I tell them that I understood most of what they said? How else would I find out what was really going on?
“Elly, tomorrow morning you must bring the wheelbarrow around to the front of the house. The books are to be taken to the synagogue,” said Papa as he finished his soup. There was very little of it. We were always hungry.
“So soon?” I stood rooted to the floor. Papa nodded again as if talking took too much effort. I didn’t really mean to moan, besides, I wanted to go outside. I had not been outside the entire day. I was still too young to be forced into labor, children under fifteen were not made to work, but my parents constantly worried that I would be rounded up because of my size. I was already as tall as my father and looked older than my thirteen years. There was no school to attend and other than watching over the communal garden, most of my time was spent sitting in the cramped room day in and out, awaiting their return. Without anything to read what would I do with my time?
A dim hall connecting our room to the back kitchen was littered with boxes, bags, and sticks of furniture that would not fit into the tiny space each family was allotted. Mrs. Levin nodded to me as I passed through the kitchen the next morning. Her toothless baby grinned at me from a highchair. I couldn’t help but grin back.
Four families shared this little house and one half-tumbled, smelly outhouse out back. A small shack stood beside the outhouse. Inside the shack a wooden ladder, with only two missing rungs, lead up to boards laid over the crossbeams. I had made a nest up there with an old blanket. If I lifted out a clay tile from the roof, the sun would shine in, and for a time, I could pretend that the world was a different place.
It took a while to load up the wheelbarrow. Each book was treasured and some were hand-bound by Papa or me. The streets were busy for this time of day. Thirty thousand people now made their homes in the Kovno ghetto – so many people crowed into so little space. In this poor side of the city, the houses are low and mean, made of wood and ready to tumble down. Ever space was used up. Even leaky sheds, without running water or toilets, housed entire families. I looked back as we started down the road. We had been assigned to a rather pretty little house, well it might have been pretty once.
The wheelbarrow wheels got stuck, and unstuck, in the mud. I could almost, but not quite, see the barbed wire fences that surrounded us as we walked towards Demokratu Square at the center of the ghetto. The fences reached as high as the buildings. There was a bridge too – it connected the larger part of the ghetto with a smaller ghetto. In between was a main road still used by Christians. We were never again to mix with non-Jews. As we walked over the bridge back and forth, I wondered if the people below ever looked up. Did they ever think of us in here?
Papa and I turned onto a main street. The wheelbarrow wheels wobbled and got caught between the cracks of the cobbled street. The barrow tipped, spilling the books onto the street. Papa lunged forward to catch a book then let out an involuntary cry as another landed in his bruised hand. “Papa, let me push.” I picked up the books, grabbed the handles of the barrow, and did my best to navigate down the street.
“A gutn ovnt. Good evening, Mr. Gotz.” Mr. Abraham tipped his hat as he walked by. His eyes were big, brown, and vacant. Mr.Abraham’s three sons, all in university, had been rounded up by the Nazis and taken away. All efforts to find them had failed. Papa raised his hand in greeting. He would have stopped to offer a kind word but Mr. Abraham just walked on.
The synagogue was in the middle of the ghetto. Together we lifted the wheelbarrow up the steps. The large wooden doors of the synagogue gaped opened. Papa reached the top before me. He stopped, drew in a breath, then let out a long, guttural cry! What? What was wrong?
I too looked into the synagogue then stumbled back, my hand clasped to my mouth. “Papa,” I whispered. I could not believe my eyes! Never before had I seen such a sight. Books, thousands upon thousands of books, piled almost to the balcony, lined every inch of space.
“Where are the guards?” I gazed around, then up and down the street. Nazi guards were always posted around collection sites. When Papa handed over Mama’s jewelry and their wedding rings the theft was duly recorded and we were issued receipts. The Germans seemed to take pleasure in recording their misdeeds. It was all pretend – a child’s game. They pretended not be thieves and we pretended that this would be over one day and all that was taken from us would be returned. But today there were no guards.
Then came a curious sound. Papa chuckled. His small laugh turned big, then bigger, and soon he was nearly doubled over. What was so funny? “My son, they do not trust us with trinkets but with books, more valuable than anything, they trust.” He wiped tears from his eyes. Again Papa laughed, but this time the laugh sounded hollow.
Slowly we unloaded our books placing them carefully, with respect, on the floor. Papa’s hands shook as he stacked the last of them on the pile. “Elly, look at this?” Papa’s voice was loud, too loud. I turned and expected to see that his tears of laughter had changed to tears of sorrow but instead, Papa had a look of stunned disbelief. He picked up a red, leather bound book. “The complete poems of Pushkin.” He pointed to one particular stack of books. “All seven volumes are here. I wanted to buy this series but could not afford it.” Papa swiveled on his feet. “And over there, the works of Dostoevsky and Mayakovsky. And look, look! The History of the Jews by Graetz. And Tolstoy’s War and Peace, even Anna Karenina!” Papa’s arms were now full. “Look at the covers! Look at the bindings.” He balanced a stack of books on his hip then reached down for more. “Goethe and Schiller,” he grinned as he held up the German books. Papa could separate the great German masters of the past from the murderous German oafs of the present.
“Papa, put them down.” I looked over my shoulder. An old lady, her head wrapped in a kerchief, stomped up the synagogue steps, and tossed a worn book onto the floor. She took no notice of my father who was even now tiptoeing, dancing, flying, amongst the books. “Elly, Elly, Shakespeare translated into Russian.” Papa waved the book like a victory flag. Forgotten was his damaged hand.
I stuck my head out the door. There was still no sign of the guards or of the patrols. “Papa come,” I hissed.
“We cannot leave them here, Elly.” Papa, wading through books waist high, made his way back to the front door. “We must take them home.” Was he mad? We might be killed! “Elly, we shall rescue the books.” I looked into his eyes. They were bright with delight. A child in a candy store would not have looked happier. I remembered that look – of happiness. I remembered. I wanted to scowl, to lecture, to plead that he not put his life in danger. But that look – of delight, of hope, I wanted to see it just a little while longer. I felt my head nod. Maybe we were both mad! Then another thought, what would Mama say?
We filled the wheelbarrow, covered the books with a large piece of paper, and bumped it down the steps. “Walk in front,” hissed Papa. I ran yards ahead ducking my head around corners. It took an age to reach the synagogue but mere minutes to make our way back to the little house.
“To the shed,” Papa hissed, his eyes bright with mischief.
Silently, like thieves ourselves, we unloaded our booty. I carried the books up into my loft and laid them out in neat rows. Our work done I climbed down the ladder onto the earth floor and slapped my hands together in pleasure. It was a victory over the Nazis, our victory.
“Go in now. Tell your mother that I have stopped in to see Mr. Abraham.” Papa turned and wheeled the empty wheelbarrow back out into the lane. Where was he going? The victory vanished and a wash of fear came over me.
“Papa, no!” He was making a return trip – I knew it, I just knew it. We had gotten away with it once, but twice?
“Do as you are told, Elly,” Papa spoke over his shoulder. I trotted up behind. Fear propelled me forward, but not for myself – for Papa! I pushed the fear down, down, and down. If my father was to get arrested then I would too. If he were to die, then I would die with him. Again Papa protested. I simply walked on; my shoulders pressed so far back they pinched, my heart thumping in my ears. Together we reached the synagogue and again filled up the wheelbarrow.
We made seven trips back and forth to the synagogue that day.
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