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Writing for Children about the Holocaust

Jacob Perl
September 18, 2017


by Jacob L. Perl

“She and I talked about the Holocaust a lot over the years, but I, also for many years, did not understand. I just thought that she was obsessive and talked too much about it. And then when she died ... Something about your parents’ death, you see them -- you see a lot of things -- in a different light. And if nothing else I missed her.”

MICHELLE BISSON spent decades talking with her mother, Hedy, about the Holocaust, and their family’s story of escape. Bisson says that her understanding of that story changed much over those years. But it wasn’t until after her mother had died that she found a way to write it.

In 1941, Hedy, a 16-year-old girl, escaped the Nazis by travelling alone from Hungary across Germany, then reunited with her family to come to America. The notes that Bisson’s mother had written about these events, at her daughter’s request, were “dry, bare-bones.” Bisson, a playwright, editor, and journalist, considered several ways to tell the story, but eventually decided to write it as a children’s book.

During this interview, presented in a shortened version below, the author spoke about writing for children, why a light palette is useful for illustrating heavy material, and how she came to understand her grandfather -- who would have abandoned the escape attempt midway if he had not been convinced to continue by his wife and daughter.

Can you summarize the story?

It is the story of how my mother and her family left Hungary in the middle of the second World War. It is based on things that she told me and wrote down at my request. She was a teenager at the time.

The war had already started in Europe, and in Hungary there was basically a Nazi party that was friendly to Germany, so Germany had not invaded, but the Hungarian Nazi party started to put restrictions on Jews. My mother had a cousin, Marika, who was staying with them to learn a trade. She was from Poland, and it was 1941. That summer there was an order that came for all non-Hungarians to be deported, so Marika was deported. At that time, they already knew that Jews were being killed. They did not know the extent, but they knew Jews are being killed, and that there were camps. So her cousin basically went back to not quite certain-death, to be with her family.

That was a big wake-up call for my mom’s family, as they realized they had better get out of there. Luckily for them, my mother’s mother had a sister in America who would vouch for her, so they made the last quota. But getting out of Hungary was not so easy. Just in terms of logistics, they had seats for only three people to get out of Budapest to Germany and then Portugal. So my grandparents and my uncle, who was very young then, only 11, went together. And my mother, who was 16, had to follow on her own. The scary part of this was that the route went through Nazi Germany, in the middle of the war.

She was lucky enough to get through it unscathed. She did have some help in Germany and Vienna. It was like an underground railroad for Jews in Europe. Then she took a plane to Barcelona, and then to Lisbon, where they all managed to get stuck because of the Pearl Harbor attack, which marked the end of cruise ships going to the U.S. No more domestic non-military ships -- they were all taken for the military.

So they were stuck in Lisbon.My grandfather wanted to go back home, because at that time the German Nazis had not invaded Hungary, and he still had a business, and they did not have any money with them in Portugal. But my grandmother and my mother dissuaded him. They eventually found a way out -- a Portuguese boat that was taking people to South America and Cuba, and then some people to New York.

The ship’s fare that they paid was lost or stolen by the people they paid it to, so they had to come up with money a second time. Again they were lucky because my grandfather had a brother in Chile who was able to send them some money, and they had some jewels with which they could bribe the officials.

They eventually got on a boat and did get across the sea. Later, when they were really low on fuel, they stopped in Virginia to try to get fuel, and at that point they were in the U.S. So they petitioned Roosevelt. They asked if they could get off the boat in Virginia instead going first to South America and then to New York. And he said, Okay, if you can pay your fare to Penn Station. So they did, and actually landed on George Washington’s birthday. It was pretty remarkable story. They were almost the last boat of people who were allowed into this country from Portugal during the war, or from anywhere else for that matter. That is a very nutshell version of the story.

What age is this book for?

This book is technically for grades 3 to 5, ages 8 to 10, but I would say it really skews a little older, ages 9 to 11 or 12. We say that kids should be at a grade 5 reading level, but the interest level is from grades 3 to 7. Really, though, a lot of parents read it to or with their kids.

You said that you yourself learned about the Holocaust in sixth grade? I was surprised by this. Can you talk about writing for kids, and about the fact that you did not learn this story until later than some of the kids that you are writing for?

When I was young, it had more or less just happened. It was very much a sore spot. My mom, who was Hungarian, and her generation, they had lived through it. My father was American and he fought in World War II but he did not want to talk about the war, either. People just didn’t want to.

Now kids are taught about the Holocaust in school. So one of the things about it is that this is in the curriculum at a fairly young age. And one of the things you do when you’re writing for kids, if it’s for 3rd grade, for example, you always make the kids a little older than the audience is. It is kind of aspirational, so they do not think, I am too old for that. They think, that is very interesting, I might want to be that. They can relate in a slightly different way if the characters are slightly older. That is just one of the things that is true with children’s publishing.

But it was a challenge because it is a pretty complex story, and although it has a “happy ending” for my mom and her family, it’s not so for her cousin, or for six million other Jewish people and another five million other people who killed by the Nazis. War in general is not a happy story. But you need to have a balance of hope and reality, and really explain what happened, but on a simple level. This is another reason it is good to have editors who are skilled for this age.

Can you talk about the changes you had to make to make this story accessible for kids?

When I wrote the first draft, it ended after they landed in Virginia and got on the train to go to New York, and the first thing they saw were the whites-only and coloreds-only signs on the train, because Virginia was the South and this was still Jim Crow. When my mom told me the story that was the ending for her. It was like, oh great, we escaped the Nazis, and look! Now we are here.

But you can’t end a kids’ story on such a downer. Yet I would not take it entirely out because I think it is very important and has resonance. That’s why it’s in the Afterword. Not everyone will read that, and some kids that do might have to talk to their teachers or parents, or learn about what it was like here.

There are a few anecdotes in the book, including a story of your mom swimming in a pool that Jews were not allowed to swim in, in Budapest. How did you choose those moments? I imagine when you were hearing the story from her, it must have been filled with moments like that -- physical, concrete memories.

That is an interesting observation. Much of this was taken from my mother’s writing, and that was very dry, bare-bones. I had to really imagine what was she feeling or thinking. But the swimming pool was something that she talked about, and it was a very big deal for her, and for me, because the woman that I knew as my mother was not brave. She followed orders. She was very quiet. One of the anecdotes that she told me as an adult was about when my older brother gave a high school party for his graduation and she came out, and mingled and talked to his friends, and he said, “Mommy talks!” She was kind of taken aback, thinking, Of course I talk!

The woman I remember from my childhood was very quiet. So when she told me the story it had enormous emotional resonance, on many levels. I was amazed because I did not see her as a rebel. I was proud of her. I was also sad for her, because clearly the person who had lived in safety in Budapest, so safe and secure that she could say, Hey I am going to swim in this pool -- too bad. Try and stop me -- I don’t care what you do -- that woman, that girl, was irrevocably changed by the terror of what she was about to go through in Budapest, and having to move to a new land, and never having the same security again.

This is a story about the past, but you have connected it to Jim Crow. How does it connect to our situation today?

It connects in many ways. Jews were not wanted anywhere. There was anti-Semitism in Europe, and there was antisemitism in the United States and over most of the world. I think about this a lot because I think with all of the anti-refugee sentiment now.

Someone reading the story might say, Well your parents were legal. They came here legally. They were allowed in. And that is right. They were privileged. But people in their same situation who just didn’t happen to have a relative, or didn’t happen to have money to get here, they were equally innocent and equally victimized, and equally likely to be killed. But they were not allowed into this country or into other countries. I think that kids today would connect to that fact.

I also think in terms of Jim Crow. At least until recently, the myth of America has been, “land of the free, home of the brave.” People want to come here. My mother wanted to come here before the Holocaust, because she saw it as a more free and open society. And then you learn, Well, guess what. I mean, there was not genocide of black people in this country -- but there certainly were lynchings and hatred and inequality and segregation. It was similar, just to a lesser degree.

The book is only about a slice of my mom’s life, not her whole life, but there is a little bit about this in the Afterword: that when she moved here, there was tremendous discrimination against her. My father’s mother did not want him to marry an immigrant. When she went to get a job in a flower store, they made her stay in the back because she did not speak proper English.

It was shameful to be a refugee. I think one of the reasons she didn’t talk to me about the Holocaust when I was a child is that I imagine she felt ashamed, too. It becomes incorporated into your self-worth or into your lack thereof. Yet she did learn English pretty quickly, and not everybody was able to, and some people had stronger accents. All of those things make people view you differently -- as is happening now with other immigrants in the U.S.

How did it change your self-image when you learned about this story and learned that it was your story as well?

That is hard to answer. I think that it took me many years to understand my cousin Marika’s story and why she would basically choose not to survive. It took many decades to understand how that, in its way, is also very brave.

I also think a lot more about my grandfather,in a different way than when I was in 6th grade. For many many decades I thought only of my mom and my grandmother as the heroes of the story. Because of them we are here, I am here. And that is terrific. But I kind of blamed my grandfather. Now I am about the age that he was when he came over here, and I think, Well, of course he did not want to come! He had a whole life. He had a language. He had a culture. He loved his life and he was not young.

But he came and he made a life. He became successful, whatever that means in American terms. He supported his family. He owned a store. He sold that store to my dad so that we would have a life.

I am not sure that as a 6th grader I really understood how scary and amazing it was that my mom survived all of this.I think I understood to some degree, and it did change my view of her to think, Wow that is amazing what she did, and scary. And you can’t help but think, How would I respond in a similar situation? I can’t answer that.

When I was 11 and I learned about the Holocaust in school, the focus was on the horrors of the Nazis, and what I most remember my teacher talking about was Mengele and his experiments with children and, what we heard was, turning skin into lampshades. I think that that was the Holocaust to me. So there is also a part of me that thought, Well, my mom got off easy. She was not in a concentration camp. They got out, and nothing happened to her.

Speak about the artist, El Primo Ramon. Both the writing and the art are simple. Can you speak about how the art works with your writing?

It was very intentional to create an art style that was simple and light -- not exactly pastel, but pretty close to it; not somber, because the story is so somber. The artist himself is of Spanish descent, which obviously was not something that we hunted for -- it was just a lucky accident -– because it turned out he also knew Portuguese. He believes his family was Jewish before the Inquisition, as most of the men in his family were called Avram, or Abraham. Jewish, not Spanish, names .So we had a connection there that may or may not have influenced the art. But I think it did, in a nice way.

He is also somebody who is trained in architecture, so you see a lot of architectural detail. He makes beautiful buildings and swimming pools. But we wanted it to be accessible to a kid and not to overwhelm them with, Oh my God this is such a sad story. No, these are people like us.

Michelle Bisson is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has worked in children’s publishing for the last few decades. Her areas of focus are history, social justice, and mental and physical health. Hedy’s Journey is her first picture book.

Jacob L. Perl, a member of our editorial board, is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin, and working in the medical field.