Charlotte Schallié, editor
University Toronto Press (2022)
ISBN 1487526849, 978-1487526849
Reviewed by Ralph Wintrob
“There is no subject more fraught for parents, teachers, and librarians than The Holocaust.”
“The book is directed at high school students”… “it’s a bargain!”
TORONTO. January 10/23 – There is no subject more fraught for parents, teachers, and librarians than The Holocaust. Materials and explanations are either too bland or too traumatic to handle comfortably. There’s no middle ground.
So along comes But I Live to try to blaze a trail to the middle ground. It’s the product of a carefully nurtured project of the Holocaust Education Program at the University of Victoria, and the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, involving a legion of contributors, fronted by three graphic format memoirs of child Holocaust survivors, along with historical background essays, (telling us for example that The Final Solution began as a Nazi project to eliminate “human garbage”, that is, defectives, to promote its pure master race policy), artist and subject addenda, and background to the project itself by the editor, plus a preface.
Behind the front and back cover is a sketch of a child casting a long double-page shadow that sets the tone for the entire book, reflecting perfectly the effect of the subjects’ childhood experiences over their entire lives, and, hopefully, ours.
The decision to tell the stories visually, we are told, was deliberate, because children record experience visually. It takes maturity to transfer memories verbally. A visual record can stay with a child forever. The artists assigned to each subject spent days developing a comfortable relationship and shared their work with the subjects as they developed their images. The artists’ impressions of their subjects they share with us as well in an addenda in graphic form. Turned out each of them had children the same age as the subjects’ experiences they were recording and wondered how they and their own children would respond to similar challenges.
All three artists use pen and ink sketches and sombre shadowy water colouring, except one who uses bright water colours, and carefully explains why.
The first subject had no encounter with Nazis, but Jews were rounded up and expelled for political reasons, if they were lucky, to a part of Romania where they had to fend for themselves and depend on the goodwill of the locals to help them survive. They shifted often, sometimes sheltering in the safety of dense forests, hiding in foxholes.
The second subjects, brothers, were assigned by partisan guardians to Dutch farm families, and they too were ever-changing, 13 times actually, foster families in the countryside, to keep them safe. It was a well-organized and supervised program.
Only the third subject was sent to concentration camps inside Germany and suffered horribly. It’s she who gives the title to the book. Often saying she doesn’t remember what happened, her memories come out in fits and starts. At one point she was placed in the camp ‘clinic’ suffering from typhus. “They put me between dying and dead. I remember feeling I was going to die. It was a good feeling. No pain. No hunger. No noise.” Turn the page, to the bare outline of a child, on a sombre charcoal wash slab, and the words “But I live.” That ‘but’ speaks volumes, not to mention the ‘live’ in the present tense. And Emmie’s story concludes on the next full page, with a tiny pen sketch of her on her Israeli merpesset, in a bright sunlit wash, calling out to her daughter, “Orli, I’m coming.”
In their afterwords, the subjects explain why they waited so long to tell their stories, and what they hope for from this book, like “I hope to inspire you to be alert, and take action to protect our freedom,” and “I hope that you will spread good in the world, not bad”
In her afterword, the editor tells us that the book is directed at high school students and that all the material developed around the project is available online. Of special interest may be a trauma guide, prepared by staff and students at UBC’s Faculty of Education.
There is no question that the format (8 ½ x 11, heavy paper) and content of this [hardcover] book have been sensitively prepared and presented. It offers a variety of approaches to a difficult subject, which grew out of the editing process. And at CAD $29.65 it’s a bargain. Hopefully, it will become a staple in Holocaust Education programs. There’s already a German edition for that market.♦
Credit: University of Toronto Press
Ralph Wintrob is a former journalist, teacher-librarian
Do you have comments or questions about this book review? Ralph Wintrob can be reached at email@example.com