Lynn: Survival in desperate times is often a matter of chance as Uri Shulevitz says in his new book, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (Farrar, 2020). But as in all things in life, there is much more to Shulevitz’s story. This book is a searing tale of horrifying privation but it is also about determination, love, and the start of an artistic life.
When Uri Shulevitz was only 4, the Nazis attacked Poland. Uri’s father fled into Russia and the plan was for Uri and his mother to join him later. In a brief period when the borders remained open, Uri and his mother traveled by smuggler’s truck from German-occupied Poland into Russia, joining his father in Bialystok. Escaping from the Nazis was an incredibly fortunate act but this still was the beginning of 10 years of horrifying oppression, extreme poverty, disease, and starvation. Denied employment except in labor camps, the family traveled to a settlement north of Arkangel on the Baltic Sea, east to Turkestan, and in 1945, an equally harrowing journey back to Warsaw and eventually to Paris.
Shulevitz writes for a young audience and he forges a remarkable combination of an honest picture of the reality in language and images appropriate for the audience and manages somehow to never be overly graphic. Shulevitz speaks straight to the reader and his choices of small vignettes move the story forward while also skillfully giving youngsters the tools to understand the unimaginable.
“Hunger is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” he writes.
He goes on to describe being so hungry that his mother made and cooked a patty of grass for him. Uri devoured every bit and then, unable to process it, he suffered intense diarrhea, having to flee to a maggot-ridden outhouse with no roof and wipe himself with stones because there was no toilet paper. Shulevitz also provides the moments that kept him going. Drawing was his lifeline and his love of the stories his mother told.
“My poor loving mother couldn’t feed my body but she did magnificently feed my mind.”
It is the masterful use of these and other brilliantly written moments that make this a book that readers will never forget. This is a truly inspiring story of deep suffering and amazing survival. It is a look inside a mind and soul who somehow came out the other side of a living hell and triumphed after all. This book is a gift to us all.
Cindy: We know Uri Shulevitz from his long, successful career authoring and illustrating award-winning picture books. Departing from this format, at age 85, he has written a memoir that will find a wide audience age range, starting with the upper elementary students who can handle the painful experiences. For the older students and adults who read this, it will be a book they won’t forget. The painful events and the sweet, simple joys that helped Uri and his family and all of those with shared experiences, are chronicled not just in words, but in Uri’s art. He started to draw at the age of three and encouraged by his parents, continued to use his art as one survival strategy. The scenes include touches of architecture and his surroundings but feature the vivid expressions of the many emotions, illnesses, and deprivations he experienced. Photographs and mementos that miraculously survived the wartime travels are included as well. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux deserve mention for giving this book the quality bookmaking that it deserves. It is a beautiful volume that will become a classic.
This past year as many have endured family loss and true hardships and others have complained about less serious deprivation like toilet paper shortages and mask-wearing, this memoir shows another time in our history in which true suffering was faced, and if you had good fortune or chance, you endured. Ingrid Roper interviewed Mr. Shulevitz for this July 17, 2020 Publisher Weekly article, and at the end, he speaks of what he hopes will help others through our current pandemic:
“My mother’s stories and drawing were a lifeline for me during that time as a refugee,” he says. “And I hope readers will seek their own lifeline now. Everyone is different, and it will be different for everyone. But finding that is critical. And if this book helps them do so, my book will be happy and so will I.”