When her father died of cancer in 2019 when she was just 13, Suzette Sheft realized that one should never delay recording family stories and histories. It was too late for her to interview her dad, but there was still time to ask her grandmother about her Holocaust story and get it down on paper.
Sheft, a high school student, turned her paternal grandmother Monique Sheft’s experiences into a work of narrative non-fiction. Targeted at young readers ages 11 to 15, “Running for Shelter” was released on November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht — the event that signaled the beginning of the Holocaust.
“It’s not a novel. Everything in it is true. I just believe that borrowing the literary and dramatic tools of fiction helps young readers connect with characters and helps stories stay longer in their minds. Kids can take things in better through narrative than through dry text and statistics,” Sheft told The Times of Israel from her home in New York, where she lives with her mother and twin brother. (Warning: Although mentioned in passing, the book does contain an allusion to sexual violence.)
Sheft, now 16, knows this from personal experience. She has been an avid reader since her earliest years. She is also a serious writer. In addition to editing the literary magazine at her private school, she has participated in a variety of writing workshops for youth, including the University of Iowa’s Young Writer’s Studio’s residential program this past summer. She may also come by her writing ability genetically, as the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz is in her family tree.
Liesbeth Heenk of Amsterdam Publishers, which specializes in Holocaust memoirs, recognized Sheft’s precocious talent and was willing to take her on.
“I have worked with many first, second, and third-generation Holocaust survivors, but Suzette is the youngest. We had to make some edits to her manuscript, but they were nothing more than we would do to manuscripts from adult writers,” Heenk said.
“Suzette’s prose is simple but excellent for young adult audiences. She uses literary tools that make the narrative all the more lively,” she said.
To learn her 93-year-old grandmother’s story, Sheft sat down with her for an entire week to interview her about her life before, during, and after World War II. The young writer took notes and pressed her grandmother for details and clarifications.
“She seemed to remember everything,” Sheft said.
The young author gleaned additional information from watching a videotaped USC Shoah Foundation interview with her grandmother conducted a decade earlier.
“I also did a lot of historical research online to create accurate settings and descriptions,” Sheft said.
“Running for Shelter” begins in Nazi-occupied Vienna in the late 1930s, where Sheft’s grandmother — then named Inge Eisinger — lived with her divorced mother Stella. While the upper-middle-class Stella spent most of her time socializing outside the home, Inge was mainly raised by household help and her maternal grandmother Anna Kupfer. Inge was estranged from her father Ludwig, who saw her only once a year on her birthday.
As the family’s economic and personal security situations deteriorated after Kristallnacht in November 1938, Stella decided to escape Austria to Switzerland with 10-year-old Inge using forged documents. Anna stayed behind, as did Ludwig, whom the book hints was at one point in Nazi custody.
The book’s narrative follows the traumatized yet resilient Inge as she and her mother arrive in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Stella leaves her in the home of strangers as she continues on to Paris to find refuge and work. Stella arranges for Inge to be smuggled to Paris, but does not have her join her. Instead, Inge is cared for by Stella’s brother Emanuel (Manny) Kupfer in the squalid Pigalle district. But when Manny decides in January 1939 to join the French Foreign Legion, he must place Inge with an expat British host family, the Barclays. Fortunately, the family lives in an upper-class area of Paris. They care well for Inge and have a son, Michel, with whom she bonds.
After the war starts and the Nazi bombing of Paris becomes too dangerous, the Barclays send Inge and Michel to a British boarding school in Maisons-Laffitte, northwest of Paris. The Nazis bomb the area around the school, but overall, the children are safer there than in Paris.
Then on May 17, 1941, the figure of an old woman appears as Inge plays on the field with other children. It is her grandmother Anna, who escaped from Austria and comes looking for her.
“Anna reached for her. Her short gray hair blended in with the fog, and Inge thought that she might actually be a ghost. She wore the same loving, softly wrinkled expression that Inge dreamt about each night, however, and she embraced her without hesitation. As Anna held her tightly in her soft, delicate arms and stroked her head, Inge finally felt completely safe and protected,” Sheft wrote.
Anna takes Inge to Buxières-les-Mines, a village in central France, where they live in hardship until the war’s end. Inge — who changes her name to Monique to be more in line with her newfound French identity — goes to school at first, but as a young teenager has to drop out to work to support herself and her infirm grandmother. Uncle Manny reappears and joins them for a while, but is killed while serving with the French Resistance.
In the meantime, Monique’s mother Stella escapes the war and Europe and moves to the United States. She sends an occasional letter, but nothing more.
“To her mother, Monique realized, she would always just be in the background,” Sheft wrote.
Stella’s neglect of Monique is striking, especially in light of so many Holocaust stories that highlight the sacrifices mothers made to protect their children.
“I did research on distant mothers to portray this realistically,” Sheft said.
“Monique and Stella’s relationship shows readers that each family is different. Not every family has two loving parents, or two living parents, for that matter,” she said.
It turns out that Monique’s father Ludwig survived the war. He sends a social worker to locate Monique and Anna. After a failed reunion between father and daughter in Clermont-Ferrand, Monique moves with Anna to Paris. Monique, by then 16, works as a secretary until their visas for the US arrive in November 1946.
The next month the two are on a ship making the journey to New York. As the Statue of Liberty comes into view, Anna turns to her granddaughter and drops a bomb: “I have protected you from some very important information about our family so that you would be safe, but it is time for you to know the truth… Monique, you are Jewish.”
Every Holocaust story is unique, but this one has the highly unusual twist of the protagonist being unaware that she is Jewish. Although Monique — with her red hair and green eyes — was already 10 years old by the time the war started, her parents and grandmother had never mentioned to her anything about her heritage. Her mother raised her in a completely secular, assimilated environment. In fact, a major reason why her parents divorced soon after Monique’s birth was her father’s strong identification with Judaism.
While in Buxières-les-Mines, Monique had seen a Jewish family attacked and taken away by Nazis. Although horrified, she had no reason to believe that she was ever in such danger.
“I know my grandmother’s story is different. But not every Holocaust story takes place in a ghetto or concentration camp. And not every hidden child knew they came from a Jewish family,” Sheft said.
Whatever the details of Holocaust survivors’ stories, Sheft said it is imperative for today’s third and fourth-generation survivors to record them before it is too late.
“We need to do this for our families and history in general,” she said.
Publisher Heenk told The Times of Israel that she was impressed by Sheft’s educational vision. Sheft wants to turn “Running for Shelter” into a play, and is using it as the key text in a workshop she is leading in the Bronx for elementary school students on how to record and write family histories.
These days, young people are also taking to social media to share their survivor grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories.
“TikTok is the way Millennials and Gen Z communicate,” Sheft noted.
However, Heenk shared that she was pleased to see Sheft going old school, so to speak.
“I believe in the power of the word with young people. Children and teens still read,” Heenk said.
Sheft is in favor of recording and sharing survivors’ stories in any and every way possible.
“If we don’t have these stories, then there will be nothing with which to educate people about the Holocaust and to prevent genocide,” she said.
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