Sunday, February 9, 2014

Erika's Story by Ruth Vander Lee (Illustrated by Roberto Innocenti)

Published in 2003
Picturebook / Historical Fiction
Erika's Story is a nonfiction picturebook, or biography, that tells the powerful story of Erika, a German, Jewish survivor of the Holocaust during World War II. The author's note at the beginning of the story explains how the book came about:

"In 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I met the woman in the story. My husband and I were sitting on a curb in Rothenburg, Germany, watching a clean-up crew gather shards of broken roof tile from the city hall. A small tornado had ripped through this lovely medieval village the night before and scattered rubble everywhere. An elderly merchant standing nearby was telling us that the storm left as much devastation as the last Allied attack of the war."

"When the merchant went back to tending his store, the lady sitting next to us introduced herself as Erika. . . . I noticed she was wearing a Star of David on a gold chain around her neck, so I mentioned that after our stay in Israel . . . we had driven through Austria and visited the concentration camp in Mathausen. Erika told me that she had one time gotten as far as the entrance to Dachau but could not bear to enter."

"Then she told me her story . . . "

Erika tells her story of how, as an infant, she was thrown from a moving train by her mother in

Erika is thrown from the train by her mother.
an effort to save her life.  Her mother knew she was destined for death and felt the only way to save her child's life was to throw her from the train window with the hope someone would find her. Someone did find her, and that woman, who is never identified in the story, risked her life in order to raise Erika as her own child. Erika did survive the war. She survived because of her mother's sacrifice and the kindness and courage of a woman her family didn't even know.

The yellow Star of David in the center of the book's cover powerfully symbolizes what happened from 1933-1945, when six million Jews were killed, shot, starved to death, burned in ovens, or gassed in chambers. The book's title simply states: "Erika's Story." The word Verboten, which means forbidden in German, is touching the yellow star to remind us that Jews were forbidden in Germany under the Nazi Regime. The muted colors, browns, blacks, and whites set the Star of David apart from the other images on the cover. When the book is opened, the endpapers are yellow, and the reader sees that the star has been cut-out so that the color of the star is revealed only by what is underneath the cover. The star is there, but it isn't.

Most of the illustrations throughout the book are in black and white, except for a few. The illustration where the author meets Erika is in color and is modern in its representation; the image of Erika being thrown from the train is in black and white, except for the infant shown wrapped in a pink blanket; and the final double-page illustration is of Erika depicted as a small child (about five or six) watching a train pass by in the distance. Erika is standing on a bridge with her back facing the audience, and a woman is hanging clothes nearby. The impression is left to the reader's imagination; this woman must be the one who saved Erika's life. Her back is also facing the audience, and her face is not revealed to protect her identity.

The gray clouds in the distance and the wind blowing Erika's hair and dress create an ominous tone and represent the horror of what has happened to Erika and her family. The final sentence in Erika's story is on a solid, white page and stands alone in the top left-hand corner. It simply reads, "My star still shines." Beneath the sentence is a small, yellow star. Nothing else needs to be said.

Ruth Vander Zee Website
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Resources for Educators
Image Source

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting older student book. I don't think I would want to shaare this with little children. It might fit well with a history unit.