The Promise is a 32-page picture book, written by cousins Margie Wolfe and Pnina Bat Zvi, illustrated by Isabella Cardinal, forthcoming in April 2018 by Second Story Press. In this true story, sisters Rachel and Toby keep a promise to their parents while at Auschwitz. Wolfe and Bat Zvi are the daughters of those sisters.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you first hear the story of Rachel and Toby? Where were you and how old were you?
Margie Wolfe (MW): Unlike many Holocaust survivors, our mothers talked of their lives before and during the war to their children. . I’m not sure when exactly I heard this story first but I was young. You need to know that Rachel and Toby did not see each other from 1947 until 1960 — one had married and gone to Palestine and Toby also married, had me in the Bergen Belsen DP camp and for a bunch of reasons immigrated to Canada instead of to Israel as originally planned. So in those 13 years before I met her my aunt, Rachel became an almost mythical character for me. I had no grandparents on either side, only this one aunt about whom my mother spoke, and to whom she wrote late at night when she thought we were all sleeping. Even today I cry remembering the moment the two reunited at an old airport in Toronto when I was only ten. I think it was the first time I recognized absolute love.
Pnina Bat Zvi (PBZ): Always. I remember listening to my mother’s Shoah stories from a very young age. No matter what subject was discussed at home, the Shoah ‘jumped out the bottle’ and took over the conversation. I can say that I always knew that Rachel, my mother, was literally saved from death by Toby, her older sister (by 1 year).. The story was delivered to me in different versions, at different times, based on my age. As I grew up, I learned more details about that story. Later on, when I became a journalist I asked to hear from my mother about that EXTRAORDINARY MOMENT in her life. When did it take place? Where? How did she feel from the moment she became sick in Barack 25 up to 24 hours later, at the very moment when she saw Toby standing in front of her in barrack 29, among all the sick women waiting to be sent away to death. While staring at Toby mummy thought she was Hallucinating. But no! That was real! It was Toby who sneaked into that horrible Barrack 29 determined to save her sister’s life.
I got the story along the years in ISOLATED pieces, like all other Shoah stories my mom used to tell me. I often asked myself; WHY such a dramatic event didn’t have a consecutive narrative, why was it told to me in pieces? I don’t have the answer. I can only assume that the Shoah’s devastating trauma blasted the continuity of memory, as it often happens in Post Traumatic cases.
When my mother talked about her sister Toby as a brave young adult I imagined her physically a big, strong woman. I first met my auntie Toby when she came over for my Bat Mitzvah celebration in Tel Aviv, 1964. I remember myself standing in the airport looking at the legendary Toby. There she stood my heroine — a petite red-headed woman, dressed up in a chic fashion, full of confidence and with a big sweet smile.
TWM: When did the two of you decide to develop this narrative into a picture book? What prompted your decision?
MW: The idea for a book was Pnina’s. She knew my work as the publisher of Second Story Press where we have been releasing books for young readers on the Holocaust for two decades — titles that have been translated into more than forty languages so she knew it could be done. Perhaps, more importantly, she wanted to do honour to our mothers’ experience and memory. Once I convinced myself that we could write this book in a way that the story deserved, I realized it was time. I had been helping to tell other people’s stories for decades — my mother and aunt deserved a book legacy of their own.
PBZ: Auntie Toby passed away in 1995. My mother Rachel died in 2012. Three years after my mother Rachel passed away, I felt that Margie and I have to tell their story. I’d asked my mother several times if I could write their story — she said no. I did not ask her why she rejected my proposal. I was protecting my mother, did want to take her back to the Shoah. As for me, I loved their survival story because it seemed to me to be an empowering story for young girls. Both sisters during dreadful fascist times, living under horrific and insane terror, found within themselves the willpower to live. They found slivers of hope by slipping at nighttime into good dreams, and maintaining moments of humor. For example, in one of the many drafts I wrote about the girls queuing for dinner to get the same food every evening. It was soup made of potato skins, a turnip, a quarter loaf of bread and black tea. Toby, one evening asked my mom who was queuing just ahead of her: “I am puzzled, if we only get the potato skins, who are the lucky ones who get the potatoes for dinner? Too many potatoes for not many people.” My mom used to tell me that story with a chuckle; that became a joke, since it was insanely out of proportion – the number of prisoners compared to the number of Nazi guards in that camp ( this scene was cut out in the final version). The sisters scratched from the bottom of their life willpower strength. They didn’t let depression get closer to them. In addition, their biggest strength was their promise to stick together throughout the war, against all odds and the Nazi system in the Holocaust. The system was to separate spouses, siblings, parents from their children, etc. To forsake the prisoner, be it a child or a grown up, alone with no emotional support. The sisters, Toby and Rachel, went against this Nazi regime, at a very young age!
I wrote many drafts of the story; I forwarded them to Margie for remarks. We went back and forth writing this story together. When Margie was convinced that we could do it she started to write her part in the text.
TWM: What were the challenges involved?
MW: While I had been involved in publishing and editing hundreds of titles I had never written one for children. Pnina, while a professional journalist, had also never written a book for young people. Moreover, her first language was not English. A second major challenge was this was a “hard” story we were aiming to write for readers, most of whom would not be Jewish and were children. Our task was to tell a compelling (and important) story without frightening the reader. Moreover, we didn’t want to teach a history lesson but rather tell a story about love, devotion, commitment and compassion in the midst of a terrible horror. Ultimately, we want to help readers understand the difference between right and wrong so that they may themselves live a humane, caring and just existence throughout their lives.
PBZ: My biggest challenge, as a writer and the cousin to Margie, was to come out of three years of co-writing the text about our mothers with no bad feelings. Margie and I talked about it before getting into the project for many hours. We made a promise to each other that no matter what happens during the co-writing period, and no matter how many disagreements we may have, our love and devotion to each other will surmount all difficulties. I’m happy to attest that we remained very close and loving cousins and friends.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
MW: Right now I’m mostly very proud that we could honour my mother and aunt in this way. The wonderful advance reviews we are starting to get gives me hope that their story will touch and hearts and minds of young people for many years to come. I also love that with this book there is a marriage between my family’s history and legacy and my own life’s work.
PBZ: That we did it. That was the greatest satisfaction. Girls and boys all over the globe will read our mothers’ heroic story and reflect about it; they share a similar age, as the current readers. Auschwitz was not on another planet. It was in ours. The threats of terror, of fascism are ubiquitous. Getting to know such stories is important for young readers shaping their personalities.
TWM: How did you divide the work between the two of you, or did you?
MW: Pnina wrote the earliest drafts. My task was to help turn the story into a readable children’s book. Once we had the basis for the storyline we had to prune and finesse the language to create a dramatic narrative that could keep the reader’s attention while maintaining the integrity of the real events. Pnina and I went back and forth with ideas, corrections and suggestions.
TWM: Did you always have the epilogue with real-life photos of the two sisters in mind?
MW: A number of years ago when I published [as the publisher of Second Story Press] my first Holocaust picture books called The Secret of the Village Fool and The Magician of Auschwitz I worried that the format would make the child reader believe that these were just made-up stories , not “true” stories even if we said they were true at the beginning of the book and/or on the cover. I determined that one way to make it real for them was to provide a just-the-facts epilogue with photographs of the characters so that there would be no question that this was a book about real people and real events. For The Promise we had no images of Rachel and Toby before the war, but fortunately, we found photos of them together during different times throughout their lives.
And now let’s turn to illustrator Isabelle Cardinal:
TWM: Please describe your process for creating the images, including the medium.
Isabelle Cardinal (IC): Step one is sketching. Even tough the final illustrations are made as a mix of collage/photos, drawings, textures. I draw on a digital tablet, and then use those sketches as a layout to do my final illustration in Photoshop. I think people have a perception of digital collage as being a rigid medium but I feel that it gives me endless possibilities.
TWM: Were there any special challenges in depicting a Holocaust story? How did you conduct your research?
IC: When Margie sent me the story and asked if I was interested to illustrate it, I could not say no. It was (is) such a wonderful and touching story. The challenges had multiple facets. As my illustrations are collaged, I had to make sure the teens would look their age, and that they would also look like the two sisters in real life, at that time. So it was a lot of collaging but also a lot of drawing, to get the perfect expressions, mood, etc.
For the references, I looked at a lot of pictures of the camp, making sure I had the right structural elements for the barracks, the right outfits for the guards, etc. I worked closely with Margie and Pnina so the visuals would render the right clothes they wore at that time. I learned a lot through it all… about the cups they wore on a rope at their waist, etc. There were a lot of revisions and it is a good thing, because it was important to show these elements.
It is such a touching story about resilience… I hope my illustrations touches the heart of the readers as much as the story touched my heart when I have read it.