Kor, Eva Mozes, with Danica Davidson. I Will Protect You: A True Story of Twins Who Survived Auschwitz. New York and Boston: Little Brown, 2022. 226 pp. $17.99
The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did this project come about?
Danica Davidson (DD): I’d experienced increased antisemitism while working as a journalist in 2015, and I felt a need to write something that could be helpful. So I started to educate myself more on my Jewish heritage, and read a lot of Jewish books and went to see Jewish speakers. One of those speakers was Eva. I introduced myself afterward to try to interview her for a magazine, and mentioned I wrote kids’ books. That was my way of letting her know I was a professional writer and not here to waste her time. But as soon as I dropped that I’d written and published 16 kids’ books, she about leapt out of her chair. She burst out that she wanted to do a kids’ book, because you needed to reach kids to fight antisemitism. She said if you wait till 12 or later to talk about the Holocaust and antisemitism, it’s too late, because the prejudices are set in. I immediately saw how passionate she was about this, and we began discussing how we could do a book.
TWM: What attracted you to it?
DD: The thing that most attracted me (if that’s the right word) was the fact that Eva survived Auschwitz as a child. That’s almost unheard of. Most children were sent to the gas chambers immediately. I knew from my reading that most Holocaust books for kids are about hiding and escaping, not camps, and a lot of Holocaust books for kids are fiction. Eva and I think kids ought to have accessible nonfiction Holocaust books for them as well, so they can learn what happened to real people, as well as reading fiction. Here was an opportunity to describe a true story, and not only a true story, but a true story about Auschwitz to children, because it was from a child’s point-of-view, and so it could be relatable. I’d never met a child survivor of Auschwitz before, and I haven’t met one since. And with child survivors so rare, and with most Holocaust survivors no longer with us, I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this story down on paper.
TWM: How does I Will Protect You differ from Eva Kor’s other book, Echoes of Auschwitz?
DD: Echoes of Auschwitz was an adult book Eva self-published in the 90s. That was before she found healing, and you can hear the anger sizzling off some of the pages in Echoes of Auschwitz. The Eva I met was much calmer, much more even-keel, much more welcoming of people. She had friends in so many different walks of life. It’s not that she never got upset, but that she could actually experience life now instead of being angry all the time. Echoes of Auschwitz reads more like an ethnography project, which is helpful to learn about the Holocaust and her time and place, but I knew it wouldn’t be interesting for kids. To make her story kid-friendly, I found a story arc, put in symbolism, kept chapters short, and kept the pace fast. I Will Protect You is a true story, but it reads like a novel.
TWM: What were the challenges and satisfactions of writing this book, working with Eva, and dealing with Eva’s death?
DD: I’d been wanting to write something about antisemitism, and the rough draft poured out of me in three weeks. It was emotionally overpowering and also cathartic to write, because I felt as if I were finally doing something concrete and lasting that could help other Jewish people.
We worked really well together. Eva wrote me at one point, saying, “You understand my thinking.” I think it helped that we were also like-minded because we both have a lot of respect for kids and being open and honest with them. We talked about how when we were kids we couldn’t stand it when adults would shut us out or not explain important things to us.
Eva died just 15 days after we accepted Little, Brown’s offer on the finished manuscript. She was on an education trip to Auschwitz. In the last phone call we had, she said she would help me start promoting our book as soon as she got back. That’s how dedicated she was to getting out a book for children. So that even when I pointed out that was early for promoting a book, she still insisted she would do it.
We got really close in that time together. I miss her so much. I wish she were here with me for this.
TWM: Please describe the process you and Eva used in writing this book.
DD: I interviewed her a lot, mainly over the phone. You can find the general information about her life online, so I asked a lot more specific questions. I also read a lot of kids’ books on heavy subjects to see how they dealt with them. Then I discussed ideas with Eva. Eva knew she wanted a kids’ book, and she really related to kids, but she wasn’t a writer, and she didn’t know how to go about getting her story into an age-appropriate book. So when I got ideas I thought would work, I’d pass them by her. I suggested we open the book with her being bullied at school for being Jewish, because school and bullying are two pretty universal things kids deal with, and it can pull young readers into the story right away without overwhelming them. I knew I didn’t want to open the book at Auschwitz, because that would be too much. I wanted the story to build.
She mentioned her mother telling her the story of Little Red Riding Hood and how much it scared her, and I got excited because of the symbolism I could use with that. Eva was baffled when I tried to explain how we could use that story, as a story within a story. I asked her to trust me on that. Then I started writing the book and sending her chapters at a time. She was thrilled with how they came out, and only ever wanted minor tweaks. She really liked the Little Red Riding Hood angle once she saw it on paper. It got to the point I was writing chapters in a fever dream before she was reading them, so sometimes I’d write new chapters and have to wait a bit before she finished the earlier ones. And by then I was already multiple chapters ahead.
TWM: The narrative incorporates Eva’s voice in two ways: her voice of innocence and her voice of experience. How did you manage the two voices?
DD: I think it came from listening to Eva for weeks. It was intuitive, balancing the voices. I also experienced trauma as a child . . . nothing as bad as Eva did, but when I told her about it, she remarked, “So you also know suffering.” And that seemed to assure her I could tell her story right. As a kindergartner I had lost a close family member to murder, and I know what this does to a child’s psyche and how you grow up with this. Childhood trauma is not theoretical to me. I think that helped me capture Eva’s voices.
TWM: I appreciate the inclusion in the backmatter of an afterword, timeline, and glossary. Was there any discussion of additional sections of backmatter, e.g., a map, for further reading?
DD: We didn’t talk about a map, but I think the glossary and timeline are important because this book might be a child’s introduction to the Holocaust. I wanted them to have more context without overwhelming them. And after Eva died, I wanted to do an afterword so readers could have a better understanding of who she was in her last year, how important this book is to both of us, and what a great loss it was to lose her.
Read the Publishers Weekly article about this book.