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Holocaust stories

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  • Excerpts from ‘The Secret Journey’

    • “Bert thought he had a peaceful, wonderful life. The Nazis interrupted the perfection in 1938. After Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend school in Germany.”

    • “The family had connections in Switzerland and arranged for (him) to attend school a few miles across the border from their house. Young Bert was asked to carry valuable secret documents and papers to a sympathetic teacher in Switzerland to help his family.”

    • “Bert feared for his life every day … If he failed his journey, then his whole family would be punished and captured.”

    • In America, “the family could not have been happier. They were free and able to live a life with no hesitations. They would no longer be discriminated against for being Jewish.”

    Learn more

    Contact Deb Bowen at abookbyme@gmail.com. The project’s website – www.abookbyme.com – has writing guidelines and other information.


  • ‘From Singer to Survivor’

     Elyse Bodenheimer isn’t the only Charlotte-area author who’s part of the “A Book By Me” project.

     Daniel Gittleman, a ninth-grader at The Community School of Davidson, told the story of Holocaust survivor Frieda Roos Van Hessen of Charlotte in his 2012 book, “From Singer to Survivor.”

     Now 98, Van Hessen grew up in Amsterdam, where her singing voice won her the role of Snow White in the Dutch version of the Disney classic. But when the Nazis invaded, Van Essen, who is Jewish, became a fugitive in her own country.

     Daniel, now 15, still likes to write and read, and he enjoys a budding friendship with Van Essen.

     His book will be available for purchase soon. Tim Funk



In “The Secret Journey,” a children’s book with a child hero, Charlotte’s Elyse Bodenheimer tells the story of Bert, a 10-year-old Jewish boy in Nazi Germany who pedaled his bike across the border into Switzerland every weekday.

The official reason for his treks: To attend classes – German schools were off limits to Jewish children. But what the Nazi border guards didn’t know was that Bert was also smuggling documents – including important family papers – to a sympathetic Swiss teacher for safekeeping.

“His heart pounding like a drum … he would cross the border in the morning with the valuables tucked in the tire of his bike,” Bodenheimer writes. “His parents would always tell him, ‘Bert, you must be strong.’ ”

This slim volume by Bodenheimer, 17, is not fiction: It’s a true story told to her by Bert Bodenheimer, her late grandfather and the same Bert who outfoxed those Nazi guards more than 70 years ago.

Writing the book, which was illustrated by her childhood friend Chandler Whitefield, “was a great way to keep my grandfather’s memory alive,” Bodenheimer said.

“The Secret Journey” is part of a growing collection of children’s books about the Holocaust written – and illustrated – by young people themselves.

To date, more than 80 such books have been written or are in the works for “A Book By Me.” It’s a national project launched nearly a decade ago by an Illinois woman. She was determined to not let these stories die with Holocaust survivors, “Righteous Gentiles” who protected Jews, and U.S. soldiers who liberated concentration camps.

“A Book by Me” founder Deb Bowen, who’s Christian, said she was inspired by the testimony of three Holocaust survivors, all named Esther, who spoke at a synagogue near her home.

“It opened my eyes,” said Bowen, who later met with the local Jewish Federation about starting a Holocaust writing project that would engage children.

“I wanted something that kids would want to pick up,” she said. In time, “it just exploded,” with young authors who live around the globe coming forward.

“This makes the Holocaust real to our kids,” teachers told Bowen.

The Holocaust series includes such titles as “Esther Katz: A Girl of Hope,” “Eva and Anne: Playing Hide and Seek with Evil,” “Hidden Jews in the Warsaw Zoo,” and now Bodenheimer’s “The Secret Journey.”

Her grandfather’s story

Telling her grandfather’s story started in 2008, the year of his death. Bodenheimer, then 12, was looking for a project for her upcoming bat mitzvah – a Jewish coming-of-age celebration – at Temple Israel in Charlotte.

She started a website for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. On MyJewishLegacy.com, she posted photos and stories of Bert Bodenheimer as well as those of his late wife, Ellen, whose father was detained for weeks by the Gestapo.

She invited others to do the same. Besides kids, Bodenheimer heard from Holocaust survivors who said they hoped the site would inspire their own grandchildren to document their stories.

Even the International School for Holocaust Studies, or Yad Vashem, in Israel sent her an email: “Your website is a great example (of) what can be done by the third and fourth generations in order to commemorate the stories of Holocaust survivors.”

After Bowen happened upon MyJewishLegacy.com, she contacted Bodenheimer.

“I loved the passion Elyse showed on her website,” Bowen said. “She’s a very enthusiastic young lady. She jumped right on it and finished quickly. I wish others could work so fast.”

A friend and illustrator

To illustrate her grandfather’s story, Bodenheimer turned to Whitefield, 16, who now lives in Florida. Their mothers had become friends when they were babies. And as the girls grew up, their own friendship endured.

For the book, Whitefield used colored pencils and watercolors. She drew images of the bicycle tire, a stark swastika, the barbed-wire border crossing and a soaring bird she called “the new bird of freedom.”

It’s a story “about hoping for a better day in the future,” said Whitefield, whose family had its own brushes with the Holocaust. Her maternal great-grandparents were Jews who fled Russia, while her great-grandparents on her father’s side were “Righteous Gentiles” from Poland whose names are on a plaque at Yad Vashem.

The author and illustrator can now hold a published copy of “The Secret Journey” in their hands.

In time, Bowen hopes to print many more copies of “The Secret Journey,” donating some to Charlotte-area schools and selling others to interested readers.

For the moment, however, “The Secret Journey” is not available for purchase. Bowen is looking for more grants from nonprofits and other donors to help fund publication of more of the series volumes.

Bowen has dug into her own pocket to print some copies of the book. Sponsors have made it possible for her to publish hundreds of copies of other books. She hopes they’ll become available on amazon.com. Some can be purchased at www.abookbyme.com.

Many of the books are about Holocaust survivors who are still alive, Bowen said, and “I love for them to at least hold copies in their hands.”

Bodenheimer’s grandfather didn’t live to see the book about him, but his granddaughter said she’s committed to keep telling his story.

And to strengthening her connection to their shared Judaism.

Bodenheimer has become a popular speaker at local schools and churches. And, when she goes off to college in a few years, she plans to pursue Jewish studies – as well as a career in the law – and encourage other grandchildren of Holocaust survivors by speaking to Hillel, or Jewish, groups on campus.

“Remembering,” Bodenheimer said, “is something we have to do.”

Funk: 704-358-5703
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