In The Secret Journey, a childrens book with a child hero, Charlottes 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 didnt 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: Its 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 grandfathers memory alive, Bodenheimer said.
The Secret Journey is part of a growing collection of childrens 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. Its 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, whos 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 Bodenheimers The Secret Journey.
Her grandfathers story
Telling her grandfathers 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. Shes 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 grandfathers 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.
Its 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 fathers 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 theyll 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.
Bodenheimers grandfather didnt live to see the book about him, but his granddaughter said shes 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.
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