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  • Collecting Stories: Aledo’s Deb Bowen Makes the Holocaust – and Its Survivors – Real to Children with “A Book by Me” PDF Print E-mail
    News/Features - Feature Stories
    Written by Jeff Ignatius   
    Thursday, 14 April 2011 08:27

    Deb Bowen is the first to admit that she didn’t have a plan for what has become A Book by Me, a series of short books for children, mostly about Holocaust survivors, written and illustrated primarily by middle- and high-school students.

    “I don’t really know why I took the initiative to do it [initially], except that I felt their stories were so important,” she said last week.

    The seed was planted in 2003, when she attended a Yom HaShoah event so her daughter could get extra credit at school. There, she learned that three Holocaust survivors in the Quad Cities were all named Esther. “I’d never been to a synagogue before” that Holocaust remembrance, said Bowen, who’s a Christian.

    Once the idea took hold, Bowen planned three books – one about each of the Esthers. At the outset, she said, the aim was to have young authors talk to their subjects. But after two were finished, the third survivor – Esther Schiff – declined to speak. “She wanted to, but she got a little fearful,” Bowen said. “She started having nightmares again.”

    But at dinner one night, Bowen’s son – who was eight at the time, she recalled – said he’d like to try to write Schiff’s story. He did, and it was illustrated by a German exchange student.

    “At that point in time, I gotta say, I thought that was my last book,” Bowen said. “I just thought we were going to do the three Esthers and [be] done. ...

    “Then Alan Ross [of the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities] said to me, ‘It’s time to get some other stories, too, if you’re still willing to do this.’” Bowen said he was particularly interested in getting books written about American soldiers who liberated camps in World War II.

    “I thought it sounded like a great project, especially since it involved local survivors and local kids,” Ross wrote in an e-mail. “The personal and local connection was very important. ...

    “It is a very unique and important project in the field of Holocaust education ... [that] encompasses vital lessons for our troubled world today,” he continued. “It has become so popular locally that I thought it would have merit in other communities throughout the country and around the world.”

    Five books – three about the survivors named Esther, one about a righteous gentile, and one about camp liberators – were distributed in 2006 to 200 schools and libraries in nine Illinois counties.

    Bowen’s project could have ended there as a noble if modest endeavor. But in the five years since the first books were put in schools, Bowen has continued to help students learn and write about the Holocaust through individual stories. A Book by Me includes the tales of survivors, Christian and Muslim righteous gentiles, and American liberators, and there are now roughly 60 books in the Holocaust series, with an additional eight in a civil-rights series. “A couple of different kinds of stories came about, and then it just kind of snowballed from there,” Bowen said.

    Outside of the initial five books, however, the series hasn’t been distributed. “I’ve been collecting them like some people collect rocks or whatever,” Bowen said. “I’ve been collecting my stories. ... ‘Oh my gosh, this is an important story, too.’ That is the thought that runs through my head every time I hear a story now. ... My thoughts were, ‘I’m glad I got this documented, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.’”

    She concedes that to this point, the project has “all been volunteer, all by the seat of my pants,” and without a way to get the books into the world once they’re finished. But Bowen has a plan now.

    She and her husband have incorporated Never Forget Publishing, and she has branded the series and launched a Web site (ABookByMe.com). One book will be available as a free download, designed to be a coloring book. She hopes to get grants to distribute the series – particularly books about local Holocaust survivors – to Iowa and Illinois schools. She’s also looking for financial assistance to offset the $250 cost of preparing each book for publication.

    Yet the ultimate goal, Bowen said, is nationwide distribution to spread the word about the project, so that more children can meet Holocaust survivors before they pass away.

    “There are still a lot of survivors alive,” Bowen said. “I know we’ve got about five years left to get kids to be able to meet these people. ... There’s still a chance right now to have a great search for these important stories and for kids to be able to have that intergenerational connection. ... There is an urgency now.”