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Collecting Stories: Aledo’s Deb Bowen Makes the Holocaust – and Its Survivors – Real to Children with “A Book by Me” - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 14 April 2011 08:27

Quinci McIntire and Deb Bowen

Those Camps Were Not Good”

Even if Bowen doesn’t get the distribution she hopes for – “Funding is an issue,” she said – it’s important to emphasize that her project still has great value. While it’s a shame that the finished books are in her Aledo home rather than in schools and libraries – a heretofore missed educational opportunity – the process means much to the authors and illustrators, as does the finished product to the Holocaust survivors and their families.

Bowen said that when Holocaust survivors and their families are presented with a finished book, “I feel like I’ve given the whole family a gift.” For survivors, it validates that their stories are important. And because many survivors do not like to talk about the Holocaust, the books record a crucial piece of family history.

And while kids learn about the Holocaust in school, A Book by Me gives students a direct, personal connection to that chapter of history. “This helps them understand it in an individual sense,” Bowen said. Beyond history and writing, she said it helps young people develop emotionally. “They need to come out of the bubble – ‘It’s all about me’ – and into, ‘Wow. Look what happened to those people,’” she said. And “it makes them become young learners.”

Bowen has a list of potential subjects and stories from Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Center in Jerusalem – and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But she also lets students select their own subjects. “If they choose,” she said, “they’re going to get more excited.”

Quinci McIntire is a fifth-grader from Aledo who’s just starting the process of writing a book about Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt, who survived Auschwitz and two other camps. She painted a mural based on the Disney movie Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, and her artwork brought her to the attention of Josef Mengele, who had her paint portraits of Roma prisoners before they were killed. That assignment almost certainly spared her life.

Quinci has decided to title her book Snow White Saves Dina, and Bowen said that is the first step in the process, “so they have some ownership to the project. ... And they do their about-the-author page, and then they’re an author ... .” Quinci’s next step is her author’s page, and from there, she and her mother will highlight elements that they want to include from the two-page biography that is provided to all authors.

After that, Bowen instructs the author to break up the story into three roughly equal parts for the 10-page finished project: life before the war, suffering during the war, and life after the war. Bowen said that the most gruesome parts are left out of the biographies authors are given. The result is something that doesn’t hide the grim realities of the Holocaust but also celebrates the life before, after, and beyond them. She explained: “There are appropriate things to tell: They took my family, they took us from our home, we lost all of our things ... , I came out of the camp changed, I came out of that camp an orphan. ... Those are the things that make kids stop and think: ‘Wait a minute. The Holocaust is real. Look how it affected this family.’”

For Quinci – who besides Bowen’s son is the youngest author ever in the series – there’s another connection to the Holocaust. She has spina bifida, and Bowen has talked with her about Hitler’s views about people with special needs. “They wanted those people killed and stuff,” Quinci said.

Quinci said she didn’t know about the Holocaust prior to this project, and it was a reminder that children don’t process the Holocaust the way adults do when she said: “Those camps were not good.”

But Bowen put Dina’s story in a way that was meaningful to the young author: “There’s always hope, isn’t there, Quinci? No matter how bad it gets.”

From Austria to Zanzibar

Quinci won’t be able to meet her subject – Dina died in 2009 – and Bowen said that’s been the case with more than half of the A Book by Me series.

That’s one way the project has evolved. Initially, Bowen thought that for each book, authors would need to talk or listen to the people they were writing about.

But two experiences with foreign-exchange students changed her mind. In 2006, she had two students at her home – one from Brazil, and one from Austria. The Brazilian said his father was a Jewish Romanian who had been put on a train to a camp but jumped off. The Austrian said she wanted to write about him: “If your grandfather hadn’t jumped from that train, you wouldn’t be here.”

Another student, from Germany, was interested in a Catholic woman who had saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. Bowen recalled: “I saw these two girls – the girl from Austria and the girl from Germany. They didn’t meet their person, but they were engaged. They were really engaged. So then I realized that the kids can just get fired up about the project even if they don’t meet them, even if they’ve already passed away.”

While most of the books in the series have been written and/or illustrated by people from the Quad Cities, the list of authors and illustrators includes people from around the United States, and the rest of the world – in large part because of Bowen’s work placing foreign-exchange students. “From Austria to Zanzibar, we’ve had kids writing,” she said.

Later, she added: “This is one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to introduce a child to this story.”

While A Book by Me has been a children’s writing project, Bowen has a writing project of her own. She said she’s finishing up a book titled A Walk with Esther, which she hopes to publish this summer. It details her own journey, from a person who’d never been to a synagogue to somebody who has helped young people learn and retell stories from the Holocaust.

“I walked with these three ladies,” she said, “and then my walk just kept going, didn’t it?”

For more information about A Book by Me, visit

The 2011 Yom HaShoah presentation will take place on Sunday, May 1, at 7 p.m. at Temple Emanuel (1115 Mississippi Avenue in Davenport). The speaker will be Walter Reed, whose Holocaust-survival story was written by Michaela Carden and illustrated by Jonas Carden (both of Kolona, Iowa) in the A Book by Me series. For more information on the event, click here. Reed will also speak at Augustana College’s Wallenberg Hall (3520 Seventh Avenue in Rock Island) on Monday, May 2, at 7 p.m.

River Cities’ Reader articles on previous Yom HaShoah speakers can be found here (Philip Bialowitz) and here (Ralph Troll). In 2009, the Reader wrote about Father Patrick Desbois, who has been documenting the “Holocaust by bullets.”

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