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."
"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 ABookByMe.com.
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."