Teens write, illustrate Holocaust book to connect past to future

"A Book By Me" series takes on tough subjects

A Book by Me image
Mary Jean Eisenhower, CEO of People to People International and granddaughter of President Eisenhower, reads "The War and the Boy," a Holocaust story written in Chicago in the A Book By Me project.

One Step Ahead of Danger: The Norman Salsitz Story  is a tale of heroism, ingenuity, and survival during the Holocaust. It's also written and illustrated by teenagers as part of the innovative A Book By Me program designed to teach tolerance and share the lessons of the Holocaust with a younger generation. 

Deb Bowen, the Iowa-based founder of A Book By Me, started the project when she and her daughter went to listen to a survivor share their story in 2003. While at that event, three Holocaust survivors-all named Esther-lit candles, and "something just happened in my heart," Bowen said. She formed a close bond with all three Esthers, who became like Jewish grandmas to her Christian family. When they shared their stories with her, Bowen-who worked in an impoverished school district- was inspired to get young people involved. 

In addition to Holocaust stories, Bowen has expanded the A Book By Me program to include stories of other heroes and struggles for human rights. In addition to the newly-published One Step Ahead of Danger, two other A Book By Me books were created by Chicago-area students: Colours of Friendship in the Human Rights series, and The War and the Boy, another Holocaust story. In total, Bowen has facilitated the creation of over 90 books and connected students with a variety of modern heroes. 

Norman Salsitz, the survivor and hero whose life story is the focus of One Step Ahead of Danger, grew up in a small town in Poland. He was forced into a Nazi labor camp at age 19 and met his wife, Amalie, while helping the Russian Engineer Corps prevent a bombing in Krakow. All of these moments are vividly described by teen author Natalie Ringel, Salsitz's great-granddaughter who he never met. 

Ringel, a Glenbrook native, interviewed Salsitz' daughter and drafted the book over the course of two years. She also explored family records, Salsitz' autobiography, and the more than 1,000 photographs he saved during the war. 

The most challenging part of the writing process was to adapt "this huge, complex, dynamic story that does involve violence and racism and antisemitism, which are huge concepts for anyone to tackle," into a children's book," Ringel said. Rather than trying to simplify the story, Ringel tried to plainly describe themes young readers could find in their own lives. For example, she describes Norman being ostracized in his hometown and hopes readers can connect this to times when they've felt left out. 

Glencoe-based teen illustrator Jake Bloomberg, whose great-grandparents are also survivors, facilitated connections to the story through images. "It was really hard coming up with what to do to fit the scene," he said, "but I liked being able to read the story and then illustrate what happened as I read it." Using markers, reference photos, and his imagination, Bloomberg drew 10 pictures for the book, including Salsitz hiding in the forest and bargaining for his life with a Nazi officer. 

At the time of creating the book, Ringel was a senior in high school and Bloomberg was in middle school. Both were connected to the project through Susan Ringel, an adult advisor on One Step Ahead of Danger.  

"My father-in-law really had a connection with Norman, and I remember hearing a lot about him from my father-in-law, and hearing stories about what he endured," she said. "I thought this is a story that should be shared with others. And I was very proud of what we accomplished with Jake and Natalie." 

To purchase the book, visit amzn.to/3clGUkW. For more information about A Book By Me, visit abookbyme.com.  


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