HAND IN HAND
Written by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum
Illustrated by Maya Shleifer
(Apples & Honey Press; $17.95, Ages 7 and up)
With recent surveys showing that fewer and fewer adults and children know about the Holocaust, the need to continue sharing this information with new generations by reading books such as Hand in Hand is vital. The annual commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day or Yom HaShoah, which this year begins the evening of May 1 and ends the evening of May 2, is a good time to honestly but sensitively approach the subject both at home and in school for children ages seven and up.
Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum’s new picture book, Hand in Hand with illustrations by Maya Shleifer, provides the ideal vehicle to start the conversation about what the Holocaust was and how it impacted families. In this case the emphasis is on the tragedy of family separation, a topic with significance even today. Written from the perspective of anthropomorphic rabbits, the story introduces readers to Ruthi, her little brother Leib and their mother. According to the author notes, this family (apart from being bunnies) represents a fictional combination of countless real people whose moving tales of courage and strength inspired Rosenbaum. It’s not clear where the characters live but some of the language, like when Mama escapes late one night, leaving her children, and says—”Don’t worry, my doves. Sometimes walls rise up. Still, there is always a way … forward.”—I get the impression the city is Warsaw. Although it could really be any number of European cities where Jews lived during WWII.
Rosenbaum effectively employs similes like the one in the illustration above—”They hovered over our heads like tidy rows of storm clouds – threatening to burst.”—to gently establish the ominous presence of Nazi Storm Troopers, perhaps the ones Mama was running away from early on in the story when she departs in haste. Maybe the soldiers had already taken her husband.
The strong bond between brother and sister is evident on every page. Ruthi is seven and Leib is four when Mama goes away and she must now look out for him in their mother’s absence. A neighbor brings the children to an orphanage where they remain among hundreds, abandoned or left parent-less. The expression on Leib’s face as depicted in Shleifer’s art, when he is soon adopted, is both powerful and bittersweet. Pulled apart, like the torn photo of the siblings, from the loving hands of her brother, Ruthi refuses to say good-bye. Leib will be saved because of his Aryan “blonde curls and sapphire eyes.” At just seven she must find a way to survive, in the woods, underground, anywhere until the war ends. Then “The nightmare … came to a halt.
In the optimistic illustration of the boat above, it seems as though Ruthi has been sent to Palestine where she lives on a kibbutz and makes a new life for herself in Israel. Years pass. She marries, has children but always, always thinks about finding Leib. Her children and grandchildren urge her to add her name to an enormous list of people seeking family members. But is there any chance to be reunited with a brother who could be living anywhere or perhaps even no longer alive?
Here’s when we can rejoice. Ruthi’s efforts to locate Leib succeed. It’s heartwarming to see the siblings together once more after decades apart. Now an old man, though still younger than Ruthi, Leib greets her with tenderness, “Shalom, my big sister, Ruthi!” For her part, Ruthi notes “His blue eyes had lost their sapphire luster, but through my tears my heart knew Leib’s strawberry smile.” This framing of a similar line Rosenbaum used in the book’s opening brings the story full round.
I have been moved and impressed with every re-read of Hand in Hand at how well Rosenbaum’s symbolism and subtlety say so much. There’s no need to go into detail about the brutality and harshness of the Holocaust. That’s for parents and teachers to decide before having this important discussion with kids. Each child, especially the younger ones, has a different threshold for how much information about the Holocaust they can handle. What works so well is that Rosenbaum has chosen to focus on a relationship as a way into the subject of war and/or genocide and the aftermath. Shleifer’s illustrations convey the the sorrowful times Ruthi has experienced without Leib but does so delicately and only twice uses very dark tones when Ruthi is first separated from her brother. This touching book is one of boundless love, faith in family and faith for the future. I hope this picture book will resonate with you as much as it did with me.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Find other Holocaust Remembrance Day reads here.