Liesel’s Ocean Rescue by noted children’s author Barbara Krasner, recounts the story of Liesl Joseph, a 10-year-old girl aboard the ill-fated MS St. Louis. On May 13, 1939, together with her parents and 900 other Jewish refugees they left Germany on the MS. St Louis attempting to seek temporary asylum in Cuba.
Guest Post from Barbara Krasner, author of Liesl’s Ocean Rescue
Liesl’s Ocean Rescue
Writing about the Holocaust for children
I had grown up hearing about the story of the St. Louis, the ship carrying nearly 1,000 German-Jewish refugees that was forced back to Europe in 1939. But it wasn’t until 2010, after reading Refuge Denied by Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. that I decided to follow up on the story on my own.
With Scott’s help, I located several survivors of the St. Louis in the New Jersey-Pennsylvania area. One of them, Hans Fisher, lived right across the Raritan River from me in New Jersey. I set up interviews and met with each one personally, except for Herbert Karliner, whom I interviewed by phone.
Each one of these people was extraordinary. One of them, Liesl Joseph Loeb, was the daughter of the passenger committee chairman. Because of that, she had been privy to more information than the other 200 or children on the ship. I interviewed her at her home in a Philadelphia suburb. She passed on in August 2013.
Researching the “Voyage of the Damned”
In 1974, a book was published called Voyage of the Damned about the ill-fated journey of the St. Louis. It was based on dozens of interviews with survivors and crew members and included newspaper and primary sources, too. It was made into a fictionalized, blockbuster movie in 1976 starring Max von Sydow and Faye Dunaway.
I spent two days each at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint”) archives in Manhattan and at the USHMM. The Joint had been instrumental in negotiating safe haven for the passengers. Its archives included minutes of many, many meetings held about the ship and copies of telegrams that crossed the Atlantic. At the USHMM, I accessed videos and especially the files Liesl had donated, including her father’s papers.
Constructing the narrative
With the combination of these materials and my own interviews, I began to construct a narrative. But Liesl’s story began to stand out as the basis of a picture book. Still, because I wasn’t privy to the family’s private conversations and for the sake of a strong narrative arc, I knew I’d have to fictionalize the book somewhat. What I created was fiction based on a true story.
I wrote many drafts, some in first person and then some in third person. Some drafts started at the pier in Hamburg, Germany on the day the ship left port. Others began earlier with Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938, because this was a defining moment for many German families. Men were arrested and taken to Buchenwald, Dachau, or Sachsenhausen. Only after some months were many let go under the condition they leave Germany. St. Louis passengers included these men on the ship manifest. Liesl’s father had been a local judge and lawyer; he had only been detained in his town’s jail.
Once Gihon River Press accepted the manuscript, it was sent to a subject matter expert for verification—standard practice for nonfiction books.
Why write about the Holocaust for children
Although many editors continue to say, “No more Holocaust books for children,” an increasing number continue to be published. There are still stories that haven’t been told and they don’t have to be horrific. They can provide a gentle introduction to a period of time in recent history when the unthinkable, the unimaginable happened. Hatred for another people continues today and there are lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, such as standing up for others who have no voice or no longer have a voice.
I continue to be fascinated by the St. Louis story. I’ve written about it in verse and in article-format (American History, August 2013). I’m working on a version of the story from the captain’s perspective based on his memoirs.
Liesl’s Ocean Rescue was a short, easy read that both my 1st grader and my 3rd grader could read.
It followed the Jewish community in Germany with an arrest, vandalism, and then boarding a ship (MS St. Louis) to Havana, Cuba, where they were not permitted to enter.
The book did not go into details that I would worry about my children reading and was appropriate for kids.
Being one who likes to learn about history, my 8 year old really did enjoy this book.
The pages did not hold a lot of words and the words were easy to read. While my 1st grader can read it on his own without difficulty, it was a book that we had to split up over a couple of nights. I would recommend this book for 2nd grade and older.
About the Author:
Barbara Krasner is a historian and professor of creative writing. She publishes the popular blog, The Whole Megillah: The Writer’s Resource for Jewish-Themed Story. She runs workshops and conferences for Jewish writers at the Highlights Foundation and in conjunction with the Association of Jewish Libraries. Barbara has a B.A. in German from Douglass College, an M.B.A. in Marketing from the Rutgers Business School and an M.F.A. in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a candidate for the M.A. in Applied Historical Studies at William Paterson University.
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About the Illustrator:
Illustrator Avi Katz was born in Philadelphia where he studied in the Schechter and Akiba schools as well as the Fleischer Art Memorial. After three years at U.C. Berkeley he moved to Israel at age 20, where he graduated in Fine Arts from the Bezalel Art Academy. He was the staff artist of the Jerusalem Report Magazine from its first issue in 1990 until 2012, and is active in the international Cartooning for Peace program. He has illustrated over 160 books in Israel and the U.S. including the National Jewish Book Award winning JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible. His books have also won the IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Honors four times and Israel’s Ze’ev Prize six times. His art has been exhibited in Israel, America and Europe.
Follow Avi on his website.
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