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Friday, April 5, 2013

Honoring Yom HaShoah - An interview with Anna Olswanger and Miriam Nerlove

Monday, April 8th is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  In honor of this important day, I'd like to share a new book by my friend, Anna Olswanger. Greenhorn is based on the true story. In the book, Daniel is a young boy who lost his family and begins a new life in a yeshiva. His only possession is a tin box he refuses to open and in the other boys wonder what he is hiding. As the story unfolds, young readers will learn about the heartache of Daniel's loss. Greenhorn is also a story of friendship. love, and loyalty. The illustrations by Miriam Nerlove are tender and warm, a perfect pairing for the heartfelt story of a young boy and his friends. Books like Greenhorn will keep alive the memories of so many who were lost.  I'm so pleased to have the opportunity to interview both Anna and Miriam.

Greenhorn is inspired by true events. Anna, tell me how you learned about the story that inspired you.

I heard the real story of Greenhorn thirty years ago on a tour bus in Israel. The rabbi of my synagogue stood in the front of our bus as we approached Jerusalem and told us the story: When he was in the sixth grade, the school principal came into the classroom to announce that the yeshiva would take in fifty boys. He introduced "Daniel," a young boy who had no possessions, except for a small, tin box that he never let out of his sight. The class later discovered that inside the box was a piece of soap. Daniel believed that the soap, manufactured by the Nazis, was made from the body fat of Jews murdered in the death camps. And he believed that maybe, just maybe, that piece of soap contained his parents' remains. He said he didn't have anything else from his parents, not even a photograph.

Miriam, what were you initial thoughts when you read Greenhorn?

I was very interested and taken by the story of Greenhorn, on many different levels. Learning about the Holocaust has been an interest of mine for years, and the sensitive portrayal of the narrator (Anna's rabbi) and Daniel, as well as the setting of the story in New York yeshiva in the 1940s, all appealed to me. The devastating emotional effects of the Holocaust on the young survivor, Daniel, spoke to me, as did the complex range of emotions and reactions of the yeshiva boys he came to live with. Issues of bullying as well as tremendous kindness are presented in a real and touching way, and I was very moved by the book.

The Holocaust is a difficult subject for any age. Anna, were you concerned about bringing this topic to young readers?

I had originally self-published Greenhorn as a miniature book for Judaica collectors. I didn't think of it as a story for children. A few months after I sent the miniature book to the publisher of my first book as a holiday gift, she called to say she wanted to publish it as an illustrated book for children.
“Why?” I asked her. She said it was a provocative little book (this is the publisher who took the “N” word out of Huckleberry Finn, so she’s no stranger to being provocative), and the book’s image of a tin box and its contents haunted her. She said Greenhorn was a brave work, and she liked the way it brought the Holocaust home and gave it a human face. She later wrote me: "I could not not publish Greenhorn. My son Julien, still my best reader of middle-school and YA fiction, was emotional in confirming it was a book for NewSouth."
Miriam, did you need to do a lot of research to make sure the illustrations were authentic?

I did. Much of the setting was familiar to me, and one that I love—I lived in Manhattan and then Brooklyn years ago, and so the feel of what the buildings and atmosphere were like was familiar to me, but I had to make sure it was the 1940s! My daughters attended a Jewish day school, and my husband is a former cantor, and so even though it's a very different environment from what I was involved in, the yeshiva felt familiar to me as well. Having said that, there was much I still needed to look up to make sure the illustrations were authentic. Also, huge thanks need to be made to Suzanne (Greenhorn's publisher), the staff at NewSouth books, and to Anna, whose help proved invaluable. An author and illustrator are usually kept apart, but I'm grateful we were able to do things differently, and that I was able to benefit from Anna's knowledge and care for what she had so beautifully written.

Anna, how much research was required for Greenhorn? Can you share a bit about your research process?

I wanted to write only the story I heard. I didn't want to add backstory or previous history for the character I named Daniel. Rabbi Rafael Grossman, the basis of the "Aaron" character who told me the real story in the 1980s on that tour bus in Israel, didn't remember every detail forty years later, and certainly not seventy years later when the story was about to be published and I was revising it one last time, so I had to fictionalize parts of what he told me. Because I was concerned about the ethics of creating fiction based on the Holocaust, and because I wanted to honor what the real Daniel went through, I focused entirely on the events I heard, and refrained from inventing anything from the time of the Holocaust itself when Daniel may have been in a concentration camp.

I did, however, change one event from the actual story. When I researched the history of soap made from human fat, what I found was that the Nazis probably did not mass produce the soap. There is some evidence that they experimented with making soap from human fat in one factory in the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig/Gdansk, and that is what I referred to in the book. In the story I heard, Daniel kept a bar of soap with the letters RIF on it. Many Jews, during and after the war, believed this was soap made from Jewish fat, as did the real Daniel and the other boys at the yeshiva, including Rabbi Grossman. But from from what I read, the letters RIF, which many thought stood for Reichs-Juden-Fett (“State Jewish Fat”), in fact stood for Reichsstelle für industrielle Fettversorgung (“National Center for Industrial Fat Provisioning”), the German government agency responsible for wartime production of soap. I revised the story so that Daniel’s bar of soap was from the factory near Gdansk. I felt it was important to make this change and not refer to the unfounded story about the RIF soap.

Miriam, can you tell me a bit about the techniques you used for the illustrations?

I used pencil and watercolor for the illustrations. There is a softness to watercolor that I love, and I was hoping it would be a good fit for Greenhorn.

What is your creative process like?

When I am illustrating someone else's story, I admit to an initial panic. What if I fail the author's vision of how the book should look? And so I read and reread Anna's story, letting it soak in as much as possible. With the publisher, Suzanne's, suggestions in mind, I mapped out the illustrations I planned on doing, as this is important for the pacing of the visuals in the book. Then I went, literally, to the drawing board and began the sketches. I like to draw directly on the watercolor paper, and when I start painting—that is when the real joy of illustrating hits me.

Anna, what were your thoughts when you first saw Miriam Nerlove's illustrations?

One of the advantages of being published by a small, independent press like NewSouth is that the author can be involved. I offered to help Suzanne scour websites for art samples. When I saw samples of Miriam work, I instinctively knew that the softness of her watercolors were what Greenhorn needed. Their softness would balance the intensity of the text.

When we launched the book at Bank Street Books in New York, Rebecca Migdal, the events director there, wrote this in the bookstore's newsletter: "Miriam Nerlove's delicate watercolor illustrations evoke the vulnerability and sweetness of childhood, even as the text exposes the cruelty of which human beings are capable."

I thought that was the perfect endorsement of Miriam's art.

Thank you,  Anna and Miriam!


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