Today is publication day for my two newest picture books! I’ll let a couple of the reviews introduce these stories to you:
The Key from Spain, from Kar-Ben Publishing. “Levy’s captivating picture book biography tells the story of Flory Jagoda, known today as the ‘Keeper of the Flame’ of Sephardic culture and music. . . . Levy’s writing and Wimmer’s mixed-media illustrations strike the perfect synergy, working together to celebrate music, heritage, and family histories. The writing is poetic and lyrical, effortlessly weaving centuries of history into the story while maintaining a strikingly intimate tone. Wimmer’s illustrations are nuanced, and readers will enjoy discovering new details upon each rereading of the book.” (School Library Journal, starred review.)
Yiddish Saves the Day! from Apples & Honey Press. “Levy’s story is built on the specific and delightful premise that Yiddish is a language with superpowers. . . The Yiddish once spoken broadly among Ashkenazic Jews, from secular to observant, and the cornerstone of an incredible body of literature, has faded from daily life. Readers can kvell that Yiddish Saves the Day brings this world back to life for readers too young to have known it was gone.” (Jewish Book Council review.)
Did I set out to have two books of Jewish interest published on the same day by different publishers? I did not. We authors don’t have that kind of control! But I’m delighted on this August 1st to bring stories of two different Jewish cultures–Sephardic and Ashkenazic–to young readers and their families.
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Nine-and-a-half years ago, Disney-Hyperion published my book about my mother’s—Jutta’s—last year living in Nazi Germany before Europe exploded and she and her family made their way to the United States. The Year of Goodbyes reached people across the country—people familiar with stories of refugees from Hitler’s terror, and people who were learning about what life was like for Jews in that era for the very first time. Mom and I went to schools, conferences, luncheons, and other events where we talked about her story.
We talked to many people, my mother and I did, and the book had quite a few readers—but to an author there can never be enough readers. And at this particular moment in time there can never be enough readers of a story that puts them in the shoes of a young person on the receiving end of anti-Semitism, injustice, and hate. The Year of Goodbyes is also about the small treasures my mother’s friends gave her before they all scattered. Those treasures were the poems and proverbs Jutta’s friends wrote in her poesiealbum—a type of poetry album or friendship book. The pages these young people created provide the architecture of, and serve as springboards for, this true story.
Now, I’m really pleased and grateful to share news of a re-issue of The Year of Goodbyes, coming from Disney-Hyperion in September. It will have a new cover that will resemble a poesiealbum. The poesies that begin each chapter will be rendered more beautifully.
And there’s this: Tom Angleberger, beloved author of outstanding, creative, funny, full-of-heart books for kids, has written a foreword for the book. In it, this creator of the Origami Yoda series frames my mother’s story in a way that only someone who reaches kids where they live could. His essay at the beginning of this fresh edition is perfect.
For me, the impetus for a re-issue of this book began a couple of years ago. I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia; during my senior year I lived on the Lawn, desecrated in August of 2017 by the neo-Nazi march and violence in Charlottesville. My mother never graduated from college but oh, how she loved UVa, which she knew as a young woman when she drove down to spend party weekends there with friends. The bold resurgence of white nationalism and anti-Semitism, including its presence in middle and high schools, reinforced my feeling that there could never be enough readers of my mother’s story. What’s happening feels personal.
It’s no slight to the other strong, accomplished, admirable, and lovely women of my more recent books—Jo Ann Allen Boyce of This Promise of Change, Ruth Bader Ginsburg of I Dissent—to say that Jutta Salzberg Levy of The Year of Goodbyes has an unrivalled place in my heart. It’s my book about my mother, and that puts it in a category of its own. So I know that Jo Ann and Justice Ginsburg will completely understand if I close by remembering that, when I used to talk with Mom on the telephone (she died in 2013), and we were wrapping up the call, I’d say “I love you” as part of my goodbyes. We all do, right?
“Love you more!” she’d sing out and then, BAM! hang up lickety-split. She wanted the last word. Love you more.
This evening marks the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day/Yom HaShoah, which itself marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
By then, my mom, her sister, and parents had fled to the United States, barely escaping their home in Hamburg, Germany, in advance of a Nazi sweep of Ostjuden–that is, of Jews from the East, meaning Polish Jews like my mother’s parents. Shortly after arriving in the States in late 1938, my grandfather, whom I never met, spoke before an audience in Detroit, Michigan. Mom kept a newspaper clipping reporting on his speech:
“Admonishing Jews not to fall into the error committed by German Jews 10 years before Hitler’s acquisition of power in 1933 by keeping silent in the face of the rising tide of anti-Semitism,” the article began, “Isaac Salzberg, who arrived from Hamburg, Germany, a few days ago, told a large gathering at the Shaarey Zedek last Sunday morning that an unrelenting fight must be conducted everywhere against the spread of bigotry engendered by Nazism.”
The article quoted extensively from my grandfather’s speech.
German Jews now realize the mistake they made when they kept silent during the first days of the rise of Hitlerism. Our mistake was that we did not take Hitler seriously. . . . They chose to laugh at Hitler rather than to fight him.
By 1938, of course, the time had passed when German Jews would be heard by the German government.
This experience ought to be a lesson for American Jews. Here you have a chance to protest against anti-Semitism, to voice your indignation against atrocities. Do it: This is a great democratic country and there is a way of getting to the government. Why keep silent? Don’t commit the mistake that was made in Germany!
The only criticism I have of The Chronicle’s action is that its answer was too mild. We can not be sharp enough in answering anti-Semites.
I am not suggesting that the white nationalism and anti-Semitism we see today mirrors what my grandfather experienced in Nazi Germany. I am saying that mild opposition to bigotry isn’t worth much, and that lukewarm “tolerance” is barely helpful. These truths are as relevant today as they were in 1938, and in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
If we light a candle for six million dead without shining light on bigotry of every stripe today, if we are “mild” in our indignation, as my grandfather put it, that candle is sputtering.
The newspaper article about my grandfather noted that he “permits the use of his name because he was able to take his wife and children with him and has no other relatives left in the Reich.” That was true when written, but a year later Germany conquered Poland, and it became part of the Third Reich. Most of the Salzberg family lived in Poland, and nearly all were murdered in the Holocaust. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, then, I’m sharing a photo from earlier days of my mother, Jutta Salzberg, as a young girl (r), visiting a favorite cousin of hers, Manja Stahl (l), in Pabianice, Poland, one of those relatives “left in the Reich.”