In his brilliant new memoir for young readers, distinguished author and artist Uri Shulevitz looks back on the series of seemingly random events which framed his family’s escape from the Nazis. Combining the perspective of a terrified young child with the wisdom of an older man, he presents his past without assigning any grand redemptive scheme either to the horrors his family endured or their eventual escape and survival. “It became a game of chance,” he writes, in characterizing their journeys from Warsaw to Bialystock, from Siberia to Turkestan, and ultimately to safety in Paris.
Shulevitz alternates text and illustrations with more extended graphic sequences and captioned pictures. Memories, flashbacks, meditations on the meaning of his experiences — along with Zen-like questions and conclusions — invite the reader into a dialogue with the author. Sometimes he speaks directly about the cruelty of Polish antisemitism, even after the war when almost all the Jews were gone. At other times, his ironic tone conveys loss, asking the reader to infer the truth from his statement: “Mother’s brother was very clever, but unfortunately, not very wise. We never saw them again.” When his desperate but undefeated mother is unable to obtain food for her son, she prepares a cutlet made of grass, which causes him to become severely ill. He concludes the anecdote with the challenge, “Was the grass cutlet worth it?” posing an unanswerable question about the persistence of maternal love under the worst of circumstances.
Weaving throughout Shulevitz’s tale of suffering is his artistic gift and its ability to record the world and invest it with meaning. The book opens without introductions, as bombs fall on Warsaw and people are forced to flee. Shulevitz’s drawings of terrified figures frozen in motion like dancers capture the sense of chaos, and also foreshadows the strange power of his vision. Watching a paint factory explode, he is in awe of “big mounds of brilliant pigments — reds, yellows, blues — in the courtyard,” translating the effects of destruction into a moment of beauty. “My only refuge was drawing,” Uri realizes with clarity, “always drawing, drawing, drawing…filling up any empty space on any page I could find.” Throughout the narrative he analyzes his progress as a developing artist, including a moment of consciousness when — after the war — a cousin gives him a set of oil paints, and he feels accepted into a family of professionals.
In Shulevitz’s inimitable illustration style, the joining of elements of caricature, the vivid action of comic books, and the classic traditions of portraiture, convert every one of his stories into tangible images. The vulnerability of a child imagining he has fallen into the jaws of a hippo becomes as real as the feelings of a starving child sitting at his mother’s feet as she tries to distract him with stories. He presents an origin story in which the baby Uri, an idealized figure of an infant lying on a blanket, is awarded a special identity. Like the newborn Superman on planet Krypton, Uri will have distinctive powers. His father, Shulevitz claims, notices the infant staring at the floral wallpaper, and solemnly declares to Uri’s mother that “I think our little son will be an artist,” granting him the name of the biblical character who was the father of the great artisan, Bezalel. Later, Uri’s name will accidentally play a part in the irrational world of the Soviet bureaucracy, confirming Shulevitz’s retrospective sense that every element of his escape was governed by chance. In one stunning chapter, Shulevitz returns to his father’s choice of a name, along with other linked events, recited with the resonance of biblical poetry.
After the defeat of the Nazis, Uri and his family stop in Vienna on route to Paris. Finding shelter in a former hospital, Uri is thrilled to stumble upon an old sword in a deserted corridor. His drawing shows a tiny child wearing a paper hat and clutching a sword; his imagination has not been defeated. In fact, Shulevitz writes, “I marched triumphantly back and forth, up and down the corridors like a conqueror, a conqueror of empty corridors.” In his memoir, Shulevitz returns to that corridor, and to all the corridors of his memory, illuminated by his words and pictures.
Chance: Escape from the Holocaust is highly recommended. It includes an “Afterword” which explains the origin of the book in his own memories and in those of his father.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.