Chance: Escape from the Holocaust

By – October 12, 2020

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

In his bril­liant graph­ic mem­oir Chance: Escape from the Holo­caust, author and artist Uri Shule­vitz looks back over a long life, and con­sid­ers the inter­sec­tion of ran­dom exter­nal events with per­son­al and spe­cif­ic parts of his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Embody­ing the Jew­ish tra­di­tion of old­er adults shar­ing the wis­dom root­ed in expe­ri­ence, Shule­vitz suc­ceeds at the same time in inhab­it­ing the con­scious­ness of the child he once was. With seam­less tran­si­tions between chap­ters, he alter­nates between poet­ic metaphors, reflec­tive inter­pre­ta­tions of fam­i­ly, and iron­ic humor, as well as lan­guage root­ed in bib­li­cal and litur­gi­cal allu­sions. Dra­mat­ic yet acces­si­ble black-and-white draw­ings do much more than accom­pa­ny the text. These pic­tures form a dia­logue between the ver­bal and visu­al parts of the author’s mem­o­ry, reit­er­at­ing for young read­ers the irre­place­able role of art in the life of a young refugee who found his voca­tion under the most threat­en­ing of cir­cum­stances. Whether describ­ing the para­dox­i­cal beau­ty of paint explod­ing in a fac­to­ry under bom­bard­ment, or his moth­er con­jur­ing images of deli­cious food to a hun­gry child, Shule­vitz com­mu­ni­cates how cre­ativ­i­ty pro­duces mean­ing out of pain. One of the book’s most out­stand­ing fea­tures is the author’s ded­i­ca­tion to the process of truth-telling. Avoid­ing facile con­clu­sions about fate, faith, or the des­tiny of the Jew­ish peo­ple, he shows respect for chil­dren by engag­ing with dif­fi­cult issues and val­i­dat­ing their sense that some­times the unfair and irra­tional play an unde­ni­able role in the world.