Hand in Hand

Apples & Honey Press  2019


Writing a book about the Holocaust for young readers is a tricky project; many judge material related to the greatest tragedy in Jewish history to be inherently inappropriate for children. In an effort to make the topic more palatable, some children’s writers have chosen to focus on stories that contain an element of hope. Doreen Rapaport’s The Secret Seder, for example, emphasizes a narrative of liberation, while the family in Claire Nivola’s Elisabeth is able to escape Nazi Germany. In Hand in Hand, Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum and Maya Shleifer present a fable with few specific events or identifiable details that root the story in history. The result is an honest and thoughtful attempt to reassure children about the power of faith and love—but one which may also be confusing and somewhat misleading.

Ruthi and Leib are siblings, abandoned when their mother disappears as a victim of the Nazis, who are depicted only as a row of marching boots outside their window. Like all of the book’s characters, the children are anthropomorphic animals. They walk upright and wear detailed outfits, but have rabbits’ faces and long ears. Ruthi and Leib’s mother promises to return, but the children seem to know that she may not come back; they “read the fear echoing in her eyes.” They eventually flee their home and find shelter in an orphanage, from which Leib is adopted but Ruthi is not. Their separation is heartbreaking and Ruthi enters a dark world of despair, “in a place where numbers replaced names.” After the nightmare ends, Ruthi travels to a new world, presumably Israel, where she learns to farm. The chaos of destruction is replaced with scenes of new life growing from the earth. When they are older adults, brother and sister are reunited.

The illustrations by Maya Shleifer, who has published several picture books in Israel, are unusual and evocative. Her work shows the influence of Chagall, as well as Maira Kalman and her virtually-human dog, Max, with whom Shleifer’s characters share a wardrobe of elegant and deeply colored coats, scarves, and boots. Of course, Kalman’s characters are antic and funny, while Shleifer’s animals are victims, survivors of tragedy.

In a two-page spread set in the orphanage, a group of animals is set against a white background: a dog in a purple jumper and hair ribbon, a small mouse in blue shorts and a sweater with glasses that dwarf his face. Ruthie and Leib are the only pair, holding hands while the other residents all look solitary and desolate. If the choice to present the characters as animals is meant to provide some emotional distance for readers, it is doubtful that these painful images will reduce children’s anxiety. However, there is much to admire in the expressiveness and drama of Shleifer’s work.

Rosenbaum begins the book with a “Note to Readers” that offers a clue to the book’s strengths and weaknesses. She raises questions about survival, asking if “hope and faith” and the love of one’s family are factors which “raise the odds” for people in threatening situations. While this may seem like a comforting idea, suggesting to children that there was a discernible pattern in who died during the Holocaust puts blame on the victims.

Caregivers and educators may share this book with children and provide a safe place for discussion of its contents. Rosenbaum suggests that adults listen to children’s cues about what they are comfortable discussing. While some young readers and listeners may find the story as distant as a fairy tale, others may ask questions about what produced the frightening events of the book.

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