It’s a children’s book, but “Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust” doesn’t pull any punches.
The book, by Elly Berkovitz Gross, is the autobiography of a 15-year-old Romanian Jew who survived the Holocaust although the rest of her family did not. She tells her story in short chapters. The first part of the story is a string of short anecdotes, child’s-eye snapshots, growing increasingly bleak. Then comes the horror, told straightforwardly; her father’s death, her mother and younger brother’s death, her helplessness and resilience, grit mixed with luck, if that word can be applied to such human-engineered evil.
Eventually, the war ends; Elly, who has been left completely alone, marries, has children, and comes to the New World with her new family, where they not only survive but eventually prosper, and Elly goes to college when she’s in her mid 60s — that story isn’t as much told as hinted at, but it’s not the book’s main concern anyway — and Elly devotes herself to telling her story to increase the likelihood that such horror will not be repeated.
The book is aimed and third- through eighth-graders and includes photographs and Elly’s poetry. It’s published by Scholastic as part of the Scholastic Book Clubs.
“We published this true story as a very accessible title for kids to learn about the Holocaust,” Judy Newman said. Ms. Newman, who lives in Montclair, is the president of Scholastic Book Clubs (and who blogs about the clubs’ selections, their writers and illustrators, and other facts, fun and otherwise, that might amuse or intrigue their readers, at clubs.scholastic.com/judynewmanatscholastic).
“Our mission is to help teachers get books to all children — we work with about 700,000 teachers from around the country, from big cities in the Northeast to tiny hamlets in Alaska,” Ms. Newman said. “Our mission is to partner with every teacher to get them books for kids, where kids can see themselves.”
Although Scholastic of course sells books — the clubs are part of the prestigious children’s publishing house — “we’re not like Amazon, or a traditional bookseller,” Ms. Newman said. “We have a direct connection with kids.” That’s through the clubs’ newsletter, and through the teachers. The books the clubs sell are inexpensive and relatively affordable.
Scholastic had sold “Elly” as a $5 paperback for a few years. And then, “last year, in March, we got word that an anonymous donor from Romania — from Elly’s home town — wanted to make a donation for 10,000 copies of the book that we would donate for free.”
The book club was going to do that, but March of 2020 was a bad time for donations of physical objects. It’s always hard to donate many books to many people in many places, Ms. Newman said, “but we have a network. We had it all prepared.” They were going to put free copies of the book into the boxes they were about to send out. “It was going to be a surprise gift.
“And then covid came, and our business was on hold. Kids weren’t going to school. Normal ways of doing things were all disrupted. And we were like, ‘Wait a minute. We won’t just let this donation go out now.’ We knew that no one would pay attention to it. So we held it because of the book itself, and because of the passion of the donor. We didn’t want it to be wasted.”
So Scholastic held onto the books for a year. “As with many aspects of the pandemic, there was a positive underside,” Ms. Newman said. “We didn’t want to just drop it onto people’s boxes so we send out an email, and we said, ‘If you want to get a class set of this book, just ask for it.’ We put it up at 9 a.m. Eastern time, and by 9:20 they all were spoken for.” That was $10,000 in books. “The West Coast people were so mad, so we’ll do it again.”
Scholastic isn’t going to just deliver the books and hope that the teachers whose classes will use them know how to roll with the punches it delivers. “We’ll work with them,” Ms. Newman said. “We will convene a group of teachers on April 8 on Facebook Live and have a discussion group with them, moderated by a literacy expert, to talk about how to use the book in the classroom, completing a virtuous circle.”
Scholastic also provides resources to help teachers and their students make sense of the story, and to draw lessons about hatred and mindless evil from it. “Elly” is part of its Holocaust unit; teaching plans and advice are online and easily findable at the Scholastic blog.
“Someone wanted to make a meaningful donation and we want it to be used meaningfully,” Ms. Newman said.
Next, Scholastic decided to get the book into even more classrooms and homes. “In the weekly book-club blog under my name, we sell a title for a dollar a week, and we create content for it.” So far, Scholastic has sold more than 20,000 copies of the book.
In order to help add to the supporting material it gives to teachers and their students, “our team contacted Elly herself,” Ms. Newman said. “She’s 91 years old, she lives in Queens, and she is a beautiful human being.
“So my two colleagues got their covid tests, they went to Elly’s house, and they videoed her. She showed them around her apartment, showed them her needlework, and explained her whole mission.
“She believes that she survived by a series of accidents. She was sent off in one direction, and her mother and baby brother were sent the other way.” That’s when the family got to Auschwitz; in just one — but the most soul-searing of all those hellish experiences — Josef Mengele allowed her to live but sent the rest of her family to death.
“Elly thinks that it is her responsibility to tell her story, but she doesn’t tell it in a hard-to-process way, but in a human way.” (Warning — some young readers, and even some older ones, might find the story terrifying. They’re right. It is. But the resources Scholastic provides should help them make sense of it.)
For more than 30 years, Elly visited schools and told her story in person; now, during the pandemic and even beyond it, “this new exposure make her able to amplify her story,” Ms. Newman said.
“Elly is amazing. She is a fierce, beautiful 91-year-old woman who crochets and makes her own clothes. Her passion and her authentic first-person voice are awesome.”