I discovered this book when I was looking for picture books to go along with our Year 8 novel and film study of The boy in the striped pyjamas, by John Boyne. It’s titled Erika’s Story and is authored by Ruth Vander Zee, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti.
Our boys are going to have a Holocaust survivor as their guest speaker shortly so this is a book well worth pointing out to them. Erika’s Story is also about the Holocaust, but it is also about the love a mother had for her child, and the extraordinary act she performed to ensure that her baby was given the chance to survive.
It is a biography of Erika, whose parents were Jewish and the book tells of what Erika imagines might have happened to them. She really doesn’t know. In fact she knows very little of her background at all. What she does know is that her mother was on a train, heading to a concentration camp, when she threw tiny Erika, bundled up in blankets, off the train, no doubt hoping that someone would find her and care for her. Vander Zee writes:
“On her way to death, my mother threw me to life.”
Looking at Ruth Vander Zee’s website I discovered that she has written several interesting other books, including one I own, Mississipi Morning, which explores the memories of young white boy who gradually comes to realise the racial hatred within his town and the role of the Ku Klux Klan. Her other two books are Eli Remembers and Always With You.
There are Teacher’s notes for Erika’s Story and you can find them here.
The illustrations are beautifully drawn by Roberto Innocenti, who illustrated Rose Blanche. Most illustrations in Erika’s Story are sepia toned, almost as if we are looking at a snapshot and reminiscing. The illustrations Erika appears in, however, have some colour. She is represented by pink. A full page colour illustration at the beginning of the book shows Erika telling her story to the author. Later we see a pink bundle being thrown from the train, and finally there is a double page colour illustration showing Erika as a child, looking at the train going past her home. Perhaps the use of colour represents hope and a future. In the sepia toned illustrations, the Jewish people do not have faces shown. We are shown the very crowded conditions they had to travel in though, and the belongings they brought with them for their journey. Their clothing is not the warm clothing they would have needed by the time the train reached its snowy destination.
You can view the illustrations over at the Children’s Book Illustration Blog.