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Liesl’s Ocean Rescue by Barbara Krasner
Illustrated by Avi Katz
Liesl’s Ocean Rescue by noted children’s author Barbara Krasner, recounts the story of Liesl Joseph, a 10-year-old girl aboard the ill-fated MS St. Louis. On May 13, 1939, together with her parents and 900 other Jewish refugees they left Germany on the MS. St Louis attempting to seek temporary asylum in Cuba.
Interview with Children’s Writer Barbara Krasner
Writing about the Holocaust for children
What prompted you to write Liesl’s Ocean Rescue?
I grew up hearing the story of Jewish refugees whom the world had abandoned. They were on a ship (the St. Louis) that had been turned away at every port in 1939. It was unconscionable to me that this could happen. After I read Refuge Denied by staff members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) I decided to research it on my own for a children’s book. I spent most of 2010 doing research in New York City and Washington, D.C. at the archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and at the USHMM. I also interviewed several survivors at their homes throughout the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area and one survivor in Florida by telephone.
Was it difficult to write this story?
Yes, for several reasons. First, a kind of definitive book came out in the 1970s, Voyage of the Damned, that was based on interviews with many survivors and crew members. They were no longer available for my interviews so many years later. Interviewing survivors who had been children during the voyage I had to recognize that their memories might have been compromised by the book and its resulting movie as well as survivor gatherings. I tended to focus on the stories of three people: Hans Fisher, who wrote about his experiences; Fred Buff, who kept a diary during the voyage; and Liesl Joseph Loeb, the daughter of the chairman of the ship’s passenger committee.
Another issue with interviewing those who had been children is that they would not have been privy to all that was going on with the ship: the threats from the military intelligence agents aboard; the graft given the Cuban immigration director; the financial aspects of negotiations for rescue. Liesl’s Ocean Rescue was not the first take on the story I had written, but it seemed to work the best. Despite the difficulties, I think the story of the St. Louis is one that needs to be told to children.
The book cover says, “Based on a true story.” Can you talk about that?
Sure. I chose Liesl’s story as the one I wanted to tell. But I had to make it work for young children. That meant I had to make certain assumptions and make up dialogue. Liesl’s story then became historical fiction, but it is based on her story, through my face-to-face, telephone, and email conversations as well as her testimony through the Shoah Foundation project given in the mid-1990s.
Is this the first Holocaust story you’ve written?
For children, yes. But I’ve written about the St. Louis for American History magazine (August 2013) and presented a scholarly paper on the reliability of children’s memory using the St. Louis as a case study. I also have written a novel in verse about the St. Louis and am working on a young adult nonfiction version told from the captain’s perspective.
Many of my Holocaust-related short stories and poems have appeared in literary journals for adult audiences.
What was your reaction to the illustrations?
I had seen Avi Katz’s work elsewhere, including another Gihon River Press picture book, The Tattered Prayer Book by Ellen Bari. I liked his style and was happy to hear that Avi was going to illustrate Liesl. I think he really captured her personality, her strength and determination as well as the overall despair about the ship’s situation.
Liesl’s Ocean Rescue by Barbara Krasner is a wonderful story about a tragic event. She has written about the Holocaust in such a way that it is educational and appropriate for all ages to read. I read this with my 12 year old and 3 year old. The illustrations are gorgeous and tastefully done, lending respect to the story. I liked that this is based on true events. I really felt connected to Liesl and her journey. This would be an excellent book to have in a classroom as a supplement to Holocaust studies. I will seek out more books written by this author.
About the Author
Barbara Krasner is a historian and professor of creative writing. She publishes the popular blog, The Whole Megillah: The Writer’s Resource for Jewish-Themed Story. She runs workshops and conferences for Jewish writers at the Highlights Foundation and in conjunction with the Association of Jewish Libraries. Barbara has a B.A. in German from Douglass College, an M.B.A. in Marketing from the Rutgers Business School and an M.F.A. in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a candidate for the M.A. in Applied Historical Studies at William Paterson University.
About the Illustrator
Illustrator Avi Katz was born in Philadelphia where he studied in the Schechter and Akiba schools as well as the Fleischer Art Memorial. After three years at U.C. Berkeley he moved to Israel at age 20, where he graduated in Fine Arts from the Bezalel Art Academy. He was the staff artist of the Jerusalem Report Magazine from its first issue in 1990 until 2012, and is active in the international Cartooning for Peace program. He has illustrated over 160 books in Israel and the U.S. including the National Jewish Book Award winning JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible. His books have also won the IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Honors four times and Israel’s Ze’ev Prize six times. His art has been exhibited in Israel, America and Europe.
Connect with Avi: Website