With anti-Semitic acts on the rise worldwide and polls that show a disturbing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, Michigan author Danica Davidson says the timing is crucial for her middle-grade book, I Will Protect You: A True Story of Twins Who Survived Auschwitz (Little, Brown, April 5). The title was co-written with Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor before her death in 2019.
“Eva's argument was that if we wait until 12 or older to teach about the Holocaust or anti-Semitism, it's too late, because the prejudice has already set in,” Davidson tells PW. “That's why she wanted to reach younger kids.”
Holocaust education is under scrutiny today after a school board in Tennessee pulled Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus off its shelves, and a recent Pew Research Center poll shows that fewer than half of Americans know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Davidson, who has previously written children’s books on manga and Minecraft, knew that she had to do something when she began experiencing anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism at work and in her personal life in 2015. The idea for a children’s book on the Holocaust took shape after meeting Kor in 2018 at Western Michigan University, where Kor had given a speech about her experiences during and after the Holocaust.
“She told me she wanted [her story] to be accessible to elementary school students, but not sugarcoat the facts,” Davidson recalls.
At age nine, Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, were subjected to experiments by notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp. She and Miriam both survived, and Eva became an advocate for Holocaust education. The book, which is titled after a passage describing when the twins arrive at Auschwitz, tells Eva and Miriam’s story during the Holocaust, as well as the aftermath, including the haunting memories. Then, more than 50 years after Auschwitz, Eva decided that to in order to heal herself, she needed to forgive her former Nazi tormentors.
The decision inspired the 2006 documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, appeared in the film as somebody critical of the decision to forgive.
Berenbaum’s argument against Kor’s action was based on Jewish law, which says that forgiveness can only be granted to a person who admits that what they did was wrong, makes efforts to atone, and promises not to do it again. Mengele and many other Nazis had made no such attempt. Still, Berenbaum understands that Kor’s action was necessary for her own well-being.
“Eva felt the need to purge herself of all the hatred that she had,” Berenbaum tells PW. “The only way she could do it was by forgiveness.”
Kor’s journey to forgiveness is one thing that sets this book apart from other Holocaust books for children, most of which focus on kids who survived in hiding. This is one of the few firsthand accounts of a concentration camp from a child’s point of view.
“Part of what this represents is the strength, resilience, and the possibility to rebuild in the aftermath of defeat,” Berenbaum says. “And that also is true of Eva. It catches the essence of who Eva was—not just the victimization, but also her determination, her iron will, her spunk, her toughness. This was one tough woman.”
Kor died on July 4, 2019, after the manuscript was completed and she and Davidson had accepted Little, Brown's offer. Lisa Yoskowitz, editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, says Kor’s death was “absolutely devastating.” Yoskowitz, who grew up hearing Holocaust survivors speak at her Jewish day school, recognizes that there are fewer and fewer people who can speak firsthand about the Holocaust, and that Kor’s message will be able to live on because of I Will Protect You.
“A young reader might see it and say, ‘Wow, if this person could forgive the people who quite literally wiped out her entire family, ruined her life, and experimented on her, then, you know what? Do I have the capacity to forgive, and how can I live my most productive life?’ I think that's a powerful message to take away.”
To Yoskowitz, Davidson and Kor successfully navigate a line between too much and too little information about one of the most horrible events in recent history.
For example, when Eva arrives at Auschwitz, she sees a Nazi ordering a dog to attack a woman. The book does not go into detail about the attack as one of the cruelties she witnessed. “The book is not gruesome, it's not graphic,” Davidson says.” It'll tell you what happened, but it won't dwell on those details.”
Yoskowitz adds: “To strike a balance between telling the truth, not sugarcoating anything, but also writing it in a way that is digestible for kids—I think this book checks a lot of boxes that are very hard to check.”
The authors also made the book appropriate for kids by making the Holocaust as relatable as possible—beginning the book with Eva as a normal student in school. Then, over time, anti-Semitism begins to impact the twins’ lives. “The Jews” are blamed for pranks they did not commit, subtraction problems are explained in terms of Jews killed, and they are forced to watch a propaganda film about how to catch and kill Jews.
Yoskowitz hopes that readers “come away with a firm understanding and belief that the Holocaust happened, it was a real event with absolutely devastating consequences, and that it is on all of us to speak up in the face of injustice as much as possible.”
This story has been updated on 3/10/2022 with additional material.