Erika's Story

Erika's Story

Ruth Vander Zee (Author)

Roberto Innocenti (Illustrator)

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The haunting true story of a woman who was spared from the horrors of the Holocaust as a child is fittingly paired with Roberto Innocenti’s grimly photorealistic illustrations.


"My mother threw me from the train." A Jewish woman in Germany today tells how, as an infant, she survived the Holocaust after she was thrown from a train on its way to the camps in 1944 and was taken in and raised by a village woman. The survivor imagines her parents in the ghetto and transports. Did they hold her close and kiss her before throwing her away to save her life? Innocenti, who did the Holocaust picture book Rose Blanche (1991), dramatizes the horror in amazingly detailed photo-like illustrations with an overlay of surreal imagery: a small baby carriage stands on the platform as the Jews are being loaded into the cattle cars; wrapped in bright pink a baby flies through the air as the train hurtles through pastoral landscapes. The clear, tiny details dramatize both the fragility and the endurance of the infant survivor, as well as the bizarre calm of the "normal" world. Is the woman's story true? The experience is certainly known to have happened to some babies.

–Hazel Rochman, Booklist , November 2003

"I was born sometime in 1944. I do not know my birthdate. I do not know my birth name. I do not know in what city or country I was born," says narrator and protagonist Erika, in introducing her strange Holocaust history. She offers sober speculation on her parents' persecution and removal from their home and eventual placement in a railroad car bound for a concentration camp, where the first part of her known history occurs: "My mother threw me from the train." Someone takes the bundled baby to a woman who braves the risk to become her foster mother, naming her and raising her as her own. Erika went on to a loving marriage and a happy family with children and grandchildren, and "Today, my tree once again has roots." The finely honed text has a spare lyricism, moving with restrained dignity from the opening author's note, which describes Vander Zee's meeting with Erika and introduces her story, through the measured description of Erika's imagined past, to the quiet triumph of her survival and flourishing family life. Innocenti's portraits of the wartime countryside drain the colors until a smoky gray dominates, making them almost monochromatic, emphasizing their photorealistic quality, and tonally matching the text; occasional details, such as the yellow stars on the faceless travelers or the pink bundle containing baby Erika, are picked out in muted color. The final spread shows a later time, limiting the gray to the skies and enlivening the landscape with autumn colors, as a young girl–a postwar Erika? Erika's granddaughter?–gazes at a distant passing freight train. Book design is also tonally fitting–smoky gray text paces deliberately across cream pages, with paragraphs separated by slender-lined stars of David–though it's a bit ideologically puzzling that the book concludes with a five-pointed yellow star (echoed in the die-cut on the book's cover). While the CIP information labels this nonfiction, the absence of documentation and the transformation of a life story makes it more kin to Allen Say's factually inspired but articulately and artistically distilled windows into personal history. With a text exquisitely balanced between understated acknowledgement of tragedy and firm faith in the future, the story and presentation offer drama, impact, and simplicity enough to capture readers over a broad range of ages.

The Bulletin , March 2004

This picture book is a read-aloud candidate for high school classes. It tells a powerful and true story of sacrifice and survival. The book opens in 1944, during the Holocaust. Erika and her mother are traveling in a train car bearing the Star of David. As the train slows to pass a small village, the woman throws her infant out of the window. "On her way to death, my mother threw me to life," recounts the narrator.

Curriculum Connections , Spring 2004

This picture book may raise more questions than it answers, starting with the five-pointed die-cut star on the cover, a window to the yellow page beneath. Is this supposed to be a reference to the Star of David, like the one worn by Erika, whom the author (in an author's note) claims to have met in a German village in 1995 and whose story she purports to tell here? Erika believes she was a few months old when she was thrown from a train bound for Dachau and saved by a kind and courageous woman. Her Erika is caught in lengthy conjecture about her parents and their tragic plight. Of her rescuer and of her own life Erika says little, other than the critical news that she has children and grandchildren, and that her star "still shines." (Perhaps this is what's meant by the cover?) Vander Zee has more the beginnings of a story than a nuanced work, but Innocenti (Rose Blanche) lives up to his admirers' expectations with his haunting, even harrowing drawings. Grim black-and-white illustrations show adults and children entering cattle cars, their faces blocked by headscarves or by the barrier reading "Verboten"; the German soldiers present only their impervious backs to readers. As the train pulls out, Innocenti imagines a snow-white baby carriage left by the track, its emptiness speaking volumes. With other images, both real and nightmarish, the art conveys a measure of the anguish of the Nazi victims' vulnerability.

Publishers Weekly , December 2003

Vander Zee narrates this true story in the voice of Erika, a woman she encountered in a German village, who, as a blanket-wrapped infant, was thrown from a cattle car bound for a concentration camp in 1944. ("On her way to death, my mother threw me to life.") A German woman risked her own life to raise Erika, who eventually married and had children of her own. ("Today my tree once again has roots.") The spare, eloquent text perfectly complements Innocenti's gray and beige photorealistic illustrations that show haunting, finely detailed, sterile winter scenes of train cars, tracks, and cold brick-and-stone buildings surrounded by barbed wire. On other pages, a white baby carriage and the small pink bundle catch the eye. Only the contemporary opening scene and the final postwar spread are in full color. Compelling and powerful in its simplicity, Erika's story proves that determination, hope, and goodness can overcome evil. Stars are important to this story. Yellow Stars of David are visible on the people's clothing and the symbol appears on every page, separating Erika's thoughts. She mentions God's biblical promise to Abraham that his people "would be as many as the stars in the heavens," and that "six million of those stars fell between 1933 and 1945." The large die-cut yellow pentagram on the front cover is a jarring exception to the carefully crafted text and illustrations. This poignant story of survival deserves a wide audience.

–Susan Scheps, School Library Journal , December 2003