Riverdale—I first met K. Heidi Fishman when I attended a Highlights Foundation conference called “Writing Jewish-Themed Children’s Books.” It was there that Fishman was working on drafts of what would become her recently released first book, a children’s Holocaust novel, titled “Tutti’s Promise,” which details her mother, Ruth “Tutti” Lichtenstern Fishman’s, early childhood years during that terrible time.
“Tutti’s Promise” covers the era before the war, from her birth in Cologne, Germany, in 1935, through time spent in her youth in Amsterdam, followed by concentration camps, with her own unique perspective and those of family and friends. Tutti’s story comes alive through the details of narrow escapes, and then time spent in Westerbork and Theresienstadt camps, up until the Liberation.
Fishman holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and spent 20 years as a therapist—first at Dartmouth College and then in private practice. “[I] only decided to try to write a book after,” she said. Her desire to become a writer started when she heard Tutti speak to her daughter’s seventh-grade class. “When I saw the way her story touched the students, I knew that her memories needed to be preserved. At first, I tried to think of someone else to write the book, but then I realized I was the one who should do it. I was close enough to my mother to ask her the hard questions and I knew my grandparents and uncle well enough to capture their personalities.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing at first, as Tutti “didn’t want me to write it. She was worried that I would get depressed because I would be immersing myself in the topic of the Holocaust. But then, once I showed her an early draft, she was very excited. She said that the way I had taken her memories and written them into scenes brought her family back to life,” Fishman said.
Fishman’s novel is a beautiful story of utter determination and perseverance. Most poignant of all is how she captures the memories of Tutti’s parents, Heinz and Margret Lichtenstern, who worked fearlessly to keep Tutti and her younger brother, Robbie, safe. But that’s not all. Heinz worked as a metals trader for a Jewish company called Oxyde and together with his colleagues made a daring effort to slow down, as Fishman said, “the [Nazi] war machine.”
Incredibly, although the family was interred at the Westerbork Transit-Camp, three families, including Tutti’s, were permitted to return to Amsterdam, outside of the barbed-wire fences, to continue to work for the Oxyde Company. As long as they traded in scrap metals, Heinz and his fellow Jews were able to convince the Nazis that all Jews inside Westerbork were needed too. The Jewish prisoners sorted the metals and were thus able to slip in defective pieces in order to sabotage the effectiveness of the war planes and U-boats. The “Oxyde Jews,” as the Germans called them, were thus providing what the Nazis thought of as aid, but behind the scenes, they were also almost certainly keeping more than 1,200 Jews from being sent to concentration and death camps. Nevertheless, Tutti and her family were eventually sent to Theresienstadt.
Fishman “started with simply stringing together my mother’s memories of her time during the war years.” But then she learned more about Heinz’s wife, Margret, who lived in the Nazi camps for over a year protecting her two young children, which was a theme Fishman wanted to contain in the book. However, it was important that the story center around the theme of the Holocaust. “I wanted my readers to understand that what they were learning in history classes wasn’t about ‘six million,’ but about families and children and mothers and fathers,” she said. “The meaning of what happened is much more powerful when you can see how it affected individuals in their daily lives.”
Since the whole idea for this book took off in that seventh-grade classroom, Fishman decided that “that was the natural audience. Also, I had seen what books were being assigned to my middle school children and I didn’t like the selection that the teachers were using. My experience was that they relied heavily on” a few Holocaust books. Books written by Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank and Lois Lowry were either not suited for a young audience or simply did not cover the entirety of the Holocaust. Fishman sincerely “wanted to tell a longer story—invasion to liberation. I was writing separate scenes based on my mother’s memories and they naturally fell into chapters.”
However, she says, the book isn’t only for the children’s market. “I always intended the book to be for middle grades, but it isn’t only a children’s book. It is written so as to be accessible to children and to teach them. However, adults are definitely enjoying the book as well.”
As Fishman was writing, she was also maintaining a blog called www.PopjeAndMe.com. Through her blog, she said, “people found me! And I got more material. I found out the backstory to my grandfather’s false passport. I learned about my grandfather saving other families. People came to me and told me things I didn’t already know. I took several writing classes and workshops while I was working on the book. Each one helped me in a different way. They challenged me to look at my writing and to make it better.”
Overall, Fishman was able not only to produce a Holocaust book that is a testimony to her entire family’s courage in the face of evil, but also to spread her family’s message, one that her maternal grandmother, Margret, lived and breathed: “Always try to do good in the world—by speaking up when you see evil, and by behaving in a way that you know is right, no matter what others may be doing” (pg. 207).
It’s something that Fishman believes in wholeheartedly. “I want people to know that we all have to get over our personal discomfort with people that are different…we all deserve to live with dignity and freedom. We are all people who love our families, need clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, and want to go to sleep at night knowing that we are safe,” she said. Indeed, as we read the story of how many times Fishman’s family was saved by friends—and also managed to save others—and lived to tell the story, we can see how this stands out as something miraculous to read about.
By Bracha K. Sharp
Bracha K. Sharp is an assistant preschool teacher, a poetry-prize winner, a writer and an aspiring children’s picture book author. You can find her writing online at http://www.scbwi.org/members-public/bracha-orya-edelman-sharp.