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Keeping History Alive Through Inspiration L.B. Schulman, author of Stolen Secrets

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. In its honor, we are proud to share this guest post by author L. B. Schulman.

In 1959, the Israel parliament officially chose the date one week after Passover to be dedicated as Holocaust Remembrance Day. That’s today, April 12th. In honor of this important day, I would like to share the inspiration and intent behind my young adult novel, Stolen Secrets–a contemporary story with a Holocaust mystery at its core.

stolen secrets

The idea for Stolen Secrets began in my car, while listening to a Holocaust survivor on NPR. It dawned on me that one day, we would lose all of our firsthand witnesses. No more speakers at schools or interviews on the radio. How would this impact society’s ability to empathize with this tragic historical time?

This led me to consider one of the most influential Holocaust victims–Anne Frank. She touched many people with a diary that recorded the daily life of a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in the annex apartment behind her father’s business. This book was published in 70 languages. Over 30 million people have read it. Ballets, operas, plays, movies, and works of art found their inspiration from the thoughts of this young victim.

I soon discovered that many schools no longer require students to read The Diary of Anne Frank. The power of Anne’s voice seemed to be fading away. Were we relegating future generations to learning about history through dry textbooks? I decided to try and revive Anne’s story through my own novel, while taking a look at the crucial role that witnesses of all kinds contribute to a deeper understanding of history.

In Stolen Secrets, sixteen-year-old Livvy must move to San Francisco, where she discovers an estranged grandmother. The woman has Alzheimer’s and shouts out memories from her time at Bergen Belsen concentration camp that can’t be verified as truth or dismissed as hallucination from a debilitating disease. When Livvy uncovers a concentration camp journal in her grandmother’s home, she wonders who wrote it, why her grandmother has kept it hidden for six decades, and what, if anything, it might have to do with Anne Frank who was in the same concentration camp at the same time.

I realized how little I knew about what had happened to the eight annex residents, including the Frank family, after they were betrayed. On August 8th, 1944, the residents were sent to Westerbork, a work transit camp, where they pulled apart dusty old batteries all day long. A month later, they were packed like cattle on a harrowing three day train ride to Auschwitz.  Ironically, they were sent on the very last train to ever leave Westerbork. Had they remained hidden one more month, they might have all survived.

At Auschwitz, the family was separated. Men in one line, women, in the other. This was the last time that Anne saw her beloved father, Otto. Anne, her sister, Margot, and their mother labored hard, hauling heavy stones, for two months, until it became clear that the Russian army was advancing to liberate the camp. In a panic, the Nazi’s moved as many Jews to Bergen Belsen in Northern Germany as possible. Anne and Margot were sent, but their mother was forced to stay behind. She died of exhaustion and starvation a few weeks later.

Bergen Belsen did not have a gas chamber, but it was overcrowded with people dying of infectious diseases. In fact, over 50,000 people died there. Sometime in early spring, Margot succumbed to Typhus. Anne, at age fifteen, believing that her entire family was gone, died a few days later of the same disease. Only a month later, Bergen Belsen was liberated by the British.

Of the eight original residents who had hid in the annex, Otto Frank was the sole survivor. He returned to his work place where one of the family’s helpers, Miep, gave him Anne’s diary, which she had gathered together after the Nazi’s tore the attic apart, scattering the pages. It took Otto a month before he could bear to look at it. He found Anne’s words to be powerful, but highly personal. Two years later, he was finally convinced to let a publisher turn the diary into a book. The rest, as they say, is history.

For myself with my own book, I found it challenging to incorporate a real person’s life into a fictional scenario. I didn’t want to inadvertently teach readers an invented history. I did this by limiting the imagined details of what happened to Anne and applying them to my main character’s high-stakes hypothesis of her grandmother’s secret. In the end, I couldn’t avoid a few inventions, but they are duly noted in the Author’s Note. I wish I could say more about the twists and turns in the ending, but I won’t spoil it!

I am happy to say that the United States Holocaust Museum now offers Stolen Secrets to their adult and teen guests. The book was named a notable selection by the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, which selects quality literature that authentically portrays the Jewish experience. But the best news of all happened via a Facebook post, when a reader wrote that she was inspired by my book to buy The Diary of Anne Frank for her daughter.

I had an “aha” moment. Even without firsthand witnesses, we can effectively teach history in memorable ways. Authors and artists, with the help of librarians, educators, and word of mouth, can pass along fresh new works to readers. Together, we can create for future generations a connection to a past that must never be forgotten.

Meet Author L. B. Schulman

STOLEN SECRETS is L.B. Schulman’s second young adult novel. Her debut, LEAGUE OF STRAYS, was published in 2012. She grew up in Maryland and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a pair of loveable mutts. When she isn’t writing, she’s visiting genealogy sites, trying to find famous people she’s related to. You can visit her online at LBSchulman.com.

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