During the course of her many years as the coordinator of the annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers’ & Illustrators Conference (formerly at the 92nd Street Y in New York City), as well as throughout her career as a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates, Anna Olswanger has been contributing to the growth and support of quality literature for children.
In addition to nurturing the talent of many writers and artists, Anna is an author herself of short stories and books. Her picture book Shlemiel Crooks is a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and PJ Library Book. A family musical adapted from Shlemiel Crooks premiered in 2011 at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall.
Her latest book Greenhorn, based on a true story and published by NewSouth Books, is a quiet yet deeply moving novel for children about what happens when a young Holocaust survivor moves to Brooklyn with a mysterious box and attends yeshiva.
What this writer has found especially unique about Greenhorn, is how Anna takes a potentially frightening story about a dark time in history, yet crafts it in such a way that children are engaged, encouraged to ask questions and learn about the Holocaust—without the element of fear that haunts so many other books on this topic. Below, Anna shares some thoughts with the Times of Israel about what inspired her to take the approach she did in writing Greenhorn:
I wanted to write the story I heard, and not invent any backstory or previous history for the character I named Daniel. I wouldn’t have been able to honor what the real Daniel went through if I had invented his past. Rabbi Rafael Grossman, who was the basis of the “Aaron” character and who told me the real story in the 1980s, didn’t remember every detail forty years later, and certainly not seventy years later when the story was about to be published and I was revising it one last time, so I had to fictionalize parts of what he told me. Because I was concerned about the ethics of creating fiction based on the Holocaust, I focused entirely on the events I heard, and refrained from inventing anything from the time of the Holocaust itself when Daniel may have been in a concentration camp.
I did, however, change one event from the actual story. When I researched the history of soap made from human fat, what I found was that the Nazis probably did not mass produce the soap. They probably did experiment with making soap from human fat in one factory in the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig/Gdansk, and that is what I referred to in the book. In the real story, Daniel (which was not his name) kept a bar of soap with the letters RIF on it. Many Jews, during and after the war, believed this was soap made from Jewish fat, as did the real Daniel and the other boys at the yeshiva, including Rabbi Grossman. But from from what I read, the letters RIF, which many thought stood for Reichs-Juden-Fett (“State Jewish Fat”), in fact stood for Reichsstelle für industrielle Fettversorgung (“National Center for Industrial Fat Provisioning”), the German government agency responsible for wartime production of soap. I revised the story so that Daniel’s bar of soap was from the factory near Gdansk. I felt it was important to make this change and not refer to the unfounded story of the RIF soap.
The publisher has made a free Discussion Guide for Greenhorn available at www.NewSouthBooks.com/Greenhorn.
Greenhorn illustrations copyright 2012 Miriam Nerlove. Included here by permission of NewSouth Books.