The Past is Not Gone

Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived World War II – written and illustrated by Marisabina Russo
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005

In this fictionalized picture book memoir, a young Jewish girl, Rachel, talks with her grandmother about a past which the older woman had always considered too painful to disclose.  Finally Oma decides that she must tell her granddaughter the truth, even if her account carefully avoids, or generously emphasizes, different parts of her life: “ ‘I think you are old enough to hear the rest of the story now,’ she says, and pulls me closer.” As Yom HaShoah approaches this week, this book reminded me of the ongoing skepticism about the need to still write and publish children’s books about the Holocaust. We can question when, how, and through which media it is most productive and sensitive to take on the task, but the idea that learning about the Holocaust is simply too traumatic, or no longer necessary, is wrong.

Marisabina Russo has recently published an incredible graphic memoir, Why Is Everybody Yelling: Growing Up in My Immigrant Family, which covers some of the same material as this book, although in much greater depth and for an older audience.  She also has written another picture book, I Will Come Back for You, reflecting again on her experience as a child and grandchild of survivors.  Each one of her works stands on its own merits, but if you have not read Why Is Everybody Yelling, I urge you to do so!  (If you think you have read enough graphic memoirs, think again, because this book is outstanding.) Reading these three books together emphasizes the difficulties inherent in revealing truths about ones family, but also about how to narrate events of inconceivable horror.

Always Remember Me begins with the warmth of a family gathering, but then leads to a journey into the past. Oma’s story begins as an ordinary memory, evoked through the kind of selective details which characterize the process of remembrance.  Sabina was Rachel’s mother; her trips to the zoo in Germany bring back the fact that sea lions were her favorite animal there. When she was old enough to begin school, she carried the traditional Zuckertüte, a cone filled with treats, marking her first day there.  Everything seemed normal but, for Jews in Europe by the 1930s, nothing would ever be normal again. The allusions to German culture carry a subtext of irony.  Oma and her family had emigrated there from Poland, hoping to avoid the sometimes violent antisemitism of Eastern Europe.  But their love for their adopted homeland was rejected with grotesque cruelty.

Russo’s text and pictures are inseparable.  An element of documentary realism, foreshadowing her later graphic memoir, is interwoven with impressionistic portraits.  One page features nine small pictures of different Jews, all of whom would be forced to bear on their identity cards “a giant red J as if we were criminals who couldn’t be trusted.” The Jews depicted range from an older man with a beard and yarmulke to others with the fully assimilated tie and pocket handkerchief of any middle-class German. Their personhood, as well as their lives, would be totally erased. 

Family pictures that accompany Oma’s story chronicle the bonds that kept everyone together, shortly before they would be torn apart.  Other primary sources, such as letters, currency, and passports, are transformed by Russo into artifacts of a vanished past. Oma was interned in Auschwitz; images from that time are rendered in gray and white, and convey grief and terror. Appropriately for a children’s picture book, they do not show the machinery of genocide, but they open a door to discussion of what actually happened there and in other concentration camps.

One of the most moving, and artistically distinctive, pictures in the book is a scene of matriarchs and the young Rachel.  The little girl sits on the floor in a dainty white dress with red trim. The leather bag over her shoulder is an almost odd contrast to her mid-century child’s outfit.  Behind her sit Oma, Sabina, and Aunts Emmi and Anni, looking down with love and pride at the child who represents the future of their family. She is privileged to have never known, and be unlikely to undergo, the terrible traumas of their own lives.  Marisabina Russo has undertaken a difficult task, as author, artist, and daughter, in her unforgettable books.

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