Your Story Matters: Deborah Hopkinson Discusses 'We Had To Be Brave' and Living in the Time of COVID-19

Deborah Hopkinson discusses her new book, We Had To Be Brave (Scholastic; Gr 3 Up), the challenges raised by COVID-19, and the power of storytelling.

The world they knew was turned upside down. It wasn’t safe for children to attend school. Many people lost their jobs. Families suffered economic hardship and hunger. To step outside meant taking a risk. Successful careers were in tatters; small businesses ruined. It was impossible to know what might come next. Sometimes, for their protection, children were sent away by their parents.

This isn’t a historian’s description of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. This was the reality in the 1930s for Jewish families living under Nazi rule, the time period detailed in my new book, We Had To Be Brave (Scholastic; Gr 3 and up). The ugly oppression Jews faced was undeniably human, a system of injustices driven by hatred and prejudice. And it led to the unthinkable, state-sponsored murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust.

The book’s first chapter, entitled “Before,” includes glimpses into the lives of several Kindertransport survivors who went to school, celebrated holidays, and played with friends. But after Hitler became chancellor in January of 1933, the Nazis moved quickly to begin dismantling the institutions and norms of civil society. Jews encountered ever-tightening anti-Semitic laws. The frightening violence of the Kristallnacht pogrom in November of 1938 was a tipping point; it spurred England to open its doors to 10,000 Jewish children. For some parents, separation seemed the best, the only answer.

Due to the urgency of activists, rescue workers, and others, the Kindertransport rescue effort came together in a matter of weeks. The first train carrying children left Berlin on December 1, 1938. Parents hoped sending their children away would be temporary, just until the worst danger had passed, until the entire family could get visas to leave. Yet for almost all, those hopes were dashed when Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, and the door to escape slammed shut.

I share the stories of several Kindertransport children sent to England, including Ruth Oppenheimer David, who was born on March 7, 1929, and grew up in a German village with her parents, Moritz and Margarete Oppenheimer, and five brothers and sisters. My book came out on February 4, 2020. My last author visit took place in early March in Tukwila, WA, just a few miles from Kirkland, the first epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in this nation.

During my presentation called “Everyone’s Story Matters,” I shared Ruth’s picture with 200 or so upper elementary students, packed together closely in the gym. In my writing and speaking, I try to encourage readers to tell their own stories and to reflect on how oral histories, journals, and letters help us make sense of the present and illuminate the past. Now I find myself wondering whether the students I met that day and other young readers encountering new challenges and trauma in their own lives will experience Ruth’s story differently than they might have before.

As teachers, librarians and parents know well, many students are fascinated by World War II and devour everything they can find. I’ve met fifth graders who clearly know more about aspects of the war than I ever will. But I’m thinking of something else—something I believe nonfiction can do as well as fiction: inspire and encourage empathy.

I read many survivors’ stories as I researched this book. What emerged time and again was the tremendous courage and resilience of children. The threat from the coronavirus is invisible. This was far from the case for Jewish families. Hatred and prejudice are learned behaviors: They are taught. And for many Kindertransport survivors, they first experienced anti-Semitism when former friends turned against them. Children were shunned on the street and bullied in school by classmates and teachers.

Read: SLJ's Review of We Had To Be Brave

When Ruth experienced this, she, like most children, tried to hide the truth from her parents, not wanting to worry them or add to her family’s burdens. When six-year-old Ruth began school in 1935, other students threw stones at her as she walked home. She never told her parents. “I understood enough to realize that I could not appeal to an adult for help,” she later wrote.

Jewish families faced the heartbreak of having neighbors, business colleagues, and longtime friends turn against them. After Jewish children were forbidden from attending public school, Ruth and her sister Hannah began attending a Jewish school in a neighboring town.

Once, a local truck driver blocked the road and attacked their van, breaking the windows with a piece of metal. Hannah and Ruth were in the back seat, behind the driver and their mother. Ruth wrote, “There is still a vivid picture of her in my memory: sitting next to the driver she was looking straight ahead, her face rigid.” Just as frightening as the incident was the realization that her mother was powerless to stop it. As parents, we live with the constant fear of being unable to protect our children and grandchildren. Today, some health workers and other essential workers have chosen to isolate themselves from their children to shield them from possible infection; other children have been sent to live with grandparents. Children are afraid for their families but may be reluctant to share these fears. Even little ones sense their parents’ anxieties and exhaustion. They may not fully understand the threat of the unseen coronavirus, but they know that suddenly, inexplicably, life is completely different. Everything they once thought they knew about the world has changed.

In November of 1938, groups of Nazi thugs attacked homes and businesses and destroyed synagogues. The violence reached Ruth’s village. Ruth and her sister Hannah woke one night to shouts and the crash of an ax breaking down the door. They fled down the back stairs and ran outside barefoot. Hiding in their father’s car, they saw the gang smash the windows of their house. This was the night of broken glass.

Ruth said, “I know that I experienced there, at the age of nine, the greatest fear I have ever known. I have been in some dangerous situations since—but nothing to match the cold terror of that night. We did not know what had taken place in the house, where our parents were, whether we could ever go back, or what would happen to us if we did.”

Following Kristallnacht, thousands of Jewish men were detained. Ruth’s father, a businessman who had served on the town council, was held in deplorable conditions for months. After his release and hoping it would be safer in a larger city, the family moved to Mannheim, where Ruth’s mother took a job as director of an orphanage. Soon after, Ruth’s parents heard about the Kindertransport. On June 6, 1939, Margarete and Moritz put Ruth on a train for England, promising their daughter they’d soon be reunited.

Hannah also was sent to England, although the sisters weren’t able to live together. Ruth’s two older half-brothers managed to get visas to South America and the United States. But like millions of others, Ruth’s parents and their two youngest, Michael (now Michel) and Feodora, were trapped when war broke out. Ruth’s mother tried to keep in touch with her older children scattered across the globe, and with the help of their non-Jewish housekeeper, her letters were saved. But correspondence was difficult, and Ruth worried constantly.

In 1940, Ruth’s parents and younger siblings were deported to an internment camp in France, where Margarete made another sacrifice: She found rescuers willing to take Michel and Feo from the camp and hide them. Moritz and Margarete were deported and murdered at Auschwitz in August of 1942.

Ruth wrote two memoirs and was honored by Germany for her post-war Holocaust education work in schools. Michel and Feo survived. They live in France and on March 17, 2019, they traveled to England to celebrate Ruth’s ninetieth birthday.

Last month, I received an email from Ruth’s daughter. Although they had tried to be careful, Ruth passed away from COVID-19 on April sixth. I will miss her, though we only met on email. She inspired me in writing We Had To Be Brave. And, thinking about her separation from her family, I decided to continue her family’s story in We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance, which publishes in 2021. It is a humbling experience to correspond with survivors and their families and, in a small way, help to share their stories with a new generation of readers.

We are not living in the 1930s; our circumstances and challenges are different. Children and teens today will have vivid memories of this historic moment. They understand nothing is the same. Families and communities are grieving, exhausted, and in despair.

But as our nation grapples with COVID-19 as well as the horror of racial violence and systemic injustice, I hope that if young readers learn about the challenges Jewish children like Ruth faced, they will build empathy and compassion, and become better equipped to meet challenges in their own lives. In reading Ruth’s story, I hope children and teens will be inspired to be brave enough to tell their own.

Photo by Melissa Hill

Deborah Hopkinson is the acclaimed author of over 40 award-winning books, including Shutting Out the Sky, an NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book and a Jane Addams Peace Award Honor Book; Up Before Daybreak, a Carter G. Woodson Honor Award winner; Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist and Sibert Honor Book. Deborah lives with her family near Portland, OR.

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