I heard the real story of Greenhorn thirty years ago in Israel. The rabbi of my synagogue stood in the front of our tour bus as we approached Jerusalem and told us about a little boy who had lost his parents in the Holocaust, who wouldn’t speak when he came to live at the Brooklyn yeshiva where the rabbi was in the sixth grade, and who wouldn’t let a tin box out of his sight.
I knew as soon as the rabbi began talking that the story was important and that I wanted to write it, but what I didn’t know was how I could make the story mine.
I was childless, born in America after the Holocaust, and my grandparents and great-grandparents had left Eastern Europe in the 1890s, years before the Holocaust.
What did I know about what this little boy had gone through?
But my rabbi, a witness to the story, was preoccupied with leading his large congregation and couldn’t write the story. I had no idea where the little boy was forty years after the Holocaust, so I couldn’t ask him to write the story.
I knew if I didn’t write the story, it would be lost. I had to write it.
This was what I heard that day on the bus:
When the school principal came into my rabbi’s class to announce that the yeshiva would take in fifty boys, he introduced “Daniel,” a young boy who had no possessions, except for a small, tin box that he never let out of his sight.
The class later discovered that inside the box was a bar of soap. Daniel believed that the soap, manufactured by the Nazis, was made from the body fat of Jews murdered in the death camps.
And he believed that maybe, just maybe, that bar of soap contained his parents’ remains. He said he didn’t have anything else from his parents, not even a photograph.
It was, and sometimes still is, difficult for me to articulate why I thought the story was important, but as I began to write Greenhorn, through all the succeeding drafts of what became a middle grade novel based on the real story, I discovered more clearly what I was writing about.
The little boy, who wouldn’t speak when he came to America, who wouldn’t let the tin box out of his sight, made a friend in my rabbi. Later, the little boy agreed to live with his friend’s family. And in the actual scene that I described in the Afterword, the little boy, who had grown up to marry and have his own family, was finally able to bury the soap in the backyard of his house in Jerusalem.
I discovered through all those successive drafts that I was writing about family.
My grandparents’ cousins and their children who never left Eastern Europe died in the Holocaust. I am still childless. I have no children to discuss my cousins with, or even the Holocaust that wiped out not just them, but two thirds of Europe’s Jews.
I wrote my first children’s book Shlemiel Crooks because I wanted to recapture the family stories my father told me before he died. Through the publication of Shlemiel Crooks, I discovered that I could share my father’s stories with other children, even though I had none of my own.
Now, it’s the same with Greenhorn. Through the book, I can take part in discussions between children, parents, and teachers about the Holocaust. The publisher has even made free guides available for parents and teachers to facilitate discussions. So, although I don’t have my own children, I can share something I consider important with any child who reads Greenhorn.
Like the little boy who finally found his family, I have also found mine.
|Illustrator Miriam Nerlove|