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In my city, there is a bronze statue on Main Street of a beloved former mayor, Max Heller, who was a Holocaust survivor. In 1998, he and his wife taped their stories for the oral-history library at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I recently had the pleasure of visiting with his 93-year-old widow, Trude Heller, over lunch, and she says that she sees her life as a series of miracles. Born in Vienna, she was an only child, and very sheltered. One day she went to gym class in a city that was considered very safe, and when she came out, there were swastikas everywhere. That was in 1938. Her father’s business was destroyed during Kristallnacht, and the family was given six hours to vacate their spacious apartment and move to the ghetto. Nazis came to arrest her father, but neighbors hid him. And Trude and her mother began a long journey to Antwerp, Belgium, where they lived with refugee status for a year because no country would take them. “No one wanted us,” Trude recalls.
She and her husband devoted their lives to humanitarian issues, and she still goes to middle schools and talks about the Holocaust. She connects issues such as bullying to Hitler and the Nazi Party, advising students to think about the direction bullying could take them. She urges them and everyone to “listen to the stories of Holocaust survivors” and “listen to the stories of refugees.”
The news today is filled with stories of Syrian refugees, and political candidates—and others—are heatedly arguing about whether the U.S. should allow vetted refugees into the country. As I listened to Trude Heller’s story, I couldn’t help but think that history is repeating itself: “No one wanted us.”
But history is filled with refugees, and libraries are stuffed full of their stories, both novels and true accounts: Number the Stars (1989), by Lois Lowry; When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1997), by Judith Kerr; and A Faraway Island (2009), by Annika Thor and Linda Schenck are just a few examples of Holocaust refugee stories. L. S. Matthews’ Fish (2006), the story of a family’s escape from their adopted unnamed country, could be set in a number of war-torn countries where the lives of natives and humanitarian workers are in danger. Sudanese refugees are depicted in Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard (2002), by Mawi Asgedom; Brothers in Hope (2005), by Mary Williams; Home of the Brave (2007), by Katherine Applegate; A Long Walk to Water (2010), by Linda Sue Park; and The Red Pencil (2014), by Andrea Davis Pinkney; Kosovo refugees in Drita, My Homegirl (2006), by Jenny Lombard, and The Day of the Pelican (2009), by Katherine Paterson. In Children of the River (1991), by Linda Crew, Sundara flees Cambodia with her aunt’s family and takes refuge in the U.S., and Goodbye, Vietnam (1992), by Gloria Whelan, shows one Vietnamese family’s terrifying escape from their homeland to Hong Kong. And then there’s Malala Yousafzai, perhaps the most famous young refugee today. She tells her story in I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (2014).
Recently, I saw a picture of Anne Frank alongside a caption that reads, “Anne Frank’s visa application was turned down by the United States government.” And I think of Trude Heller’s story and her “series of miracles”: the miracle that she escaped Vienna before the Nazis built concentration camps for women; the miracle that united her with her husband, Max; and the miracle that brought them to my city. He became a favorite son of that city, and she a great First Lady. At one point, she returned to Vienna for a brief visit. When she passed through immigration on her way back to the U.S., the officer, noting her birth city, said, “Oh, you’ve come home.” She replied, “No, I’m going home.” This, too, could be the response of a refugee children or teens today—if only someone wanted them.
After more than 35 years as a school librarian, Pat Scales is a freelance writer, children’s literature advocate, and the author of the revised edition of Books under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books (2014).
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