by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
A delightful sense of humor, true compassion for others, a sharp wit, a passionate commitment to education, and a steadfast determination to share her story of surviving the Holocaust with young people in classrooms across the country in a way they can understand this atrocious period in human history.…Meet Elly Berkovits Gross, still going strong at age 92.
This is a photo of Elly, wearing a beautiful vest she crocheted herself, surrounded by photographs and awards and her own artwork on the walls when she welcomed us into her home in Queens, New York. We visited to interview her and talk in a truly up-close-and-personal way about Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust, which is the Scholastic Book Clubs Book of the Week.
The Holocaust was a horrific time in human history, and I remember as a kid, it felt so painful to learn about it in school. I didn’t want to read in my textbooks about the horrible things that were done by the Nazis to Jews and so many others. I did not want to see the terrible photographs or calculate the human misery and tragedy.
I remember even closing my eyes during one movie our teacher showed in class when I was in fifth grade. It was too painful to watch, and I felt so helpless. I wasn’t proud of my avoidance—it was just too overwhelming for me to process at the time.
But while I had trouble understanding the Holocaust through textbooks and made-for-classroom movies with remote announcers and segments of crackling black-and-white newsreel footage, what I did connect with were personal stories, such as The Diary of Anne Frank and through the first-person experiences of my own family members.
My own great-aunt Helen and her mother escaped from the Nazis in Poland because they were blond-haired and blue-eyed. They were taken in by nuns and hidden for a while in a convent. Helen and her mother eventually made it to America, but sadly, the rest of her family and most of her friends from her beautiful village weren’t so lucky.
My father-in-law, Don MacGregor, was an 18-year-old solider in the 15th Infantry Regiment of the Third Infantry Division of the United States Army who fought the Nazis in 1944 and 1945.
Don rarely talked about the horrors he saw during the war, but a few years ago, our family took a trip to France and Germany and literally walked along the same roads through the Colmar Pocket that Don’s regiment traveled through years ago. We called it the “Ten-Dollar Bill Tour” because Don recorded the names of all those towns—Mittelwihr, Bennwihr, Holtzwihr, Ostheim, Guemar, Riedwihr, Jebsheim, Muntzenheim, Volgelsheim, and Neuf-Brisach—on a ten-dollar bill, which is now framed in our living room.
Needless to say, walking through the same streets as Don and his fellow soldiers, envisioning the battles, really brought Don’s wartime experience to life for us.
Not only did I learn a lot through these personal stories—including literally tracing Don’s steps—but they were gateways for me to do further research and read more about the Holocaust and the many dimensions of World War II.
As time passes and new generations are born and we get further away from World War II and the Holocaust, it is important to find ways to continue to remember and talk about what happened, to read about it and share insights and stories, all to create awareness and a collective determination to never repeat that history.
As publishers and teachers and responsible adults, we also have to work hard to find appropriate and compelling ways for young people to process painful, complicated history. For me—and I believe for many young people—it is personal stories that can help us learn about the past.
Looking back to my time as a young student, I don’t think I was avoiding learning about the atrocities of this period in history. I was endlessly interested. But the resources available to me in the classroom and the way the subject was approached—through textbooks and hard statistics—wasn’t clicking for me, wasn’t engaging me, and wasn’t guiding me to a place of understanding. The personal stories, however, were my entryway.
It is against this background that I and my colleagues are so thrilled and honored to introduce you to Elly Berkovits Gross and to feature her memoir, Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust, as the Book of the Week to give access to as many students as possible.
This is Elly Berkovits, age two, in a photograph taken when she was a small girl growing up in Șimleu Silvaniei, Romania. It is the same photograph that is on the cover of her book, Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust, and is the only photograph of Elly as a child that still exists.
This beautiful and haunting photograph is a testament to what Elly’s life as a child was like before she and her mother and brother were deported to Poland by the Nazis.
When they arrived at the Auschwitz II/Birkenau concentration camp, Elly was separated from her mom and her brother through Dr. Mengele’s horrifying “selection.” Elly would not know until after the war that her mother and baby brother were killed shortly after—Elly recalls that the hope of being reunited with her family was part of the reason she believes she survived.
Today, Elly Berkovits Gross holds a steadfast belief that because she survived the atrocities of the Holocaust when so many—including her mother, father, and brother—did not, it is her responsibility to tell current and future generations of kids the story of what happened to her and her family.
Elly’s survival of her harrowing life experiences during the Holocaust; the fact that she married, had two children, and rebuilt her life in America; and went to school first to learn English and then on to graduate from college, reclaiming her stolen childhood with a profound belief in the power of education, is all a testament to Elly’s powerful determination to survive and help others understand history through her personal story.
Elly has devoted her adult life to visiting schools and speaking with children. And she talks about what happened to her and that period in history in an accessible way that students—especially reticent ones like me—can process and understand.
I wish that I had met Elly and read her books when I was in school as a kid. I think I would have been less overwhelmed and had a much richer and deeper appreciation for learning about the Holocaust. Elly’s memoir is a perfect way to get kids connected to this terrible period in history—through her personal story.
Elly believes she survived the Holocaust because of a “chain of miracles.” She is an incredible person—articulate, charming, enthusiastic, and inspiring. At 92 years old, she is still going strong, still as passionate and committed as ever to share her personal story—and she no longer has to rely on miracles in order to tell it. Nearly 80 years after she was first captured by the Nazis, Elly is helping as many young people as possible to make sense of history.
April 7–8, 2021, is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah), and it is a perfect opportunity to share her critically acclaimed memoir, Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust. It is one of six books that Elly has written. Her memoir also includes photographs, some of Elly’s original poems, a foreword by Elly’s daughter, Agneta Weisz, and an afterword by Elly’s son, Tiberiu A. Gross.
“Powerful, poignant, and moving.” —School Library Journal
In support of Holocaust Remembrance Day, an anonymous benefactor donated 10,000 copies of Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust and asked us to help distribute them to classes around the country. We had such an incredible response to this donation that we knew we had to do more.
And our teams at Scholastic have been so inspired by Elly, her energy, and her passion. Including Traci Swain and Tatiana Florival, who were invited to visit Elly in her home this past week. David Vozar was also inspired to share his feelings after reading Elly’s moving story:
“It was such a powerful experience to have another person’s intimate story imprinted directly on my mind and heart. Following Elly’s seven miracles, which allowed her to survive unfathomable conditions and heartbreaking loss, and overcome horrendous atrocities, makes it a book I will always remember.”
This week on the blog, we’ve created free videos and resources to help you have a difficult but essential conversation with students about Elly’s eyewitness account and the Holocaust.
• The Book Boys speak with Elly in a kid-friendly interview about her life and story.
• Elly sits with us for a Behind the Scenes interview and tells us more about her experiences and why she believes it’s so important to share her story.
• World-renowned literacy expert Pam Allyn of LitWorld moderates a conversation with two Scholastic Book Clubs teachers to discuss the importance of teaching Elly’s story to students in Book Talks.
• You can download a free Holocaust discussion guide and vocabulary sheet in Cooked Up from a Book.
One of the most inspiring aspects of my job at Scholastic Book Clubs is the opportunity to meet some of the world’s most compelling storytellers. It has been a true privilege and a joy to meet Elly Berkovits Gross and to introduce her to you and your students.
I hope you will take this special opportunity to share Elly’s story as a shining example of living history.
As always, I am eager to hear what you think. Please reach out to me directly at email@example.com.