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The Girl Who Sang: A Holocaust Memoir of Hope and Survival

Authored by Estelle Nadel
Illustrated by Sammy Savos
Published by Roaring Brook Press

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The Girl Who Sang is an extraordinary collaboration between Holocaust survivor Estelle Nadel and graphic novelist Sammy Savos which movingly tells the story of Nadel’s childhood as the youngest of five Jewish siblings growing up in rural Poland during the Second World War.

The rich abundance of Holocaust memoirs never seems to detract from the individual power of each new story that is published, and Nadel’s is no exception to this. Nadel begins by describing her life pre-war (when her name was Enia) in an observant Jewish family, for instance making matzah and washing at the public showers before Shabbat. All this changes when the Nazis invade Poland: Enia’s father and two oldest siblings are all murdered at Auschwitz, while Enia, her mother and her two surviving brothers are able to hide in a Polish family’s loft. Then her mother is caught, leaving the three siblings to fend for themselves.

The book’s subtitle reminds us that this is a story of ‘hope and survival’ but Enia and her brothers’ survival is never sugar-coated. As in so many other testimonies, we are reminded of how improbable anyone’s survival was, and of the huge hardships and sacrifices involved. Nor are characters always presented as wholly good or bad. While Enia’s brothers often protect her, at times they put their own survival first, which she finds painful. Likewise, we are shown examples of good Polish families who agree to hide Enia and her relatives at great personal cost, but sometimes members of the same family are determined to betray any Jews they encounter. Even Enia and her brothers’ eventual arrival in New York after the war is not sentimentalised, as Enia must cope with further separation from her brothers as she is adopted by an American couple. The motif of song is used to represent Enia’s unconquerable spirit, but we are never left in any doubt of the lifelong impact of her childhood suffering.

So, Enia’s story is already a powerful one, but Sammy Savos’s illustration adds another crucial dimension by allowing us to see – to bear witness – to Enia’s experiences. Rather like in Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson’s When Stars Are Scattered, the graphic novel form adds another layer of immediacy and authenticity to the book. The excellent afterword reveals how painstakingly Savos has modelled her drawings on the real people and places Enia encountered (as well as providing some fascinating insights into Savos’s artistic processes), but Savos also uses the design of the book to maximise its power. After opening with a brief glimpse of Enia in hiding in 1942, the story reverts to 1939, and we see Enia chasing a cat across fields in a full-bleed double-page spread with a deep blue sky. As war starts to encroach on Enia’s childhood, the panels start to contract and the colour palette becomes duller; a black gutter is used for the first spread that shows the events taking place elsewhere in Poland. Sometimes, text appears against a blank black or white space, for instance ‘And I thought we would be this happy forever’ or ‘We never saw them again.’ And there are some stunning pages where Savos assembles a selection of Enia’s memories within thought bubbles, for instance after the death of her mother.

Another benefit of the graphic novel form is, of course, its accessibility to some readers who may be less engaged by longer prose accounts, and there are many potential uses of this book as part of the English or History curriculum; it would also be an excellent independent read for younger secondary or mature older primary pupils. In the afterword, Nadel reminds us that ‘someday there will no longer be any Holocaust survivors still living’. What a precious gift, therefore, to have Nadel’s testimony set down in a way that allows younger generations not just to hear but to experience the reality of her story.