Teen Author Suzette Sheft Turns Grandmother’s Holocaust Story into Acclaimed Novel

Fri, 01/27/2023 - 12:11pm

Suzette Sheft first recognized the importance of recording family history when it was already too late. As a young child, the New York City student had regularly listened to her father’s stories, but when he died of pancreatic cancer when she was just 13, she realized she was unable to remember many of them.

“When he was alive, he would tell me stories about his life while tucking me in each night, but in the months following his death, I found myself forgetting many of his recollections,” Suzette said.

This realization was the starting point of Suzette’s quest to capture and re-tell the story of her grandmother Inge Eisinger, a Holocaust survivor who escaped Nazi-occupied Austria in the late 1930’s. The result is Running for Shelter, a young adult novel recently published to critical acclaim.

Running for Shelter is based on a series of in-depth interviews Suzette conducted with Inge, along with testimony her grandmother gave to USC Shoah Foundation in 2010 that is now housed in the Visual History Archive (VHA).

“After she shared everything she remembered with me, I turned to the testimony she gave ten years earlier to USC Shoah Foundation,” Suzette said. “[The VHA testimony] helped widen my perspective and uncover other stories and details missed in our conversations.”

Suzette sat down with USC Shoah Foundation to discuss Running for Shelter, the importance of family memory, and how storytelling in historical fiction can often capture attention in ways that history books do not.

We are about to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Does it surprise you that there are still many people around the world who either don’t know that the Holocaust took place or distort facts about it?

This year will mark the 78th anniversary of Auschwitz-Birkenau's liberation. Seventy-eight years have passed since this horrific atrocity, yet we still see remnants in our society today. Antisemitism is rising, and Jewish people are facing hate crimes. It is unfathomable that we can overcome something so horrific yet still have people deny that it even occurred. So, although I would like to say that I am surprised that many people don't know about the Holocaust or distort facts about it, given recent news and personal experience, I would have to say it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Holocaust education in schools is inadequate and does not allow students to grasp the magnitude of these horrific events. Some schools do not even teach about the Holocaust. This fault lies in the American schooling system and is something we must change. Education and awareness are essential to prevent similar atrocities from happening in the future. International Holocaust Remembrance Day serves as an important reminder of the Holocaust. I hope people will take the time to educate themselves on the events in light of this anniversary.

How did Running for Shelter: A True Story come about?

Growing up, wherever I went, my father would take me to local Holocaust museums. I also would read books (almost) exclusively about the Holocaust and World War II. This interest stemmed due to my Omi, my father’s mother, and her stories as a survivor. But it was not until I read a first-person, three-page account that she had written of her escape from Austria that I understood how impactful her story was to me. After I read this essay, I knew I wanted to combine my desire to write with my passion for learning about the Holocaust alongside my family members’ stories.

Although it may be too late to record the stories of ancient genocides with no living survivors, it is not too late to record those of the Holocaust—so I set out to do that. Over multiple days, I interviewed my grandmother about her escape from Vienna, Austria, to Buxières-Les-Mines, France. 

My dad passed away from pancreatic cancer that same year. When he was alive, he would tell me stories about his life while tucking me in each night, but in the months following his death, I found myself forgetting many of his recollections. I wished I could go back in time and record my favorite stories about his childhood. Instead, I had to replay disjointed versions of them in my mind. I regretted that I hadn't taken the time to write these stories down when I had the chance because his death revealed to me the importance of preserving the stories of our loved ones before it is too late. I knew I could not let my father’s story—or any other family story, for that matter—fade away; this realization propelled me to begin capturing my grandmother’s story on paper.

Your grandmother gave testimony to USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive more than a decade ago. How did her testimony shape or influence your writing process?

While interviewing my grandmother about her escape, she first shared elements of her life, including her apartment, family dynamics, and school life. Soon, everything about the time leading up to the war came rushing out of her, beginning with the year before the Germans invaded Austria. I felt like she remembered everything, even the most minor details.

As she spoke, I recorded everything she said in bullet point form, periodically stopping to ask for more detail. At the beginning of each conversation, I would recap what she described the previous day, allowing her to elaborate or clarify the story.

After she shared everything she remembered with me, I turned to the testimony she gave ten years earlier to the USC Shoah Foundation. This video helped widen my perspective and uncover other stories and details missed in our conversations. When watching the interview, I found that she hadn’t told me some of the more harrowing stories. For example, she hadn’t told me about her best friend who had died in a bombing, possibly because it was too difficult to talk about again, but I found this in the Shoah interview. Watching her testimony gave me a deeper understanding. Soon after, I began the process of writing, re-writing, and editing my manuscript.

It seems that barely a day goes by without the media reporting on celebrities with mass followers making antisemitic remarks. How do you experience these?

The Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,717 incidents of antisemitic hate crimes in 2021. And when celebrities like Kanye West post antisemitic remarks on social media, it can spread their hate to a young audience. And now Elon Musk [has] reinstated Kanye West’s Twitter account. The voices of young writers who document the true experiences of the Holocaust must be louder than those that propagate antisemitism. We must all find ways to share the true stories of the Holocaust with my generation to ensure that they never forget them. 

Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities have taken to their social media platforms to counteract the damage done by Ye [Kanye West]. David Schwimmer was one of the first celebrities to publicly condemn his antisemitic comments, writing that “silence is complicity” and urging others to speak out. Jamie Lee Curtis has also been especially active, promptly tweeting about the sadness Ye’s Twitter comment invoked in her and how hate speech is silencing and alienating minority groups. When she was on The Today Show, she asked viewers to speak out against Ye’s conspiracy theories about Jewish people. Sarah Silverman also joined in, questioning why only Jews were standing up against the hate. Jessica Seinfeld started an Instagram post that read, “I support my Jewish friends and the Jewish people.” Amy Schumer reposted the chain on her own platform. John Legend was one of the first non-Jewish celebrities to condemn Kanye, and others soon followed, including the Kardashian-Jenner family and Reese Witherspoon. 

These celebrities’ posts demonstrate the power that social media and celebrities have in spreading misinformation and information.

You started Running for Shelter: A True Story when you were 13. In your introduction, you speak of the need to preserve the memory and legacy of family stories for future generations.  What are some practical ways teenagers can start conversations with loved ones about family history?

They can first ask their parent(s) and their grandparent(s) about their knowledge of their family history, their childhoods, and their ancestors. In my experience, family members are very willing to talk about family history and are thrilled when teenagers express interest.  You don’t need to write a book to learn about your family history. You can simply ask questions because you want to know; it can just be for the love of learning. I am currently teaching a Creative Writing class for elementary school students from the Bronx. I teach them how to interview family members and how to turn these interviews into stories.

For your age group, social media platforms are viewed as reliable sources of news and community building. For example, Tik Tok users spend time on the platform searching for news, connection, and support. In this way, some argue, social media acts like an extended family member for young users.   We also know that these platforms are not neutral spaces. They can be echo chambers of hatred and misinformation. If you could build a social media platform, how would you use it to start and build conversations about family memory, legacy, and history? 

I have started an account on Instagram focusing on my book: @runningforshelter. Although it is new, I have many hopes for how this could be used to build conversations about family, memory, legacy, and history. I would specifically prioritize spreading accurate facts and ideas. The facts shown in social media posts aren’t always correct. However, teenagers—and everyone, really—unfortunately, trust them.

I’m planning to share conversation-starter examples on the platform to inform teenagers about how they can begin conversations about their family history with family members. I feel like it is the same with anything online - you always have to be careful because anyone has the authority to post information so no one can ever be sure how accurate it is. 

While the movie Schindler’s List educated my parents’ generation, today Tik Tok and Instagram can educate Gen-Z and Millennials on the Holocaust. In order to counteract antisemitic conspiracy theories, activists must reach out to younger generations on their social media accounts. This may be our last chance to share these stories in places that will actually reach new generations and work against antisemitic rhetoric. If strong role models can meet young people where they are, they have the potential to reframe their understanding of the Holocaust—and other events like it—so that we can live safe, fulfilling lives where these atrocities never happen again. 

You’ve said elsewhere that historical fiction like Running for Shelter: A True Story resonates with young people more than standard historical textbooks. Why do you think that is?

Personal stories stay with young people longer than a statistic or textbook excerpt. A number can feel impersonal, but a story has a meaning. A list of facts can be easily forgotten, but a personalized narrative will stay with people for much longer. Most of my knowledge about World War II came from hearing family stories and reading YA novels. The dialogue and storytelling in historical fiction captured my attention in ways that history books did not.

When I had the opportunity to record my family stories, I chose to share the reality of what happened to my grandmother with the dramatic tools available in fiction. This narrative method will make the experience of reading Running for Shelter more enjoyable than studying a textbook. If readers enjoy what they are reading, it will resonate with them more.

Your grandmother’s story is harrowing and inspirational. What do you want young readers to take away from her journey and story? What do you want your readers to know about the Holocaust and World War II?

Running for Shelter: A True Story depicts a situation in which the life of a young girl—and those of millions like her—is turned upside down due to antisemitism. I hope that readers work more actively to make this world a place where hatred and prejudice of all sorts are vanquished. I want them to seek out more stories from marginalized people and those with different backgrounds. We all must consider who is being discriminated against in our communities and take steps to support them and share their stories widely. In terms of the Holocaust and World War II, I hope they learn that everyone has a different story and experience. Not every Jew hid in an attic like Anne Frank or died in a gas chamber: some have dramatically different experiences. We must listen to all stories of trauma and loss from that time. We must make sure that my generation never forgets.

How has the process of writing Running for Shelter change you as a person?

Running for Shelter has broadened my horizons as both a writer and person. The process of writing, editing, and publishing taught me to be more patient, persistent, and determined. While I was writing and re-writing, there were many times when I wanted to give up, but I am so glad that I continued to persevere. Running for Shelter has also made me braver. I felt vulnerable when I shared my writing, personal thoughts, and family stories with the world, not knowing how anyone would react. However, forcing myself to do so has only allowed me to grow.

Before I knew my grandmother’s whole story, I took many things for granted. However, after hearing about her heartbreaking experiences, I now have a greater appreciation for the fundamental aspects of life, including seeing my family, having regular meals, and going to a wonderful school. I also feel even closer to my Omi, as she trusted me to share the intimate details of her life. Additionally, this book made me even more passionate about preserving family stories, specifically Holocaust-related ones. I am so thankful that I now have a launching point to help teach future generations about the importance of remembering the past to improve the future.