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I Won Against Hitler - The True Story of Irene


"A happy little girl, named Ruth, lived in Warsaw. Her parents, Helena and Dawid, loved her very much, as did her grandmother Fraida, who had a wonderful colorful umbrella."

That is the beginning of I Won Over Hitler a recently published illustrated book about a child's Holocaust experience, written for children. What makes it exceptional is that every word of the book is true.

It's the sensitively told story of Irene Shashar, a toddler in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939, who survived the war thanks to the courage and determination of her mother, and went on to lead a full, rich life. Now living in Modiin, she has retired from her career as a lecturer at the Hebrew University and has two children and seven grandchildren.

She is hoping that her book will be placed on the school curriculum in Israel by the Ministry of Education. It deserves to be.

It's a daunting challenge to write a book for youngsters which explains the appalling events which befell Irene and her family, and yet reads as an ultimately uplifting story and tribute to courage and hope.

Using words that children will not be terrified by, the story treads gently between frightening events and hope for a better future. Small details , such as a potato her mother saved for her, her grandmother's colorful umbrella, her love for her doll and companion Lalechka, and how her mother dyed Irene's hair blond to make her look less Jewish, so that she would be taken in by the nuns in a convent (and how that failed when her hair grew out red, making the nuns suspicious) make it suitable as a story for children, while still being a completely truthful representation of what she suffered.

Irene (born Ruth Lewkowicz) is a vibrant and beautiful woman. What inspired the book was the testimony she gave at the General Assembly of the United Nations on the International Day of Commemoration of Victims of the Holocaust in 2020.

"I stand here today to tell you: Hitler did not win," she said.

She went on to say that she remembered that in the beginning, "some part of me hoped and believed that it was all temporary, a big mistake. That was not the case. It was only the beginning of our suffering." Ending her talk eloquently, she pleaded: "I need your voice because without it, silence is indifference. It is my obligation to the one and a half million children who were not as fortunate as I was to remind people that good can indeed triumph over evil."

Why was the book written? Irene explains, "After the UN talk, my partner Dani Schydlowsky said to me, 'I'm writing your story. What else is left after speaking at the UN? It's time.' And he did."

As told in the book, early on her father was murdered and she and her mother were then on their own, searching daily for food scraps to survive.

"One day, something was different. My mother and I went into a sewer tunnel and she pushed me to move along through the sewer, which passed through the whole ghetto area. All these years later, I can still smell the stench. My only companion was my doll. Even she was not safe in this hell on earth. Then we climbed above ground. To this day, I still wonder how my mother knew how far we had to crawl to get out of the ghetto."

For the remainder of the war, Irene was a hidden child, including a period in a convent. They fled from family to family. While her mother worked, Irene was often hidden in dark closets. Her name was changed to sound less Jewish.

They survived the war and went to France. Her mother was employed as a housekeeper, but could not take care of her and so she was sent to a Jewish orphanage. She visited Irene on Sundays, until one Sunday, she didn't. A further tragedy had occurred: her mother had died of heart failure.

Irene was sent to relatives in Lima, Peru, who treated her lovingly. She recalls studying hard, to be worthy of her new parents. A natural linguist, who speaks five languages and understands several others, she received scholarships to American universities to study languages. On a visit to Israel, she was offered a lectureship at the Hebrew University, where she taught for 40 years.

For years, Irene didn't speak about her experiences, until she was invited by the Ministry of Education to accompany youngsters on the March of the Living to Poland as a witness. After that, she felt an obligation to bear witness and spoke to groups often. The book is the next step in sharing her story.

"I was victorious thanks to my mother's selflessness and courage," she says. "I was blessed with the opportunity to have children and grandchildren. I live in Modiin to be near them and to delight in their growth and success. This is a tribute to my mother."

"Everyone needs to have tolerance for the views of others. I have emerged from the Shoah with hope and courage. Don't, please don't, let my dream, my mother's triumph, go for naught. Life is a gift. Hitler did not win."



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Sunday, 16 June 2024

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