The Holocaust is not an easy subject to discuss with children – how do you convey the horror without overwhelming them? In To Hope and Back, former psychologist Kathy Kacer introduces the topic to young readers through the true story of the St. Louis, a ship that escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939.
The 937 Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis were destined for America via Cuba. When Cuba, swayed by mounting Nazi influence, denied the ship entry, other countries were asked to save the passengers from having to return to Germany. None were willing to open their ports. The St. Louis was finally allowed to send passengers to Holland, Belgium, England, and France. Tragically, the first two countries later fell to Hitler, and nearly all of those sent there perished.
Kacer’s fictionalized narrative is based on interviews she conducted with two survivors of the actual voyage, Lisa and Sol. Told from their points of view as children, the book recounts what they knew and felt about the events unfolding around them. Their dramatized accounts are interspersed with sections called “What the Captain Knew,” which fill the reader in on salient historical and political points surrounding the ship’s ill-fated journey.
Unfortunately, Kacer fails to translate Lisa and Sol’s adult recollections into voices that are age-appropriate for their childhood representations; their observations are often too sophisticated, rendering them inauthentic. The non-fiction asides also interrupt the flow – the reader knows that the ship won’t be allowed into Cuba before the passengers do, and thus the children’s despair doesn’t resonate as it should.
Despite these flaws, this is a tragic story about an historical event that deserves to be told, and which should provoke thoughtful discussion about a difficult subject.