Like many grandchildren of survivors, 16-year-old Suzette Schifft grew up hearing the harrowing stories of her grandmother’s life during the Holocaust – Nazis kicking at her door, tormenting separation from her mother in Vienna, years of fear and turmoil, staying one step ahead before arrest and deportation to a concentration camp . In the face of rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia, Sheft, a high school student in New York City, was determined to share her grandmother’s story with the world — in particular, with people her age — to make sure that individual stories of Jewish suffering are not lost in history.
When she was a sophomore, she began a series of in-depth interviews with her grandmother, Inge Isinger. She then took these notes and wrote her grandmother’s story in the form of a young adult novel, a format specifically available to her peer group, which is now being published by Amsterdam Press in November: RUNNING FOR SHELTER: A TRUE STORY. The book evokes what it felt like to live a young man during this horrific time: horror, confusion, and world-shattering loss.
Here’s a Q&A with Suzette Sheft.
You were only 13 years old when I started this book. What inspired you to write it?
After hearing my grandmother’s Holocaust stories for years, I decided I needed to portray them on paper. Then, while doing further research, I came across a survey conducted in 2020 by the Claims Conference on Generation Z students’ knowledge of the Holocaust. It revealed a rise in anti-Semitism and a decline in awareness of history. A huge number of young people know almost nothing about the Holocaust. The traditional ways of sharing this history did not reach young people. This realization sparked an even greater urgency to share my grandmother’s story.
Why did you decide to tell your grandmother’s story in the form of a YA novel rather than non-fiction?
Personal stories stay with young people longer than just a single statistic or excerpt from a textbook they might read at school. I gained minimal ideas about World War II from classroom lessons, so most of my knowledge came from hearing family stories and reading YA novels. The dialogue and storytelling of historical fiction has captured my attention in ways that history books have not. When I had the opportunity to record my family’s stories, I chose to share the truth of what happened to my grandmother through the dramatic tools available in fiction. I hope books like mine will become part of the public school curriculum and reach students in ways that textbooks don’t.
What process did you do to jot down your grandmother’s stories on paper?
A few summers ago, I spent a week with my grandmother and interviewed her every day about her escape from Austria to France. She initially shared elements of her life, including her apartment, family dynamics, and school life. Soon everything about the run-up to the war was rushing back, starting with the year before the Germans invaded Austria. She felt like she remembered everything, even the smallest details and anecdotes. As she spoke, I recorded everything she said in bulleted form, stopping periodically to ask for more details. At the beginning of each conversation, I would summarize what she had described the day before, allowing her to elaborate or clarify the story.
I also saw an interview she gave ten years ago with the USC Shoah Foundation. This video helped me broaden my perspective and reveal stories and other details that our conversation missed. Soon, I began the process of writing, rewriting, and editing my manuscript. During that time, I called her often to ask specific questions or for more stories, and she was always happily committed to that.
When your grandmother read the finished manuscript, what was her reaction? Was it difficult for her to read a picture of this tragic part of her life?
After reading the manuscript, my grandmother said she was amazed by the way she recreated the story of her escape from the Nazis. She said she was grateful that I reminded her of her past and immortalized her story. She noted that although it brought back difficult memories, it shows just how far she’s come. Plus, remind her how grateful she is to live in a country without war alongside a wonderful family.
Your father died of pancreatic cancer when you were 13 years old. How did that loss affect this project?
My dad used to tell me stories about his life while he’d caress me every night. However, during the months after his death, I could only try to connect the mismatched puzzle pieces in my memories of his stories. I fantasized about rewind time so I could go back and record my favorite stories from his childhood. I wish I had taken the time to write it when I had the opportunity. In this sense, my father’s death revealed to me the importance of preserving the stories of our loved ones before it was too late.
What do you hope readers will come up with after reading RUNNING FOR SHELTER?
Running for Shelter depicts a situation in which a young girl’s life – and the lives of millions like her – are turned upside down by anti-Semitism. I hope readers will work more actively to make this world a place where hatred and prejudice of all kinds are defeated. I want them to look for more stories from marginalized people and with different backgrounds than theirs. It is very important that we all think about people who are discriminated against in our communities and take steps to support them and share their stories widely.