It’s been nearly 75 years since the Holocaust ended, but it was what happened in the three-year period that followed that inspired a young lady from New York City to write a book.
Illustrator and author, Vesper Stamper first started working on her young adult novel, “What the Night Sings”, as part of a grad school project while she was getting her master’s degree in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in NYC.
Born in Germany and raised in a Jewish household, Stamper said she and her family never really talked about the persecution of Jews, Israel, the Holocaust or why her step-father’s family came to the United States.
One night as she and her family were watching one of her favorite musicals, Fiddler on the Roof, she was suddenly compelled to find out more about that time period. She turned to the Internet and came upon a documentary about the period between the end of the Holocaust (1945) and the founding of the modern state of Israel (1948). She was fascinated by the stories.
“The fact that survivors, after losing everyone they loved, made the seemingly illogical decision to get married and bring new children into the world--this seemed to me the absolute bravest act I had ever heard of...a fire rose up in me to tell this story,” she stated in her author’s note.
The 2015 shootings at Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris fueled that fire. “Illustrators and Jews (were killed). I felt that. And here I was working on this book, it felt so urgent to me,” said Stamper, during a presentation at the Germantown Hills Branch of the Illinois Prairie District Public Library last Thursday evening, November 7.
“We started to see the veil being pulled back on this explosive growth of anti-Semitism worldwide. It wasn’t just a right wing, white supremist expression...it’s everywhere.”
Stamper’s presentation included more stories and a slide show of pictures of anti-Semitism here in the United States. “Every single week in Brooklyn, New York, Jews are beaten on the street. This is not talked about on the news,” said Stamper.
In her research, Stamper discovered that every 70 to 100 years there is a major persecution of the Jews, and it has happened that way, like clockwork, for the last 2,000 years.
“It has not stopped, and it always, always signals a culture that’s in decline,” said Stamper. “It’s a symptom of a deeper cultural sickness.”
Recent studies show that, despite our education, books and movies, almost a quarter of millennials don’t know what the Holocaust was, or that six million Jews were killed during that time. The same study showed that half of the U.S. adults couldn’t identify Auschwitz.
Stamper said seeing those statistics was quite chilling.
“I think we are forgetting, and I think in a lot of ways, we have forgotten, and I think that maybe all the books and the movies that we’re taking in become nothing more to us than a good thriller. We don’t think this happens to real people...because we think we’ve evolved. Anyone who tells you that we don’t need to keep looking at the past because we’ve evolved beyond it, is literally a fool.”
History, Stamper said, is the story of human beings making choices. She said the Holocaust happened on the scale it did because people made expedient decisions about their neighbors, or they went along with the belief that their neighbors were in a different group than they were, and the two groups were opposed.
“Your neighbor is really anybody whose path intersects with yours,” said Stamper. “We don’t get to choose that, but we do get to choose the kind of people that we are going to be.”
This is one lesson she hoped to drive home to the seventh and eighth grade students at Germantown Hills Middle School while she talked to them earlier that day.
“What the Night Sings” is a work of historical fiction filled with thought provoking words and illustrations. It follows the story of two teenage Holocaust survivors and the unspeakable horror they went through, and how they managed to rebuild their lives. It also is about acceptance and love.
“It’s not just the story of a genocide, but it’s the story of what happens after...what happens when people have to pick up the pieces, and how people who are very different from each other can come together and learn to not just help each other, but even maybe to love each other,” explained Stamper.
“What the Night Sings” has won the Sydney Taylor Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award, among many other accolades. It is available online and at bookstores. You can also pick up a copy at the Illinois Prairie District Public Library.
Stamper is currently working on writing and illustrating her next book, due out next year.
Read more about Stamper on her website at www.vesperillustration.com.