By Hannah Kestenbaum/JNS.org
Many stories trumpet the determination of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, yet in her book “Running from Giants,” Dr. Margareta Ackerman is able to present the story of her grandfather’s survival of the Holocaust in a creative and fresh way. Ackerman creates a hybrid compilation of prose, poetry, and original artwork by Vivien Mildenberger, illustrating her grandfather’s perseverance and ability to survive against the odds.
“Running from Giants” is Ackerman’s recounting of her grandfather’s journey from being a small boy in Poland with a picturesque family to a boy on the run, fighting for survival. Srulik was a 10-year-old boy when he saw his parents and brother murdered by the Nazis. He narrowly escaped the fate of the rest of his family, and lived due to his resourcefulness and the kindness of others. Yet, while the cruel reality of his new life set in, Srulik never gave up and continuously stood his guard against the Nazi forces by putting on a brave face. While in hiding with others, Srulik was discovered by a Nazi. Instead of showing fear or surrendering, Srulik maintained his stance and was able to save himself as well as those who were with him.
According to Ackerman, upon confronting the Nazi, Srulik “sought to communicate through his eyes, to transmit a sense of justice, to express that which is human in the hopes that somehow, the Nazi would do the right thing. Srulik would not lower his stare. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Nazi tore his eyes away from Srulik’s and turned swiftly… .”
Even Srulik’s most difficult memories are peppered with heartwarming experiences. He survived for some time alone in the forest, later to be rescued and brought to his uncle.
“Even many years later, Srulik still recalled that evening with delight,” writes Ackerman. “He had needed it so badly. Having been left alone to wander in the forest, surrounded by enemies and with no one to listen to his pain, this day brought him much-needed healing.” Even though this respite was short, it helped sustain Srulik.
What remains after reading Srulik’s story is the optimism that appears throughout the tale of his unlikely survival, which is the inspiration which led to Ackerman writing this book.
“But against all this pain, suffering and horror stood my grandfather, about five feet tall, deep smile wrinkles surrounding his eyes as he shared yet another one of his jokes,” she writes. “His smile, his laugh, his love for all that is living stood in such sharp contrast to everything I’ve ever learned about the Holocaust that for many years I couldn’t reconcile the two.”
Srulik teaches us that despite the hardships endured in life, there is a way to find humor and fun within the tragic narrative of his early life.
“Grandpa’s eyes lit up as he continued. ‘Oh, oh, you’ve got to hear this. The first thing the Russians did when they met me is send me to the hairdresser’s. My hair went all the way down to my waist and it was full of lice! When I got to the hair salon, a young girl sat me down on a clean chair, put a nice white towel around my shoulders, and was going to start cutting my hair,’” Ackerman writes.
It is not only the feeling of renewed optimism—despite the Holocaust theme—that makes this book unique. The prose is accompanied by illustrations that help encapsulate the words on the page perfectly. Each piece of original artwork deepens the relationship between text and reader. The relationship between the prose, the illustrations, and the poems is presented as a hybrid piece that has roots in the graphic novels “A Contract with God” by Will Eisner and “MAUS” by Art Spiegelman. Ackerman encompasses the idea of an alternative narrative to discuss such heavy material, and does so successfully.
A peer-reviewed study guide accompanies the book. The guide will greatly assist educators in discussing the various topics that arise while teaching about the Holocaust, ranging from anti-Semitism, to bigotry of all types, to even bullying. It will help all readers understand the book and story of the Holocaust more fully.
“Running from Giants” is recommended for anyone looking to add to the Holocaust narrative by showing the resilience of Srulik and his family.
Dr. Margareta Ackerman is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman. She received her Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Waterloo, Canada. She has authored more than a dozen academic publications, including research on applications of traditional Jewish study methodology to the modern classroom.
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.