With Danica Davidson
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Eva and her identical twin sister, Miriam, had a mostly happy childhood. Theirs was the only Jewish family in their small village in the Transylvanian mountains, but they didn't think much of it until anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in their school. Then, in 1944, ten-year-old Eva and her family were deported to Auschwitz. At its gates, Eva and Miriam were separated from their parents and other siblings, selected as subjects for Dr. Mengele's infamous medical experiments.
During the course of the war, Mengele would experiment on 3,000 twins. Only 160 would survive–including Eva and Miriam.
Writing with her friend Danica Davidson, Eva reveals how two young girls were able to survive the unimaginable cruelty of the Nazi regime, while also eventually finding healing and the capacity to forgive. Spare and poignant, I Will Protect You is a vital memoir of survival, loss, and forgiveness.
Trouble at School
The other kids were up to something. My identical twin sister, Miriam, and I watched as boys tiptoed across our one-room schoolhouse with little bird eggs in their hands. Grinning, they laid the eggs on the teacher’s chair as if it were a nest. Then they sneaked back to their seats and sat calmly, like perfect little angels.
None of the forty-four students said anything. It had been a long winter in the Transylvanian mountains, and now the warm spring air blew gently into the classroom. It meant a day of flowers and sunlight, and I couldn’t wait for what was to come. It felt like a day that promised fun and happiness.
Our teacher, Mrs. Margit, was wearing the perfect dress for spring. It was white with soft pink and yellow flowers. My mama loved dressing Miriam and me in matching dresses that she had specially made by a tailor in the city. So I knew a thing or two about clothes. The other girls at school wore long skirts with scarves covering their heads, and the boys wore trousers and shirts.
“Now, class,” Mrs. Margit began, turning to face us and backing into her chair. She hadn’t noticed the eggs, and when she sat on them, they crunched louder than a scream. Mrs. Margit leapt to her feet and looked behind her. What a mess! Our village did not have any electricity or running water, and it would take a lot of scrubbing to get the eggs out of that pretty dress.
A boy pointed his finger like a dagger at Miriam and me. “The dirty Jews did it!” he shouted.
The kids we played with looked at us like we were snakes: maybe dangerous and definitely not human. Miriam and I were the only two Jews in the class, and ours was the only Jewish family in the entire village.
“Did you?” Mrs. Margit demanded angrily, glaring at Miriam and me.
“No, Madame Teacher, no!” we exclaimed. Everyone had seen what really had happened, and I hoped another kid would tell her the truth. They all knew us, Miriam and Eva Mozes, and they knew we wouldn’t be mean to the teacher like that. I looked at my best friend, Luci. Miriam and I helped decorate Luci’s Christmas tree, and she came over to our house to play.
“Yes, they did!” another child shouted. “We saw them!”
Luci looked down and said nothing.
Mrs. Margit ordered Miriam and me to the front of the room, facing the class. She savagely hurled a pile of corn kernels onto the classroom floor. “Kneel!” she commanded.
The kernels were hard and small, and they bit into our bare knees like pebbles with sharp edges. The longer we had to kneel there, the more it hurt. Mrs. Margit forced us to stay there for a whole hour.
While we knelt, the class made faces at us. Even with Miriam there beside me, I felt so alone. Why did everyone hate us?
Our schoolbooks were filled with anti-Jewish ideas. We had a math question during class one day: “If you had five Jews, and you killed three Jews, how many Jews would you have left?” The real answer was two. But the question seemed to suggest “two too many.”
One by one, the other kids turned against us. A girl who used to play a game trying to tell Miriam and me apart started calling us dirty, smelly Jews. A boy who never used to bother us threw us down into the dirt. The more the other kids learned to hate us, the more passionate about their hatred they became.
One night not long before, the whole village had come to the school after class to see a movie. I’d never seen one before, so I was excited. We called it a jumping picture. Standing there with my sisters and parents, we watched images move along the wall. The movie was called something like How to Catch and Kill a Jew.
The movie showed men with guns. Instead of hunting animals for food, these hunters were hunting Jews for sport. A Jewish father and son were running from the hunters. Shots were fired. The hunters dragged away the Jewish bodies. They killed Jewish people simply for being Jewish. The movie was over.
Everyone watching was stunned. But as more anti-Jewish books and movies came out, such images became a common thing to see, and the people got used to this antisemitism. They started to agree with it more. Even the people who didn’t hate Jews, like my friend Luci, wouldn’t raise their voices to help us.
It was 1941. Miriam and I were seven years old. We had no power. And people hated us.
Miriam and I felt so alone. But in a larger sense, we weren’t. Millions of Jews had suffered for about two thousand years because of antisemitism—the hatred, fear, and violence directed toward Jewish people simply because they are Jewish. Antisemitism has taken on different forms over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, Jews were banned from countries like France, Spain, and England. False stories were repeated that Jews murdered Christian children and drank their blood and that Jews poisoned wells to spread the plague. There was no evidence for this, but people believed it. During the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the 1400s, religious rulers believed they were doing holy work by forcing Jews to convert to Christianity and killing or expelling those who refused.
Even in modern times there were pogroms, where people would massacre groups of Jews.
Usually the country’s government was behind it or let it happen. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many people realized that the stories about Jews spreading the plague and drinking blood were superstitious and ignorant beliefs, but the anti-Jewish thoughts morphed into something new. People were putting more faith in science, so antisemites came up with the idea that Jews were naturally evil based on their race. I’m not ignorant for hating Jews, they’d say. I’m being scientific!
To make things worse, a document called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came out in 1903 in Russia and was sold around the world. The book claimed to be proof that powerful Jews were plotting to control the world through evil means. It was probably published by people massacring Jews, as an excuse to murder their neighbors. It was easy to prove that the document was fake and had been copied from earlier documents, including some that had nothing to do with Jews. But for people who wanted an enemy, it was just what they needed. It gave them “evidence” to say that fighting Jews was not only scientific but moral.
My classroom was full of little warriors, ready to do the right thing because they had been told it was the right thing. They grew up in a world where some churches still taught that it was holy to hate Jews. A world where some politicians talked about Jews as if we were the enemy of the people. Like a lot of adults, my classmates never questioned it or thought they should dig a little deeper.
As we had on so many other days after being bullied at school, Miriam and I ran home, crying.
“Mama!” I called, slamming open the door.
“Yes, Eva?” my mama said. “Yes. Calm down.” I couldn’t calm down. It was all so unfair!
Hearing what my classmates and Mrs. Margit had done made Mama cry, too. She held us close, whispering, “Children, I am so sorry. We are Jews, and we just have to take it. There is nothing we can do.”
I always looked to Mama for comfort, but hearing this didn’t soothe me at all. I wanted to march back to school and hurt Mrs. Margit, hurt her the way she’d hurt me. Of course I couldn’t. Mrs. Margit was a grown-up, and grown-ups got away with everything. But then I wondered, Why can’t Mama take a stand?
Papa was out working in the fields of our farm. When he got home, we told him the same story.
“Just say your prayers and ask God to help us,” Papa said. That was his usual response to any problem.
My knees still hurt from the corn kernels. I never wanted to go back to that scary school again! I wished I could learn with my big sisters, Edit and Aliz. They were too old for the village school, so Mama had a tutor live in our house and teach them. Papa said girls didn’t need that much education, but Mama disagreed, and she won. The tutor was Jewish, too, and I’d learned some German words from her.
Even when the world outside was cruel, Mama tried to keep a loving home. She sang us songs and told us stories. She cooked delicious food from our farm and our gardens, and she tried to live by the words of an embroidered message she kept framed in the kitchen. The embroidery said: Your mind is like a garden. Plant flowers so weeds can’t grow.
Although Mama was very gentle, she did tell me the hair-raising story of Little Red Riding Hood. A girl in a rose-red hood went to visit her grandmother in the forest, where it was dark, deep, and so far from home. In the grandmother’s house, an old woman waited for Little Red. An old, strange-looking woman with big eyes and even bigger teeth.
“What big eyes you have,” said Little Red Riding Hood.
“All the better to see you with,” said the grandmother, who was really a wolf in disguise.
“What big hands you have,” said Little Red Riding Hood.
“All the better to hug you with,” said the wolf, his claws ready to attack.
“And what big teeth you have,” said Little Red Riding Hood.
“All the better to eat you with!” And he leapt down and swallowed Little Red Riding Hood whole.
A wolf came near my family’s farm during the winters to attack our livestock, so I already knew to fear wolves. But the scariest part of the story was the wolf’s trick. He fooled the girl into thinking he was her sweet, safe grandmother when he was really a dangerous beast. At times, I felt like Little Red Riding Hood. She could tell something was wrong, but she couldn’t figure it out in time. And look what happened to her.
Trouble at Home
At school I was all wrong because I was Jewish. At home I felt all wrong, too. That was because I was a girl, and Papa would tell me, “You should have been a boy.”
It had to do with Papa’s very strict religious beliefs. Back then only boys could say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Papa wanted a boy who could someday say the Kaddish for him. Papa did not complain that my sisters, Edit, Aliz, and Miriam, were girls. But I was the youngest, and he had hoped his last child would be a boy.
None of us were as religious as Papa, but he made the rules in the household. If a knife fell on the floor, this was a crisis for him because he had to do rituals to make it kosher again. Keeping kosher meant we followed strict Jewish food laws. Papa was also very concerned that we did the right things on the Sabbath, which we called Shabbos. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, we were forbidden to do any work. Papa had us tie our handkerchiefs around our wrists if we needed to wipe our noses because carrying something was considered work.
With Papa being as unchanging as he was, and with me speaking out as much I as did, we didn’t exactly see eye to eye. And I hated being told I was wrong for being a girl! I’d argue with Papa and act out, and that got me in trouble. Sometimes when I misbehaved, he’d drag me into the cellar to sit there and think about what I’d done. The madder I got at him, the madder he got at me.
It didn’t help that he treated my other sisters better. I didn’t see him punishing Edit or Aliz the way he did me. And he loved sweet, quiet Miriam dearly. He’d cuddle her on his lap and tell her stories about Palestine, the Jewish homeland, which was originally called Eretz Israel or Judea. Miriam loved Papa back. It seemed like she could never do anything wrong in his eyes, just like I could never do anything right.
My big sister Edit, who was four years older, would egg me on to bug Papa. That must have been amusing to her. Silly little Eva, getting in trouble with Papa again!
But Edit also would play with Miriam and me, so I liked her. I had a harder time getting along with Aliz. Aliz was two years older and thought Miriam and I were babies. And she was so beautiful. She was the only one of us who didn’t have any freckles and never gained weight, no matter what she ate. This made it easy to envy her. She was very talented at drawing. Whole worlds came to life on the page when she had paper and a pencil.
Mama and Papa had had an arranged marriage, which was common where we lived. Friends of Papa’s had gone looking for a woman for him to marry, and Mama and her family had agreed to it. Papa was very happy with his farm and his prayers, but Mama wanted a more exciting life than living in the country. She was well educated for a woman back then, and she never had a problem that I was a girl.
Sometimes she and Papa argued loudly, and I would hear the scary word divorce. But they always stayed together.
As things got worse outside our home, they got worse inside it, too. Mama and Papa stayed by the radio at night, talking to each other in Yiddish. I didn’t think that was fair because we kids didn’t know Yiddish. It was the secret language of parents, keeping us out.
I could hear some of what was said on the radio, though. I heard the name Adolf Hitler. I heard the word Nazis. The Nazis were a political group in Germany that had come to power. Their leader, Adolf Hitler, wanted to take over Europe. He and his Nazis hated Jews so much that it was a main part of their party’s platform. Some people supported the Nazis because they also hated Jews. Some supported the Nazis because they wanted to improve Germany’s standing in the world, and if antisemitism was part of the politics, so be it. In just a few years since they started their military aggression, the Nazis had taken over Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, and Yugoslavia and invaded the western part of the Soviet Union. And they kept expanding, getting closer and closer to the village of Portz, where we lived. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the made-up document about evil Jewish power, was being taught as true in Nazi classrooms. On the radio I heard Hitler screaming about killing Jews.
I wanted to know what was going on. But I always got the same sort of answer from my parents. “Don’t worry about Hitler—he and his Nazis won’t get this far,” they took turns telling me. “The Nazis won’t come all the way to our village of Portz for a mere six Jews and their tutor. They have more important things to do. We are fine.”
I could see on a map that our Romanian village of Portz was in Hungary, in Eastern Europe. With the Nazis on the move, it didn’t seem far-fetched that they would reach us. It made me very angry that my parents weren’t listening when I kept telling them my fears.
After classmates harassed Miriam and me at school, some older, braver kids decided to harass all of us at home. Teenagers circled our house like wolves, shouting about “dirty Jews.” They threw tomatoes at our house. Sometimes they threw rocks, which shattered the windows into crystal shards.
Then adult villagers joined the teenage boys. But instead of telling the boys to go home, the village grown-ups helped them yell and throw objects.
“Crazy pigs!” they shouted at us.
Sometimes the villagers stayed for days and it wasn’t safe to go outside.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I confronted Papa. “Papa,” I begged. “Please go out and make them stop!”
I felt so much anger inside me, swelling.
“Eva, you are quite a spoiled child!” Papa yelled at me. “You just don’t seem to want to understand.” Then he went back to his usual speech: “We are Jews. We just have to take it.”
“I think we should leave,” I argued. Papa always said I had a big mouth. He didn’t mean it as a good thing. “It’s not safe to stay here.”
Papa shook his head. The look on his face said, What does a child know?
I knew that the walls were closing in on us. And that no one was listening to me.
Fleeing in the Night
“Eva, Miriam, wake up!” Papa called.
I slowly came out of a deep sleep. The whole house was dark. It was before sunrise, and there wasn’t even a candle burning. Mama and Papa stood by the bed that Miriam and I shared. Even if I couldn’t really see their faces in the darkness, I could feel how tense they were. It was the fall of 1943. Miriam and I were nine.
“Get dressed,” Papa said. “Quietly. Put on your warm clothes, your boots. Do not light a candle,” he quickly added because that was what I was about to do. It would be hard to get dressed without light. “Be very, very quiet.”
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“Eva, please, just do as you’re told,” Papa said in a typical Papa response.
Miriam and I got up sleepily, pulled our clothes on, and walked into the kitchen. Our older sisters were already there and dressed. There were no candles lit here, either, but some red embers gleamed faintly in the potbelly stove. It was too dark to see Mama’s embroidery.
“Children,” Papa said, “we are going to try to get over the Romanian border. We have decided the time has come when we must leave. You are to follow us. Make no noise.”
Lately things had gotten worse in Hungary, and not just for Jews. Even though my family spoke Hungarian, I lived in a village of Romanians. It was confusing like this because sometimes my village was part of Hungary, and sometimes it was part of Romania. The leader of Hungary had teamed up with the Nazis, and the Hungarian Army had been taught to hate Romanians the same way it was taught to hate Jews.
A Children's Book Council Teacher Favorite
“Emotional and captivating; this story is a great tool for a younger audience wishing to understand the harsh realities faced by twin children in concentration camps.”—Andrew Aydin, National Book Award winning and #1 New York Times bestselling creator and coauthor of March
- "The gripping story and fast-paced chapters make this a valuable purchase for reluctant readers. In a world where most people who lived the Holocaust are no longer with us, this book is a sincere and truthful reminder of this horrific event." —School Library Journal
- "Powerful… Unflinching in its first-person telling, the narrative is carried by its narrator's passionate conviction, per an afterword, that 'memories will provide the necessary fuel to light the way to hope.'"—Publishers Weekly
- “A compelling story of survival.”—Booklist
- "Bright and compelling, Eva invites young readers to plant flowers of knowledge, love, and acceptance in their own minds. Moving and informative; a powerful resource for Holocaust education."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Few Holocaust survivors have had Eva Mozes Kor’s impact. Together with Danica Davidson, the story of this young girl is narrated in a manner that I would not have thought possible, faithful to the history and yet accessible to young readers. Read this work and meet a person you will never forget with a story that is worth telling and retelling."—Michael Berenbaum, award-winning author; Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish University; and former Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Holocaust Research Institute
- "Danica Davidson has taken Eva Mozes Kor’s story and woven it into a straightforward yet harrowing account of astonishing courage in the face of unspeakable depravity. An important and powerful contribution to the field of Holocaust literature for children."—Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of The Bicycle Spy and The Doll with the Yellow Star
- "I Will Protect You is a well-written memoir, a gripping story of prejudice, hatred, horror and forgiveness. It belongs on every shelf of books for young readers on the Nazi Holocaust and of books attacking racism."—David A. Adler, award-winning author of The Number On My Grandfather's Arm, We Remember The Holocaust, and many other books
- "This riveting eyewitness account of the Nazi horrors, written in a way that a sympathetic young reader can understand, is needed now more than ever, in our present age of growing violence, intolerance and irrational hatred of the Other."—David Small, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Stitches
- "The Holocaust seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl and her twin sister. Harrowing but ultimately redemptive, I Will Protect You is a story of irrational hope and courage."—Mark V Long, NY Times bestselling author The Silence of Our Friends
- "I Will Protect You is one of the best Holocaust memoirs I have ever read (and I have read many). The fact that twin sisters Eva and Miriam survived Dr. Mengele’s cruel and barbaric experiments is nothing short of miraculous. Eva’s fierce determination to live and to ensure her sister’s survival moved me deeply. Her strength, courage, resourcefulness, and intelligence are profound. This book illuminates the human spirit and proves that even in the very worst circumstances, kindness can be found. I am a better person for having read this book."—Lesléa Newman, author Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story
- "How can we best teach our children about the world? This extraordinary story of a Holocaust survivor (one of the infamous Mengele twins), shows both the astounding history that lay the groundwork for the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, as well as being a deeply personal (and page-turning) story of one very brave and determined young Jewish girl caught in its midst. What better way to ensure that our children really are protected from something like this ever happening again—we can protect them with knowledge, understanding, determination, and hope."—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of With or Without You
- On Sale
- Apr 5, 2022
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers