While Writing About a Survivor of the Holocaust, Author Deb Levy Worries About Her Three Young Sons

Bury the Hot is the true story of a boy who hid from Hitler, but could never escape the memories. His friend, writer Deb Levy, completed his book for him. Below, she describes what it was like writing about a child in such a desperate situation while trying to raise three young sons of her own.

“One evening last summer, I strolled with my children toward an outdoor concert in our local park. The path was forested, and I found myself doing what I’d been doing for years already: imagining myself in a different set of woods, clutching my sons’ hands, running, fearful of letting go and losing them in the pitch black. I summoned the cold, the hunger, and Nazis.

While writing a book about the Holocaust, I spent hours on the phone with Sal (pronounced Sol; formerly Szulim), a close family friend who’d hired me to write his memoir. For months, I probed his memory, shook dust off painful recollections, and wakened the dead. In doing so, I found myself constantly comparing and contrasting the sheer normalcy of my life—buying chicken, running a bath—with the details of a time that was anything but.

My children became the perfect frame of reference as I delved into the world of another little boy. I’d stare at my youngest, age 3 at the time, and think, “That’s how old Szulim was when German warplanes first darkened the sky above his house.” I tried to picture my then 6-year-old stumbling over cobblestones—like Szulim at 6, fleeing a Gestapo roundup. I trembled at the thought of kissing my own 10-year-old goodbye before sending him on an orphan train across Europe.

I wrote my sons’ sensory quirks and self-soothing habits into Szulim’s story. When I sought to capture the dismantling of Szulim’s world through the eyes of a child, I stared into the faces of my own. On the playground, at the dentist, everywhere I turned, a little Yiddish boy became the doppelganger to my three. Even worse, I found myself getting angry—quickly, and all too often—at the boys seated around my own kitchen table. Their incessant requests, their refusal to eat a home-cooked meal, their inability to sit still for two minutes—it was driving me mad. Dzietzy i ribi glosi nie mayem! “Children and fish do not have a voice,” I wanted to yell, an old Polish trope about childrearing. But wait a minute. We’re not living in a mid-century shtetl. Besides, what kind of mother doesn’t want to hear her son’s voice?

As it turns out, a scared one. Every day, I sat at the computer and immersed myself in a world where bullies did more than exclude a child from a coveted seat in the cafeteria, where threats weren’t online, but on the street where Szulim, hungry, wearing his yellow star, rolled his hoop in the ghetto’s dirt. If my children can’t sit still during dinner, how will they survive when they have to cower in an attic without moving, while Nazi soldiers patrol the sidewalks below? For 18 days, Szulim and his little brother sat trembling in silence, waiting. There were no iPhones. No snacks. Nothing but fear that each moment might be their last. Could my sons survive this? I knew the answer and it terrified me.

I tell my sons to look both ways before crossing the street; Szulim was instructed to never ever take off his yellow star, to hide from any man wearing shiny boots. Perhaps if my children see a German take his knife to their rebbe’s long beard, they’ll be able to hold still, too. If they, like Szulim decades before, stand frozen on the sidewalk as a Nazi soldier lifts the butt of his rifle and smacks a woman across her face, then tears the infant from her arms and throws it against a wall, my sons may understand the consequence of making noise. I shake myself. My God, I’m going crazy.

As I delved deeper into the horror of Szulim’s experience, I felt confused about my boys’ good life. What kind of survival instincts could they develop in suburban New Jersey? And what kind of a mother was I, meeting their every need and thus diminishing their ability to remain alive if, God forbid, the world turned upside down? I realized I had begun to resent my sons’ naïveté and privilege, and my own as well. Oh, could it be survivors’ guilt?

So I asked Sal a question, different from the others I had been scared to ask. (What did her face look like when she died? Are you able to experience happiness today?) I asked him if he looked upon our frivolity with disdain. Did he feel we should understand that most people live a life of suffering? I braced for his answer.

“No,” he said simply. “Your life is the way life should be.” His reply was a blessing, granting me permission to live a blessed life.

The book is published, but I still find myself almost incessantly in the company of Szulim’s mother. I imagine her fleeing the Gestapo in 1942. I close my eyes with the need to sense her desperation as she hoists a 5-year-old onto her hip and clutches Szulim’s small hand, the three of them stealing into a night with nothing but empty bellies and hope, searching, desperately stumbling towards safe haven. I need to feel the pounding of her heart, the weakening of her legs, the tears that can’t afford to be released. I need to know if I have the strength to fake courage like she did and whisper reassurances to my children. I need to ingest her strength so that I, too, can protect my boys. I need to absorb the physicality of her journey, but I can’t. The enormity is just that. Too enormous.

All I can do is thank God that my kids and I were born into a different time and place. And thank God for this task of telling.”

Deb Levy is a writer who lives with her husband and sons in Montclair, NJ. She grew up in Miami where Sal Wainberg, a dear family friend, lived with his wife and children. Sal died last February, but not before leaving behind his legacy as a witness. 

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