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The finest children’s book I’ve ever read

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MENDEL Rosenbusch: Tales for Jewish Children, is the finest children’s book I’ve ever read. Though it is expensive, I am sending it to each set of parents of my grandchildren.

It is a beautiful combination of fantasy and instruction. Every moral point a parent would like to teach his child is here; the literary wrapping is entrancing. More on this to come.

That this book exists at all is something of a miracle, and not because of the circumstances under which it was written.

Rather, because of the circumstances under which it was found.

Make that, re-found.

How many adults face the painful task of cleaning out their parents’ living quarters after they die? Ruth Fisher’s mother died in Santiago, Chile, in 1998.

Her son-in-law, Dr. Hans Fisher, writes that he faced the daunting task of sorting through his mother-in-law’s considerable book collection.

Some of the books had come with her when her family had fled Berlin, Germany, to escape the Holocaust.

One book, judging by its condition, he found just in time. Portions of the cover, pages and binding had been devoured by mice, insects or both.

Opening the pages, Dr. Fisher found himself taken back to his own childhood in Breslau.

The charm, insights and moral grounding that had made this book one of his favorites more than a half-century earlier were just as he had remembered.

THE Fishers, who live in New Jersey, were smitten. They sought information about the author and eventually translated the book from German to English, which is now published by Bunim & Bannigan, Ltd.

The Fishers had reason to wonder about the author. Hans, his sister and mother had crossed the Atlantic, then were returned to Europe, on the ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis in 1939. They eventually made it to Havana, then gained entry to the US where the Baron Hirsch Foundation settled them on a poultry farm in Vineland, NJ. Hans became a professor of nutritional biochemistry.

Ruth Hirshberg Fisher, like her husband, was born in Breslau. Because her uncle had emigrated to Santiago, her father was able to get visas for his family. Ruth came to the US in 1950 and became a chamber-music performer.

But what about Ilse Herlinger, the girl who wrote Mendel Rosenbusch: Tales for Jewish Children? We now know that she was born in 1903 in Moravia, a border region alive with Czech, Polish, Jewish and German culture. To the Fischers, however, there was simply no trace of “Ilse Herlinger.”

Then they discovered she had married, and when they traced Ilse Weber they learned that she had entertained and buoyed spirits in Thereisenstadt.

Her son Hanus had been sent to England to live with the daughter of a Swedish diplomat with whom Ilse had corresponded since childhood. Ilse’s husband Willi, who had returned to Europe after catching malaria while pioneering in Palestine, was sent to Thereisenstadt, then Auschwitz, and survived. The same cannot be said for his wife Ilse, or their other son Tommy, who were gassed in 1944. Ilse was 41 years old.

After the war, the sheets of words and music of songs Ilse had composed and sang in Thereisenstadt were dug up from the floor of a shed by Hanus and Willi Weber. They had been hidden by Willi shortly before his own deportation from Thereisenstadt to Auschwitz. (Ilse’s songs are available on CD; see p. 57 of the book.)

WHO is the fictional Mendel Rosenbusch? I will not give away the kabbalistic means by which he came to be able to make himself invisible.

Suffice to say that Else Herlinger Weber plumbed the implications of invisibility for all they are worth.

Imagine, for example, two children having a private pow-wow. If you’re Mendel Rosenbusch, you can hear everything, because you can be there without being seen. You are the proverbial fly on the wall.

You can not only appear to know everything, you can even appear to be able to do everything. Let’s say that a beautiful letter written by a nephew to the aunt who raised him has been hidden away in a drawer. Let’s say that the nephew subsequently becomes an ingrate. If you are Mendel Rosenbusch, you can take the letter — since you invisible, it just seems to float magically in the air, right out the door — and you can place the letter right into the hands of the ingrate nephew.

I will not give away what happens when the nephew rereads the letter he had written to his aunt 10 years earlier.

But you get the idea. Mendel Rosenbusch can know and do many things unavailable to mere mortals, though he himself appears to be a mere mortal to everyone around him.

Mendel has the power to deal effectively with children who lie, with adults who are paralyzed, with kids who goof around in shul.

Hans Fisher says that when he was a kid, he used to read these stories over and over again. I can see why.

IN the Holocaust museum and memorial at Thereisenstadt today, a number of photographs of Ilse Weber are on display. “When the cattle cars came for the children, Else volunteered to accompany them to their unknown destination in the East — Auschwitz,” Hans Fisher concludes his Afterword, “A Voice from the Past.”

“This compassionate and talented young woman had brought grace to a terrible place.”

And now she brings moral instruction, intrigue and smiles to generations of readers whom she could never have imagined.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

 

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