In 1989, all Martin Lemelman wanted to do was record his mother’s Holocaust experiences for future generations.
Seventeen years later, that video project evolved into a book which is now regarded as a unique contribution to Holocaust Literature and a weapon against anti-Semites.
All he wanted to do was capture her story, in her own words, to pass on to his four children. As he was growing up, his mother, Gusta, spoke little about her harrowing story of survival in Poland. What eventually resulted was the critically acclaimed Mendel’s Daughter, published in 2006.
The Kutztown University professor emeritus will recount his mother’s experiences Tuesday, Feb. 23 at noon in Penn State Harrisburg’s Olmsted Building Gallery Lounge. Lemelman’s lecture is free and open to the public and is an installment of the year-long series of programs hosted by the college’s Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies. For information, phone 717-948-6039.
A former professor of communication design who also illustrated Mendel’s Daughter, Lemelman says, “My mother never knew I would create a written record of her survival. What she wanted, more importantly, was that I pass on her story to my children. When I began Mendel’s Daughter, that was also my motivation. My goal was not to have her story published, but to create a clear and logical record of her journey that my children would want to read. I think she would be flabbergasted if she knew that her story would be read by strangers.”
He adds, “It wasn’t until 1989 that I truly understood the miracle of her survival. When I returned to the tape in 2003, I cried.” Following her death, Lemelman began the task of creating Mendel’s Daughter by transcribing the story in Gusta’s own words and illustrating the volume with pencil drawings, family photos, and handwritten text.
“While I’ve always known that my mother survived the Holocaust, she rarely spoke about it. The story on pages 75 to 79 was one she told a number of times. It was because of my familiarity with this story, of her beating by the Nazi soldier and escape of her brother Isia, that I illustrated it first. She also spoke a little about her experiences hiding in the forest with her sister and two brothers, who survived the Holocaust.”
In reviewing the book, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School Alan Dershowitz writes, "At a time when Holocaust denial is becoming an increasingly virulent weapon in the hands anti-Semites, this poignant, evocative, visual, and accessible day-to-day account of one family’s walk through the valley of the shadow of death is a powerful counter-weapon. It should be read by young and old and passed and passed on from generation to generation. As memories fade, survivors die, and haters try to sow doubt.”
Lemelman grew up in Brooklyn and has been a freelance illustrator since 1979. His client list includes Groliers, Children’s Television Workshop, Scholastic, Parent’s Magazine Press, Crayola, and the Jewish Publication Society.