In their new children’s book The Promise, Canadian publisher Margie Wolfe and her cousin, Israeli radio host and journalist Pnina Bat Zvi, have written about their mothers, sisters Toby and Rachel.
The Promise (Second Story Press) tells the story of a group of young prisoners, focusing on two devoted and courageous sisters as they confront the daily horrors in Auschwitz. The project took the co-authors two years to complete and will be translated into seven languages around the world.
The Promise begins on the night of Oct. 27, 1942, when the girls’ parents are taken away by the Nazis.
“My grandparents felt that the only way they would survive would be if they stayed together, so they actually made my mother [Toby] promise that she would do everything that she could to ensure that they always did.
“The last thing they did before being taken away to Treblinka was give their daughters three gold coins. They said don’t use these frivolously. Only use them for something important, and guard them,” said Wolfe.
Toby and Rachel buried the gold coins in a shoe paste tin tucked away in a hidden pocket in Toby’s dress. When Rachel became ill and was taken away by Nazi guards, likely forever, Toby risked her own life and used the well-hidden gold coins to rescue her little sister.
“It really did save them at the end because there was no other way my mother could have saved my aunt,” said Wolfe.
“The story was always part of my life. I heard it in different versions according to my age. I would say that when I was about five years old my mom told me for the first time how her sister saved her life,” said Bat Zvi.
The illustrations in the picture book were made in disproportion between big heads and smaller bodies.
“We wanted something that didn’t devalue the integrity of the content of the story. My mother was a little more than a year older than Rachel. She was very protective from the time they were together. She absolutely felt responsible for my aunt in Auschwitz, as she did her entire life,” said Wolfe.
Toby and Rachel grew up in a small Polish town of Wyezmnik, in a Hasidic family. Their father, Yehuda, was a Talmud scholar. For a living, he repaired cooking pots. Their mother Bayla was a housewife. Toby and Rachel studied in the mornings in a public school and afternoons at a Jewish school for girls. Toby is described as rebellious, curious, witty, and brave; Rachel quiet, calm, and smart. Both sisters were funny and generous.
“The Promise is about bravery, about fighting for freedom and hope. As Toby says to Rachel in the book, ‘But one thing I know. This insanity can’t last forever. What we must do is survive until this war ends’”, said Bat Zvi.
The sisters were released from Bergen Belsen by British troops on April 18, 1945, and they moved to a nearby DP camp where they got married to two cousins.
“My parents moved to Palestine in 1947 and the Wolfes immigrated to Canada,” said Bat Zvi.
The sisters reunited in 1960.
“I was 10 years old, but I remember it very clearly. My aunt had been kind of a mythical character for us. It was an amazing moment when they came together. Even as a 10-year-old, I understood the importance of what was happening,” said Wolfe.
Toby died in 1995, and Rachel in 2012.
“My mom told me that in the Shoah she never pushed herself to the head of the line because no one had a clue where the line was leading to. She didn’t push her destiny, while her sister took risks. Once, Toby noticed a half-opened door of the barrack next to theirs. She sneaked in and saw piles of colourful dresses. Quickly she put on one dress on top of the other, more and more and more. When returning to the sisters’ barrack, she asked cheerfully of the girls, “Who wants a dress?” and quickly took off one dress after the other and handed it over to her friends. At Toby’s shivah two women who we did not know came to tell the family that they had been recipients of those dresses all those years ago.
“I understood that their heroic story was now in our hands – the second generation to the Holocaust survivors. We wanted to share it with children around the world,” Bat Zvi said.