Chance: Escape from the Holocaust by Uri Shulevitz

In Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, a Caldecott-winning illustrator recalls his harrowing wartime childhood.

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust by Uri Shulevitz. Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2020, 327 pages.

Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 8-10

Recommended for: Ages 12-up

Uri was only four on the first day of September, 1939, when “Nazi planes burst into the Warsaw skies.” The first time he and his mother attempted to leave their apartment after that, there was a gaping hole in the middle of the stairway, and only by crawling across is on a plank at every floor could the little boy reach street level. His father had already left Warsaw ahead of the Nazi threat and found a job in Bialystok on the western edge of the USSR. Warned not to go back to Poland, he sent word to his family to join him. By securing a place on a smuggling truck, they got out just in time—the rest of their extended family did not survive the war.

The Soviets were more hospitable, but just barely. Forcibly moved to a settlement on the White Sea, where not even summer warmed the earth, the family nearly starved. Resettlement in Turkestan, after Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with the USSR, wasn’t much better. The end of the war meant getting back home ASAP: the Soviets had saved their lives, but Uri’s parents “had no interest at all to live under the Soviet regime.”

The boy who was four when war broke out was 11 when it ended. Eventually he made his home in New York City and became a Caldecott-winning illustrator. His memoir has a rambling, random feel like a spoken narrative, some memories sharp and sensual, others dim. The story leaves an indelible impression of the cost of war and its lingering effects. His survival seems miraculous, but

Why would divine intervention have saved my parents’ lives when they were not religious? Why then, did my devout grandfather die a miserable death at the hands of the Nazis, when he was a deeply religious man who observed every single commandment of his faith with love and devotion? Why was he not saved by divine intervention?

I have no answers.

And that, dear reader, is why the title of this memoir is Chance. We who believe in Life’s final triumph over death need to remember that we don’t have all the answers, but we do have Life.

Considerations:

  • Shulevitz is clearly an agnostic but his outlook is worth discussing.
  • On one page, he describes his mother dragging him into the public baths at a refugee camp, with an accompanying illustration of several female backsides. Older boys at the camp ask him a suggestive question which he doesn’t understand.

Overall Rating: 3.75 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3
  • Artistic/literary value: 4.5

Also at Redeemed Reader:

Chance or the Dance? takes an opposite view of “chance.” I wrote about that book in a post about poetry.

It Rained Warm Bread is another Holocaust memoir from a survivor who did not escape it. Also, though fictional, What the Night Sings is a beautiful and ultimately optimistic story of hope from tragedy.

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Janie

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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