June 11, 2018

The Promise

Written by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe
Illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal
Second Story Press
32 pp.
Ages 7-10
April 2018

The cover of The Promise is all encompassing. Within that single graphic, the reader knows the darkness and sobriety of a story told in a concentration camp during World War II, an impenetrable bond, and a smidgen of hopeful blue sky. This is The Promise.

When Rachel and Toby's parents are taken away by the Nazis, the two sisters are given three gold coins, hidden in a shoe paste tin, to help save their lives and asked to promise to always stay together. 
"...above all, stay together.  This is how you will both survive." (pg. 5)
From The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illus. by Isabelle Cardinal
When the two girls are taken to Auschwitz, slaving away at mindless work and starved with meagre food rations, they show courage in small acts of heroism and defiance.  But when Rachel falls ill, all is put at risk. Though Toby begs to work double for her sister, she returns to find Rachel gone from their barrack.  Knowing this could mean the worst, Toby uses the gold coins to bribe an inmate acting as guard at the barrack of the sick to allow her access and an opportunity to sneak Rachel out.  However, the next day Rachel's unauthorized return is noted by their Nazi guard who punishes Toby for her actions though, in a miraculous turn, allows Rachel to remain with her sister.
From The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illus. by Isabelle Cardinal
Against all odds, Rachel and Toby, the mothers of authors Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe respectively, honoured their parents by staying together.  Though it was Toby who held onto those coins for years until the time came to use them, both young women showed extraordinary fortitude in everyday acts of courage and endurance such that they were able to survive a camp from which over a million never returned.  Likewise, Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe honour their parents with the retelling of this story, told with admiration and candour. 
From The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illus. by Isabelle Cardinal
To add to the story's power, artist Isabelle Cardinal uses digital collage to blend reality with illustrations.  The horrors she needed to convey–hunger, illness, fear, cold and more–are evoked in the photos of faces but tempered with the sombre drawings of stark colours and textures. The art, like the story, is commanding and yet subtle. 

Based on a true story, The Promise reveals just one significant but uncelebrated act of heroism during a time and place of brutality. It's a story that needs to be recognized and its characters acclaimed for their survival.

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