Suzette Sheft (11) tells family’s Holocaust story in new book


Image from the MD library who just received 40 copies of the book 

Lucy Peck, Staff Writer

Suzette Sheft (11) published “Running for Shelter: A True Story” last week, a 180-page novel that recounts the experience of her Jewish grandmother, Inge Eisinger, during the Holocaust.

Beginning in the late 1930’s, the book follows  nine-year-old Inge Eisinger as her family is forced to flee Vienna at the onset of World War II. Eisinger narrowly escapes to Switzerland, then Paris, and finally the South of France. Young Eisinger had no idea why she was hiding from the Nazis; she only knew that she had to remain undiscovered to stay alive and protect her family. 

Sheft began to write the novel when she was 13. Her grandmother had shared her experiences for many years, but she didn’t grasp their importance until her father passed away from pancreatic cancer. He had told her stories each night, but in the months after his passing, she realized that she had forgotten some of them, she said. “I fantasized about recording [his] stories, but I knew I couldn’t anymore because I had never taken the time to write them down,” Sheft said. “I wanted to do that with my grandmother’s story, to immortalize her story before it was too late.”

Sheft worked tirelessly on the novel, starting by interviewing her grandmother for a week during the summer between seventh and eighth grade. The interviews started with broad questions about Eisinger’s life, family dynamics, school, and other background information. To make sure that no information was missed, Sheft asked questions in chronological order, starting with childhood and working her way up to the present day, she said. 

Exhilarated by a weeks’ worth of successful interviews, Sheft started writing the first scene of the book. This scene opened with Eisinger on the train to Switzerland, her head resting on the window with her tears staining the glass, Sheft said. She ended up completely reworking this scene later in the writing process because she found it cliché and wanted to start the novel earlier in her grandmother’s life.  

Over the next three years, Sheft wrote the novel whenever she could, mostly during the summer, weekends, and over holiday breaks. When the pandemic hit, Sheft used her free time to write. 

Sheft faced numerous challenges while writing the novel. A big one was how to balance staying true to her grandmother’s story and knowing when to embellish, she said. “99% of this story is completely true,” Sheft said. “But there are moments when I had to fictionalize things — like if I didn’t know what the train station my grandmother was in looked like, I would have to do research about that and fictionalize it.” 

Sheft also struggled with self-editing and wanted to give up during the process.. “It’s difficult to pick apart your own work,” she said. “But I think as time went on, and I saw how helpful it was to my book, I became more appreciative of the editing process.”

Sheft often consulted her grandmother as she wrote, she said. She conducted in-person interviews, asked questions over the phone, and sent drafts to Eisinger, seeking approval or potential revisions, Sheft said. “When I sent her the drafts, I would ask her ‘is there anything you want to change?’ ‘Is there anything you don’t like?’ ‘Anything that doesn’t seem accurate?’” 

These conversations allowed Sheft to develop newfound empathy for her grandmother. “When I was younger, I really had no idea how hard it was for her, how little she had, and how much she had to work for everything,” she said. Sheft remembers her shock when she learned that, after fleeing Vienna, Eisinger was forced to finish school at the age of 12 so that she could provide for her own sick grandmother. “After learning that, I have a new understanding of my grandmother and how incredibly strong and amazing and resilient she is.”

Going into the writing process, Sheft knew about World War II because she felt a connection to it as a Jew with family who survived the Holocaust, she said. To expand her knowledge base, she researched specific places and events in the war, such as Germany’s surrender and Kristallnacht at the start to make the book as accurate as possible. “I also researched details, like what the cities looked like and what people were wearing in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe,” Sheft said.

By the start of ninth grade, Sheft had completed her first draft and began sending query letters to publishers, where she asked publishers if they would be interested in working with her, she said. Sheft ultimately chose Amsterdam Publishers because of their frequent work with literature on the Holocaust, she said. After settling on her publisher, Sheft worked with Liesbeth Heenk to edit the draft she had completed, pointing out places where she could show instead of tell.

Around this time, Sheft submitted multiple excerpts of her novel to the Scholastic Writing Awards. She won a regional silver key award for one scene where Eisinger played a game with her peers at boarding school in which they chose one “queen,” who everyone else would protect, and one “torturer,” whose job was to fight the others. The kids selected Eisinger to be the torturer since she looked different from them, with vibrant red hair and green eyes. Sheft then drew a comparison between the behavior of the students and that of the Nazis, as both groups placed people who appeared differently from themselves into dehumanizing roles, she said.

The award motivated Sheft to keep writing because it showed her that others found her work to be meaningful, she said. “The external praise gave me a boost of confidence when releasing it to the world because at first, I was scared about how it would be perceived,” she said. “I was worried that my writing wasn’t good or that it wouldn’t be as good as other professional authors’ books.”

Once Sheft had a polished draft, Amsterdam Publishers assigned her an editor to fact check everything referenced, she said. Sheft then selected some photos of her grandmother to be featured at the end of the book, the cover image, the synopsis on the back cover, and her author’s bio.

Finally, on November 9, Sheft released her novel to the public on Amazon. “It’s very surreal. I don’t think that I’ve fully processed it yet,” she said. “I’m really happy that my grandmother’s story is out in the world, and I’m very proud that she had enough bravery to share that story with me because it is very personal.”

Sheft’s novel immediately received large amounts of traction at the Middle Division (MD) library, MD Library Department Chair Rachael Ricker, said. “I ordered 40 copies of the book and by the time I walked from Gross Theater to the reading room, there was a huge swarm of students,” she said. “They grabbed all of the copies of the book. I already have a list of 100 students who want a copy.”

Freya Riebling (8) just finished reading Sheft’s novel and finds the book accessible for young adult audiences, she said. Featuring a young protagonist makes the book an optimal resource for teaching young adults about the Holocaust, Riebling said. “You can really relate to the main character because she’s our age, so the reader can feel her emotions.”

Reflecting on the process, Sheft said her motivation to continue writing came from the disturbing amount of antisemitism present in the world today. “I kept thinking about how other young teens reading it will want to work more actively to make our world a place where hatred and prejudice against all sorts of people are vanquished.”

Sheft hopes to influence readers to seek out stories from marginalized people or from people with different backgrounds than them, she said. “It’s important that we consider all people who are being discriminated against in our communities and take steps to support them and to record their stories and to share them widely.” 

Recording Holocaust stories is particularly important now because of the dwindling number of living Holocaust survivors, she said. “I hope that more people seek steps to record the stories of Holocaust survivors in our community and also just to listen to Holocaust survivors speak,” she said. “We are one of the last generations who have the opportunity to do that.”