HOW A TOY AND A HERO SAVED LIVES DURING THE HOLOCAUST
By Elisa Boxer
Illustrator Amy June Bates
Picture Book, Nonfiction, 2023
Abrams Books for Young Readers
World War II, France, Resistance
That attractive teenage girl on the cover is clutching a wooden duck toy. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? It certainly seemed so to me, especially in times of the utmost suspicions and inspections: during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. But Jacqueline Gauthier’s story, her assumed name, and false professional identity made the toy duck more plausible.
In this lesser-known story of Holocaust resistance, the opening pages reveal the harsh truth of search, capture, and arrests of French Jews through compelling short lines and full-spread illustrations on shadow-toned matte pages. Both the text and scenes convey the threats, emotions, and stress of living in those days. Readers are several pages inTo this well-anchored account, experiencing that time and space, before reading the words “toy duck” or resistance network. Or the name of this historic figure. In fact, that is not her real name.
She was, in fact, Judith Geller. Her false name, counterfeit paperwork, and instance that she was a caring French citizen, not Jewish, allowed her to take a job as a “social worker”, of sorts, even though a teen. She was serving families with young children during a crushing poverty and restrictions. After the Germans invaded her homeland, the French government quickly dropped their defenses and cooperated with the Nazi demands, including turning over French citizens, men, women, and children who happened to be Jewish. This is despite France’s political history of being the first and longest-lasting country in Europe to guarantee everyone of every background equality, brotherhood, and freedom. That included Jews.
Jacqueline/Judith biked countless kilometers throughout the streets and roadways within and around Paris, using the toy duck (and its’ secret compartment) to smuggle false papers to hidden Jewish people of many ages. She even led some groups across the mountains to the south of France for safety in Spain. Incidents describe how she was stopped and searched, but returned to more of her dangerous work. That included pasting VIVE LA FRANCE posters across Swastika signs throughout the city. She saved members of her own family, total strangers, and her own life.
Jacqueline/Judith’s story is revealed in even greater detail in an author’s note and the illustrator’s note, and I devoured those details. Even so, the lyrical, breathtaking narrative and wrenching images told her story with even more power. That bike she rode, that mission she followed, those shoulders and head pushing ever forward revealed her race against death as she pedaled every single day, with little or no sleep, and surrounded by constant risk of discovery.
That toy duck with the hidden hollow for life-saving documents is now displayed at the Holocaust (Shoah) museum in Israel, where Judith and her story are also honored. This outstanding nonfiction picture book profile will help readers of other generations vicariously experience the impact of one person’s courage and determination on lives and the generations that followed.
A quote by Judith Geller closes the artist’s note and poses a current challenge:
“Today you will certainly find it foolish to risk your life.
But at that time, everything, every little rebellion was important.”