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Mendel's Daughter

A Memoir

About The Book

In 1989 Martin Lemelman videotaped his mother, Gusta, as she opened up about her childhood in 1930s Poland and her eventual escape from Nazi persecution. Mendel's Daughter, now in paperback and selected as one of the best books of 2006 by the Austin Chronicle, is Lemelman's loving transcription of his mother's harrowing testimony, bringing her narrative to life with his own powerful black-and-white drawings, interspersed with reproductions of actual photographs, documents and other relics from that era. The result is a wholly original, authentic and moving account of hope and survival in a time of despair.

Gusta's story opens with a portrait of shtetl life, filled with homey images that evoke the richness of food and flowers, of family and friends and of Jewish tradition. Soon, however, Gusta's girlhood is cut short as her family experiences Hitler's rise, rumors of war, invasion, occupation, round-ups and pogroms, forcing Gusta into flight and hiding.

Mendel's Daughter is Martin Lemelman's solemn and stirring testament to his mother's bravery and a celebration of her perseverance. The devastatingly simple power of a mother's words and a son's illustrations combine to create a work that is both intensely personal and universally resonant. Mendel's Daughter combines an unforgettable true story with elegant, haunting illustrations to shed new light on one of history's darkest periods.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
Mendel's Daughter
by Martin Lemelman

Mendel's Daughter is a powerful true story of hope and survival in the darkest of times. Told from the perspective of the author's mother, Gusta, Mendel's Daughter details the experiences of growing up as a Jewish child in 1930's Poland. It opens with a picture of shtetl (village) life, filled with homey images that bring to life the richness of foods and flowers, of family and friends and Jewish tradition.
The book then transitions into darker times as Gusta and her family are witness to the rise of Hitler, instability in Europe, rumors of war, invasion, occupation, roundups and pogroms. When the Nazis come to round up her family, Gusta and two of her brothers, and later a younger sister, are already hiding in a forest in Poland. Her parents and her other siblings perish, but for two years Gusta and her remaining siblings hide in grave-like trenches in the forest and thereby survive.
Martin Lemelman employs video testimony that his mother recorded in 1989 as the basis for writing his family memoir. Thus, Gusta's harrowing tale is told in her own voice, while her son's beautiful drawings serve as illustrations. Interspersed with the drawings are actual photos of people, documents, and other relics of this unsettled time. The result is a wholly original, authentic, and moving account of heroism and endurance in the midst of tragedy.

Discussion Questions
  1. "Seichel" is the Yiddish word for sense. Discuss how Gusta defines sense and the role that it played in her life. Think about sense in terms of other characters as well, including Gusta's father, her brothers, and her cousin Chantze.

  2. Gusta says to Martin "Sometimes your MEMORIES are not your OWN" (p. 4). Explore the concept of memory for Gusta and other Holocaust survivors. Also, discuss how this idea of common remembrance and shared history relates to Martin telling his mother's story.

  3. Many of the illustrations include images of hands. Did you notice other recurring images or themes in Mendel's Daughter? Discuss their symbolism.

  4. How does Gusta's parents' perception of the role of children differ from our contemporary American ideas?

  5. Why do you think Gusta thought about saving her father and not her mother (page 104)?

  6. Page 131 opens with an illustration of a tree stump and the sentence: "And so that was the story of how they killed our family." And throughout the book, Gusta calls out full names and familial relationships. Think about the significance of a family tree during the Holocaust. Does it become more important because of the loss of so many family members?

  7. On page 146 the "graves," their hiding places, changed. Why?

  8. Gusta's voice is accentuated through Yiddish expressions and her immigrant vernacular. Did Martin's use of language bring you deeper into his mother's world, or did you find it distracting?

  9. On page 217 Gusta's family members list their fates during the Holocaust. Each one starts by saying: "Yes, this happened to me." What is the significance of this opening? Is this the first time that Martin emphasizes the truth of this story?

  10. Discuss the relevance of the closing quote from the Passover Hagaddah: "In every generation, one must look upon himself, as if he personally came out of Egypt" (p. 218). Do you feel this sentiment is prevalent in today's society?

  11. There are moments of unspeakable sorrow and surprising joy throughout Gusta's story. What stood out for you the most? What, if anything, did you find yourself thinking about days after you finished the book?

  12. Go through the book looking only at Martin's illustrations. How effective are they in relating his mother's experiences? Are they more powerful without the words? Or, does something in the words capture the emotion more clearly?

  13. Gusta is very successful at showing the painful, slow process of the Holocaust's impact on her family. Trace this agonizing course of anti-Semitism, inhumane treatment, and reversion of rights. What do you imagine was the hardest part?

  14. "If only we go to America" (p. 25). Gusta talks about her mother's refusal to go to America when the family had the opportunity. Knowing what happened, this seems like such a devastating missed opportunity. How do you imagine the family reconciled this choice? Do you see any of that reflected in the rest of her story?

  15. Luck, superstition, and God's will all seem to play a pivotal role in Gusta's life and the lives of her loved ones. Explore these themes and their impact on the family. Compare this to the Jewish belief that "On Rosh Hashana it is written. And on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many will be born and how many will pass away. Who will live and who will die" (p. 55).

Enhance Your Book Club
  1. Martin's website offers a deeper look into his book. Visit the site with your reading group to see preliminary sketches, original artifacts used in the book, and even video of Gusta sharing her story.

  2. Gusta mentions several Jewish delicacies as she recounts her childhood, such as challah, fluden or honey cake. If you have a local Jewish bakery, see if you can bring these treats to your reading group. If not, why not make some traditional foods from your own background to share with the group.

  3. There are many wonderful Holocaust memorials, museums, and exhibits throughout the country. Go online to find one nearest to your group and visit it to learn of the remarkable stories from this period in history.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Martin Lemelman grew up in the back of a candy store in Brooklyn, New York, and is the child of Holocaust survivors. He has been a freelance illustrator since 1976. His client list includes Groliers, Children's Television Workshop, Scholastic, Parent's Magazine Press, Crayola and the Jewish Publication Society, among others. He has illustrated more than thirty children's books and his work has appeared in numerous magazines. Martin is a Professor in the Communication Design Department at Kutztown University. He lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with his wife. They are the parents of four wonderful sons.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (October 2, 2007)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416552215

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Raves and Reviews

"Mendel's Daughter strides bravely...into Maus's footprints and, against all odds, succeeds. Lemelman's first [book] is a tender, faithful retelling of his mother's Holocaust story. The routine details of shtetl life, family politics, brief moments of kindness amid devastating hardship, move us beyond clichés, beyond Good and Evil, to convey a powerful, tragic, human history. Ultimately -- miraculously -- about hope, not horror."

-- UPstreet magazine (UK)

"On virtually every page, Lemelman skillfully juxtaposes haunting pencil drawings, family photos and handwritten text. His unique contribution to Holocaust literature will doubtless educe comparisons to Maus yet many may find Lemelman's more realist work more approachable, immediate and, ultimately, unforgettable."

-- Booklist

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