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JOHANNA REISS

BIOGRAPHY I BOOKS I PRESENTATIONS I BOOK ORDERING

Johanna Reiss is a born speaker. She loves visiting schools and talking to kids, bringing history to life for them in ways rarely seen today.

Born and brought up in Holland, Johanna taught elementary school for several years before coming to the United States

to live. It was here that she wrote her first autobiographical book for children, The Upstairs Room, which was a 1973 Newbery Honor Book, an American Library Association Notable Children's Book, a Jane Addams Peace Association Honor Book, a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year, and a School Library Journal Best Book. It also won the Jewish Book Council Juvenile Book Award and the Buxtehuder Bulle, a prestigious German children's book award. The Upstairs Room is about the author's own experiences during World War II, when she and her sister, Sini, were forced to hide in a cold, drab room of a Gentile family's farmhouse in order to avoid being captured by the Nazis, who were, in fact, often just a few feet away from them. This period in her life is the subject of many of her talks when she visits schools.

Mrs. Reiss writes that soon after she had finished The Upstairs Room, she

found "there was still something I wanted to say, something that was as meaningful to me as the story I had told in the first book, the story of a war. `The fighting has stopped. Peace treaty signed,' newspapers announce at the conclusion of every war. From a political point of view, the war is over, but in another sense it has not really ended. People are fragile. They are strong, too, but wars leave emotional scars that take a long time to heal, generations perhaps. I know this to be true of myself, and of others. And out of those feelings came The Journey Back, a story of the aftermath of the Second World War."

In 2006, The Upstairs Room celebrated 35 years in print. In 2009, her new book, A Hidden Life, written for adults was published and became a New York Times Editors' Choice on 3/1/09. Related to The Upstairs Room, it is nevertheless an entirely different kind of story. A description can be found under her list of books.

Mrs. Reiss lives in New York City within subway distance from her daughters and her grandchildren. She dedicates a good deal of time to going around the country, talking to students about her experiences and the very personal way that history touches the lives of everyday people.

Among the many positive responses we've heard about Mrs. Reiss's presentations, this one from Mary Ellen Speciale of the Lincoln Middle School in Dunellen, New Jersey is the most touching:

 

Today was my last day of school.  No more final papers to correct, grades to calculate, or signing out procedures. So, I can sit back and email you to let you know how Johanna's appearance went at my school. It went marvelously well!  Johanna is amazing! Her energy was so surprising to us. As Johanna and I walked back from the auditorium after her presentation, some of the students who walked with us told me that they had to run down the hall in order to walk beside her. I felt the same way. 

 

It was tremendously exciting for all of us to actually hear Johanna speak and see the slides of the Oosterveld family. When Opoe came on the screen, there was one big *Opoe* from the students who quickly identified the elderly woman sitting in the chair. I kept hearing the word *awesome* from the students when they commented on Johanna's visit. The parents' reaction was one of great appreciation. Some quickly emailed me to let me know how much their children loved hearing the author. They were reacting to the very positive feedback that their children had given them. One parent of an eighth grader told me that her son never liked to read, but after having met Johanna Reiss, he couldn't stop talking about her or her book. The mother was thrilled that her son actually had a conversation about a book that he was excited about.  

Johanna was so inspirational to the students! They felt they had actually met a Holocaust survivor and not only a Holocaust survivor but an author who had written about it.

 

At lunch, Johanna sat at a table of about 6 students. Two other teachers and I sat at another table, but Johanna chose to sit with the students, which made our luncheon very special. She talked with the kids and asked them about their plans for the summer. At the end, when she was saying good-bye, she hugged each of them. These kids will never forget that. I once heard the president of our New Jersey Teachers' Association say, *One hundred years from now it won't matter what type of house you lived in or what kind of car you drove. What will matter is that you made a difference in the life of a child.*  Johanna Reiss made that difference in the lives of many children on June 8th. They will never forget her. Neither will I. 

 

Mary Ellen Speciale

Lincoln Middle School

Dunellen, NJ

specialem@dunellenschools.org

June 19, 2009