An old black and white photograph of a young Viennese girl with a beaming smile hung in Susan L. Ross’s childhood home in Auburn, Maine. Ross’s middle name – Lottie – was given to her in memory of Charlotte “Lottie” Kulka, her mother’s cousin who died in the Holocaust. Growing up, Ross found herself wondering what Lottie’s life might have been.
Decades later in suburban Connecticut, Ross, by then married and a mother of two, rediscovered a box of family papers that included clothbound scrapbooks kept by a different cousin, Magda Szemere, an acclaimed young violinist from Budapest who also perished in the Holocaust. It was filled with crumbling concert reviews in Hungarian, French, and German.
In the hands of Ross, an award-winning writer, these bits of unexplored family archives sparked a multiyear journey of discovery that she transformed into “Searching for Lottie,” a poignant, page-turning contemporary novel for middle-school readers based on the journey of Ross’s extended Jewish family, from pre-war Europe, through the Holocaust, to Connecticut.
In advance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed this year on May 2, the Journal spoke with Ross, who has been in Cambridge this academic year with her husband.
“Searching for Lottie” is based on the family of Ross’s mother, Erika Lencz, who, with her older brother, fled Vienna in 1938, shortly after the Germans invaded Austria. The siblings left behind their parents, who perished in the Holocaust. Erika arrived in New York at age 20.
Ross’s mother eventually moved to the Boston area, where she was introduced to Ross’s father. They moved to Lewiston, Maine, his hometown, where, in the late 1880s, her father’s family was among the earliest Jews to settle in the city; they were active in building its Jewish community.
Ross and her four siblings grew up in the 1960s in Auburn, across the Androscoggin River from Lewiston.
“I was the Jewish kid who brought the menorah to the front of the class and taught everyone [about Hanukkah],” Ross said in a phone interview.
Most of her classmates were from Catholic families with French-Canadian roots. There weren’t many Jewish families in Maine, she recalled.
But Lewiston-Auburn did have a tight-knit, deeply engaged group of Holocaust survivors who had been resettled there. “I had uncles and aunts and close friends who recreated family in Auburn,” Ross said.
As she raised her kids, Ross’s mother did not share much of her personal story or the anguish of losing her family. “I found it to be very common among refugees. She [her mother] did her utmost to protect us and to try to bring us up in an atmosphere of hope.”
Ross adopted her mother’s positive outlook of being helpful, always trying to look at the best in people. Her words of wisdom, including, “If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying,” feature prominently in “Searching for Lottie,” through the voice of the fictional Nana Rose, a Holocaust refugee like Ross’s mother.
About eight years ago, when Ross’s son was in seventh grade, he had a school project to write about a family member. He chose to research her mother, Erika. It was then that Ross rediscovered the family boxes in the back of a closet, including the scrapbooks kept by her cousin Magda Szemere, the acclaimed young violist.
Ross realized that, two generations apart, her son was able to ask questions that were too hard for her to ask her mother years before. With the sophistication of the Internet, Ross was more easily able to return to her own historical hunt for information about her relatives.
A search yielded articles about Szemere. Among the goose-bump moments was when, to Ross’s astonishment, a curator at Yale University – near her home – turned up a rare recording. Szemere’s music was wonderful, the curator told her. As the family puzzle pieces came together, Ross again took pen to paper for a new book for middle-school readers.
“Searching for Lottie” is told through the eyes of a seventh-grade girl named Charlie, nicknamed for the young girl – Charlotte “Lottie” Kulka – in Ross’s family photograph. For her school family research project, Charlie chose her Nana Rose.
Charlie, a talented and passionate string musician like the real-life Szemere, brings everything she’s got to a methodical and adventurous quest for the truth about what happened to her grandmother’s family. Nana Rose encourages the curious and persistent girl to keep searching.
Ross said she hopes the book strikes a universal chord and encourages young people of all backgrounds to talk with their grandparents.
“I wanted this to be a way for kids to take ownership of that, to help preserve their own family legacy.”