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Novelist’s latest brings history into present

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Historical fiction may tell of the past – but for prolific novelist Carol Matas, it must be applicable to the present.

That’s why it’s important for school-age students to encounter such stories as her newest novel for young people, Pieces of the Past: the Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Matas continues. Among her 30 books for children and young adults, Matas has written 11 on the subject of the Holocaust, according to her website.

An entry in publisher Scholastic’s Dear Canada series, the book concerns a Holocaust war orphan in Winnipeg. It will be launched April 9 at the Asper Community Campus, as part of Holocaust Awareness Week. Admission is free.

The Rady Jewish Community Centre has also organized two special readings for school students on April 9 and 10.

Matas has authored many novels in multiple genres, including sci-fi, fantasy and historical titles, including other entries in the Dear Canada series such as the Manitoba-set Footsteps in the Snow: The Red River Diary of Isobel Scott, as well as Turned Away, also about Jewish refugees – and their sometimes unsuccessful attempts to reach Canada.

Indeed, the Canadian government repeatedly turned away Jews fleeing the Nazis, such as those aboard the ocean liner St. Louis in 1939.

For Matas, whose work has garnered two nominations for the Governor General’s Award, the Holocaust still holds mystery.

"Historians aren’t finished with this," Matas says. "The basic fact of what happened…I’ll never understand."

A composite of various real-life war orphans, the character of Rose, a Polish Jew, survives in Europe by going into hiding, and her story unfolds as she begins a diary upon finding sanctuary in Winnipeg.

Matas’s research included that of Europe’s "hidden children," sheltered from Nazi persecution by those willing to protect them. She also researched war orphans who came to Canada, before choosing Winnipeg as her setting.

A source of particular local fascination were the notes of city organizing committees who worked to bring in child refugees; these Matas found at the Jewish Historical Society and Jewish Heritage Centre at the Asper Community Campus.

There were "very detailed" minutes of such committee meetings, she says, with discussions of how to relocate people and set them up with shelter and employment.

"What jumped out at me the most was the degree of concern and compassion expressed," Matas says, lamenting that she wishes there had only been more children saved.

Turning to the present, some see history being disturbingly repeated: last summer, in a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Toronto Board of Rabbis expressed concern over the government designating certain countries "safe" in assessing refugee status claims.

"As Jews, we know that countries where the majority lives in safety can be dangerous for minority groups," the board wrote. "Roma people living in Hungary, for example, face persecution that has been documented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other human rights groups."

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