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Alia’s Mission, Elsie’s War

Author John Cech (Read by Jaimy Mann)
Air Date 3/8/2005
Alia's Mission cover

Alia’s Mission, Elsie’s War Transcript

Elsie Kunh-Leitz (“Elsee Qu-en Lights”) was the daughter of a prominent German family in the years just before World War II. Her father, Dr. Ernst Leitz (“Lights”), was the inventor of the first commercially viable 35 mm camera, the Leica (“Lei-ka”), and the owner of the Leitz optical works, which was forced by the Nazis to join in their war effort. But the Leitz family was also helping members of Germany’s Jewish community, whom the Leitz’s employed at their factory, to escape from almost certain death. Elsie was in her thirties at the time, with two children of her own, but this didn’t deter her from trying to help others to find refuge away from the holocaust. The story of Elsie’s determination and bravery is told, through black and white historical photographs and a spare, and through a straightforward text by Frank Dabba Smith in Elsie’s War: A Story of Courage in Nazi Germany. Elsie was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis for her activities; she was only released after her family paid an enormous ransom to secure her freedom, and after the war, in a new Germany, she continued to work on behalf of peace and human justice. A subject as serious as this is not usually found in picture books, but it is one that Rabbi Smith feels strongly about retelling for young people. As he says his note to Elsie’s story: “by studying the lives and actions of individuals such as this, we may be inspired to act as rescuers, even in the darkest of times.”

One of those “dark times” has come upon the country of Iraq. And in this darkness, Mark Alan Stamaty, the political cartoonist, tells us, extraordinary people appear “who show us [that] it’s not necessary to see through walls or fly or have any superpowers at all to be a real-life superhero.” He’s speaking of Alia Muhammad Baker, a librarian in the city of Basra, who decided, as the war in Iraq was just about to occur, that someone had to do something to save the books of her city’s library. And after encountering official inertia she realized that she would have to be that someone who would seize the initiative to try to preserve these books and, with them, what she describes as “the irreplaceable collective memory of [her] people.” Eventually, she mobilizes every friend, relative, colleague, and neighbor she can find to help in her rescue mission. As tanks are rumbling through her city, and as bombs are exploding all around , she and her friends miraculously manage to save a good deal of the public library, before flames eventually consume the rest. Stamaty tells this story in the form of a comic book, and there’s really no better way to do it. For Alia’s Mission, Saving the Books of Iraq is ultimately about super-human efforts, the kind that can truly help us to reimagine and thus to remake our realities.

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Further Reading 

Möller, Karla. “Mirrors and Windows Through Literature Featuring Arabs, Arab Americans, and People of Islamic Faith.” Journal of Children’s Literature, vol. 40, no. 2, 2014, pp. 65–72.


Posted in Comics, Literature