The story behind the story of a mother’s Holocaust secret

A last-minute real-life plot twist has made the publication of author Monique Polak’s first picture book bittersweet.

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Monique Polak is a life-long collector of stories.

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“I want to tell them, I want to hear them, I want to share them, I want to write them,” said the Montreal author, freelance journalist and retired English professor. “I’m always the one that was saying, ‘What’s the story? What’s the story?’ Because what I really care about is stories.”

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In her latest work, The Brass Charm — her first picture book for children — Polak tells the story of a gift from a perfect stranger that her mother received on her 14th birthday while a prisoner at the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt during the Holocaust.

On May 24, 1943, Celien Spier was sitting on a stoop crying when someone tapped her on the shoulder.

“She turned around. She saw a tall, beautiful lady with brown hair,” Polak recounted of her mother’s experience. “She said: ‘Little girl, why are you crying?’ And my mother said, ‘I’m crying because it’s my birthday and nobody gave me anything.’ And the woman gave my mom the monkey man.’”

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The “monkey man,” as Polak calls him, was a tiny figurine of an “ugly” ape-like creature fashioned from brass. Spier never again saw the unidentified woman who gave it to her. Polak believes, based on past research, that she may have been deported to Auschwitz where she was likely killed. But her extraordinary act of kindness lives on nearly 80 years later, to be treasured by children and adults alike.

Fittingly, however, the story behind the story behind the story makes the book all the more powerful. And a last-minute real-life plot twist has made its publication bittersweet.

“I realized I should never have worn the original monkey man. I should have given him to the Montreal Holocaust Museum, where he belongs,” says author Monique Polak.   Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

Polak only saw the monkey man for the first time and learned the story behind it in 2013 — some 70 years after it was given to her mother.

After surviving Theresienstadt and being liberated by the Russians in 1945, Spier moved to Montreal, got married and had a family. She didn’t speak of the Holocaust for the next 60 years. She certainly never spoke of the brass charm. And Polak never came across it growing up, even when she and her sister would dump the contents of her mother’s jewelry box on the bed to play as children.

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But her mother kept it secreted away somewhere, revealing this key to her past only after Polak had unlocked her story of survival — reluctantly — for another book, What World is Left.

A fictionalized account based on her mother’s experiences in Holland during the Holocaust, the book was first published in 2008. When the Dutch translation came out in 2013, Polak said her mother and father accompanied her on a press tour to the Netherlands.

“The night before we left, my mom came over, I had a barbecue on the balcony, and she said, ‘I want to give you this.’ And it was this ugly, little brass charm,” Polak recalled. “When my mom gave it to me, I did the thing I always do. I said: ‘What’s the story?’ The same night. And that’s when she first told me the story.”

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Polak was immediately fascinated by this missing piece of her mother’s history, which she’d never mentioned during the writing of What World is Left.

“Now I understand more, that sometimes you can re-traumatize a person. Maybe it was too much for me to ask my mother. But I think it was great for both of us,” Polak said of the first book based on her mother’s life. “It was very good for her, for her heart. And she would sometimes accompany me on school visits.

“And her thing was: ‘Never give up hope.’ I think that’s the message of The Brass Charm. Because my mom would say, ‘The Nazis took everything from us. They took our home, they took our school, they took our families, our things, our objects, but the one thing they couldn’t take away was our hope.’”

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Polak was also drawn to the strange little tchotchke itself, which somehow managed to make it in and out of Theresienstadt despite prisoners being searched and having all their belongings confiscated. Perhaps it had seemed worthless enough to be overlooked or escape the interest of the guards. Some have suggested it might be a golem, an amorphous creature from Jewish folklore.

Mostly, Polak was deeply moved by the anonymous woman’s gesture. She vowed, then and there, that she would wear the charm every day for the rest of her life and tell its story to anyone who would listen.

“I’m very aware, also, that I carry that woman’s story. Talk about the responsibility of a story, right? If she had children, they likely died. … She was a prisoner. She must have known that the chances were not good that she would survive. People were being shipped off, they were told to a better place, but all the rumours told them it was a worse place. And yet, she was kind to a stranger. I find it incredible,” Polak said. “I think a lot about that woman.”

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Who was she? Where did she draw the strength from to help a sobbing stranger? What happened to her? And what would she think of the legacy of her remarkable act today? Polak made efforts to see if she could identify her, once taking the monkey charm to the Jewish museum in Berlin.

Eventually she decided to use its origin story in a new book. The rights were acquired by Scholastic, just before her mother died in 2017.

Monique Polak The Brass Charm
Monique Polak and her mother, Celien Spier, in front of the Hollandsche Schouwburg, where Amsterdam’s Jews were rounded up in 1943. Photo courtesy Monique Polak.

The Holocaust is an unusual topic for children’s literature and Polak said her editor had always vowed she would never do a picture book on that tragic era — until she came across The Brass Charm.

“I spent five years working on this book and it’s 900 words,” she said. “Most people think picture books are easy to write and that you write them on a napkin at dinner or that they’ll tell their kids a story and they’ll be as famous as Robert Munsch by Monday. But picture books are very, very hard to write.

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“Picture books are not only for little kids. I love them. I love books, I love literature. I love books for kids. But they are magic to me. They’re a way of discussing all kinds of subjects. And they’re intergenerational. The adult has to like reading it, too. They’re meant to be read out loud, shared. And the art. The art could not be more beautiful.”

The Brass Charm was published by Scholastic this fall in both English and French with illustrations by Marie Lafrance. The French version is called Le Trésor d’Oma (Oma being Grandma in Dutch).

The original brass charm. Photo courtesy Monique Polak.

But just before the monkey man was immortalized, he disappeared.

Polak was on the way back from a wedding in Newport, R.I., on July 25 and left her hotel in a hurry that morning. She had noticed that the chain around her neck felt a bit loose.

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After making several stops on the way home to Montreal, including lunch in Londonderry, N.H., she reached down to touch the charm, as she so often did, while in a grocery store in Colchester, Vt. The necklace was there, but the monkey man was gone.

Polak and her boyfriend scoured the store and the car. She phoned the restaurant and called the hotel. She got in touch with local newspapers, which did write-ups on the missing pendant. She offered a $200 reward. But it hasn’t turned up.

“I was devastated, but to me, devastated about a thing, I know it’s not appropriate,” Polak said. “In the end, the monkey man is just a thing. I lost the thing. I have the story.”

But the legacy of the charm — and the woman who first offered it — has not been extinguished. Kind strangers reaching out to help search for the tiny figure have brought Polak comfort.

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Fortuitously, a jeweller she’d told the story to once, had urged her to make a mold. So the monkey man has since been revived in silver — and replicas have been made for Polak’s daughter, her boyfriend’s daughter and the editor of the book.

“I realized I should never have worn the original monkey man. I should have given him to the Montreal Holocaust Museum, where he belongs,” she said. “The reason I wore it all the time was so I could tell the story.”

And now she has — spreading the message of hope and humanity to a wider audience.

If she ever gets the original back, Polak promised it will go straight into the collection of the Montreal Holocaust Museum for safekeeping. A  book launch for The Brass Charm will nevertheless be held there on Nov. 20.

However slim the chances, she still hasn’t given up that the monkey man will find a way home someday.

“I still have another hope — maybe even a better hope than the hope of the return of the lost charm. I would love to find out more about the woman,” she said. “Maybe the book will bring me that as well.”

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