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Helen and Sol Krawitz Holocaust Memorial Education Center

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center

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Survivor Profile




(1935- PRESENT)




FEBRUARY 27, 1935







  • BIOGRAPHY by THE PUBLISHER Macmillan and nancy gorrell

    Biography by Publisher

       Shulevitz is a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and author. He was born in Warsaw, Poland, on February 27, 1935. He began drawing at the age of three and, unlike many children, never stopped. The Warsaw blitz occurred when he was four years old, and the Shulevitz family fled. For eight years they were wanderers, arriving, eventually, in Paris in 1947. There Shulevitz developed an enthusiasm for French comic books, and soon he and a friend started making their own. 

    At thirteen, Shulevitz won first prize in an all-elementary-school drawing competition in Paris’ 20th district. In 1949, the family moved to Israel, where Shulevitz worked a variety of jobs: an apprentice at a rubber-stamp shop, a carpenter, and a dog-license clerk at Tel Aviv City Hall. He studied at the Teachers’ Institute in Tel Aviv, where he took courses in literature, anatomy, and biology, and also studied at the Art Institute of Tel Aviv. At fifteen, he was the youngest to exhibit in a group drawing show at the Tel Aviv Museum. At 24 he moved to New York City, where he studied painting at Brooklyn Museum Art School and drew illustrations for a publisher of Hebrew books.

    One day while talking on the telephone, he noticed that his doodles had a fresh and spontaneous look—different from his previous illustrations. This discovery was the beginning of Uri’s new approach to his illustrations for The Moon in My Room, his first book, published in 1963. Since then, he was written and illustrated many celebrated children’s books. In 1969 he won the Caldecott Medal for The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. He has also earned three Caldecott Honors, for The Treasure, Snow and How I Learned Geography. His other books include One Monday Morning, Dawn, So Sleepy Story, and others. He also wrote the instructional guide Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books. He lives in New York City.


    Additional Biography by Nancy Gorrell

    Adapted and Excerpted from Uri Shulevitz’s Chance: Escape from the Holocaust–Memories of a Refugee Childhood (2020)


    Last, but very far from the least, was my faithful friend, who never betrayed me–drawing. Drawing enabled me to create worlds, real or fantastic; characters funny or sad, young or old; streets or cities, mountains or oceans. If I could create such worlds, how could I ever be lonely?  (Uri Shulevitz, p. 320)


    Chapter One: Warsaw

    When Uri was brought home from the hospital, his parents had not yet decided on a name for him. They saw him staring intently at the flowers on the wallpaper. His father said, “I think our little son will be an artist. His name should be Uri, after the Bibical Uri, father of Bezalel, the first artist of the Bible.” Uri remarks in his memoir “Little did I know how my chance name would save our lives.” As soon as he could hold a pencil, Uri began to draw stick figures . His artistic career had begun. On September 1, 1939, Nazi planes bombed Warsaw skies. Uri was in a daze, but he describes the colors of the skies, “smoke from the fires painted everything grey.” Later that day, Uri sat on a table as his mother put a pair of boots on his feet. “We’ll need to walk a lot,” she said. Uri was four years old. For days the bombs fell. They stayed in their small apartment. “The terrifying whistling of the gunfire and explosions was unbearable.” Uri’s only comfort was drawing. He drew stick figures marching  old newspapers left by his father. His father, one of thousands of refugees fleeing to Bialystock  part of the Soviet Union during the war. The plan was to join him later. Uri and his mother did not know if father had survived. Uri’s father was lucky. He found a place to stay and because he worked in Warsaw painting signs in an ice cream factory, he found work painting slogans on soviet banners. But he was so lonely for his family,  he decided to take a train to the Soviet-Polish border. There by chance he encounter a Jewish man fleeing from Nazi-occupied Poland who forcibly grabbed him to the train station heading back to Bialystock with these words: “Someday you’ll thank me for my advice.”  Had his father not been stopped from returning to Nazi-occupied Poland and joining the rest of the family, Uri states in his memoir, “ His fate would have been the same as theirs: death. Through clandestine underground mail, father contacted mother and asked her to join him in Bialystock. Uri’s mother was overjoyed to discover father was alive. She was determined to go despite the stories she heard of hardship for refugees in Bialystock. 


    Chapter Two: Bialystock

    Once in Bialystock, Uri fell ill from exhaustion and fatigue. He was only four years old, an only child and need a friend. Luckily he met the son of a Jewish refugee from Poland, Hayim Genelde, nine years old. Uri says, “I looked up to him like he older brother I wished I had.” Since Polish and Russian are both Slavic languages, Uri began speaking Russian after two weeks; his mother shortly after. Early in 1940, orders came that all refugees had to apply for Soviet citizenship or return to Poland. Uri’s father applied, but the Soviet clerk confused his name “Uri” with a zionist poet deemed “reactionary” and “anti-Soviet.” Their application for passports was denied. The consequence was severe: it required Uri and his family to stay only in restricted places, far from the border. Without citizenship, Uri’s father was fired from his job at the stage sign-making co-op in Bialystock. Uri’s father sent a letter asking Uri and his mother to join him in Grodno because times were uncertain and he wanted his family together. After Uri and his mother joined his father, mother wrote letters to their relations to leave Poland and join them. Uri states that his mother’s brother was “clever but not wise. We never saw him or his family again.” Life in Grodno was better than Bialystock; father was working and the family was together but it wasn’t long before they were at the Grodno train station where freight cars were waiting, guarded by the Soviet secret police  NKVD. Uri lost his first friend, Hayim. He never heard from him again.


    Chapter Three: Settlement Yura

    Uri recalls “our journey lasted for weeks. The train stopped more often than it travelled.”  When they reached their destination–Poselok Yura, it was the summer of 1940. Uri was 5 years old. They were near the White Sea in the Arkhangelsk Oblast region. Uri states, “we were now prisoners. We were suspects. However, Settlement Yura had no fences or walls or guards of any kind.” There was some wooden barracks and a river nearby. They were surrounded by endless forests. ” Escape meant certain death. Should you try to escape, you could chose how to die. You could wander in the forest, get lost, never get anywhere and freeze to death. Or you could be eaten by wild beasts. Uri and his family were dead tired, but “the first night in our new lodgings, no one slept.” The next morning the settlement director, Ivanov, greeted them with these words in the dining hall: “You were sent here to rebuild your life from scratch. Erase your memories of your life in fascist Poland. Here you will spend the rest of your lives, and here you will die. (He points to a cemetery over a hill). If you work well, you’ll eat. If not, you won’t eat.

     Uri recites a poem to the relief of the refugees. The family now has an address can write letters. Father does and eventually receives money due him from his work in the theater. In September, it began to snow. It was the only entertainment for the children. Father worked as a lumberjack. His shoes wore down, got snow in them, and then father got sick with a cold and a bad fever. Father’s salary was cut 15% for six months for missing work for one day. Uri broke his elbow in June slipping on logs in the ice. Ivanov told father to take Uri to the regional hospital. It was an arduous journey and they walked for a whole day. When they got to the hospital, they had no Xray machine, and Uri’s arm was set “by feel.” He recalls the unbearable pain. Uri stayed in the hospital for one week while father went back to Yura. Uri left the hospital with a heavy plaster cast which he wore for a month. Unfortunately, when Yuri and his father returned home by train, they found mother lying in bed, near death with a high fever and stomach pains. Dr. Lipshitz, a Jewish refugee, told father that mother was near dying. She was beloved by everybody. Father began to cry. Mother was only in her late 20s. Mother survived the night. Ivanov got a horse and cart and took mother to the train station, from there to go to the regional hospital. Dr. Lipshitz and father went with them. The journey was an ordeal and getting mother admitted to the hospital was a miraculous feat, but Dr. Lipshitz convinced them to take her in her dying condition. Father returned to look after Uri not knowing if he would ever see her again. Finally, one day she returned from the hospital, extremely weak, but alive. There was much rejoicing. 


    The summer of 1941 was the betrayal of the nonagression pact that had kept peace between the two countries. Now the Soviet Union joined the Allied forces who declared war on Germany. As a result, Uri and his family who had fled the Nazis were no longer consider Soviet spies or enemies of the state, but merely refugees “who escaped a common enemy.” From then on, Uri states, “our conditions improved, and the attitude of the Russians in charge, starting with Ivanov, was less severe.” Some examples of improvements. Uri recalls: “When we arrived, there was absolutely nothing to eat. The hunger was horrendous. We ate whatever we could find. We ate boiled tree bark. We ate shoe leather. People by the thousands dies of starvation. During this time, Ivanov announced that parents of small children would be getting goats. Uri got a pregnant she-goat named, Vanya. Uri loved Vanya. She gave birth to twins–a she goat and a he-goat. “I was very proud of Vanya and showed her off to the other children. Plus, she gave us delicious milk. I will never forget her.”

    When it was time to leave settlemen Yura, Uri and his family were free to travel south to the Soviet republics in Central Asia. There was a very hard and long journey ahead. The year was 1942 and Uri was 7 years old.


    Chapter Four: Turkestan I

    Uri recalls “our journey south was long and exhausting. For more than two months a small group of us traveled aboard freight trains.” The group did not have tickets and were afraid if they got discovered, they would be arrested. Showering was out of the question. “Homeless, we slept on the floor. We forgot what it was like to sleep in a bed.” While they traveled, thousands of others were escaping the advancing Nazi armies. When they reached Turkestan, their friends the Honigmans and the nurse Rachel decided to stay there. Turkestan was a small city in the Kazakh republic of the Soviet Union, “a place where life hadn’t changed much since the middle ages.” Uri had to learn about Muslim customs, ways of dress, animals, food, language and ways of life. Soon after their arrival, father “vanished.” Mother and Uri were frightened. They didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Mother and Uri felt “abandoned.” They were starving and in desperate need of food. Mother had to look for work. The only job was wheeling loads of clay bricks. It was hard work in her weakened condition. Uri stayed home alone. She was paid a meager salary and Uri was “constantly hungry and weak.” Undernourished, eating grass to survive, Uri finally fell extremely ill. Mother took him to the hospital where there was no medicine and little food. Mother told him stories to distract him from the hunger pains. In those days, drawing became a distraction for Uri, but he had to find a way with no paper or pencil. For charcoal he used half burnt wood. He drew on tree bark, dried leaves, and a “piece of torn cardboard if I was lucky. Flower leaves and petals were paint substitutes. Drawingon a leaf, on the ground, in my imagination—was more than a distraction. It was my home. 

    Mother lost all hope of ever seeing Father again. She decided to leave the city and go to a nearby Kolkhoz. She thought that in a collective farm there might be a better chance of survival.  At Kolkhoz, Mother worked in the fields harvesting sugar beets. Unfortunately, Uri became ill again, and Mother carried him on her back to the hospital. He couldn’t walk and had a high fever. They were alone and defenseless in the Kazakhs steppe. ” How brave of Mother!” thought Uri. Once at the hospital, Uri stayed alone and mother returned to the construction site. 


    Chapter Five: Turkestan II

    “One day Father reappeared. He came back with a large onion and a peace offering. . . Did he tell her why and where he went?  Did he tell her what happened? I don’t know. I do know that mother was angry and so was I.” Uri states that “To this day  this incident remains a mystery to me. I kick myself that I failed to ask him about it. Now that he is no longer alive, I’ll never know the truth.”  Uri adds: It took a long time to forgive him. We considered it a betrayal. Even after forgiveness, a blot remains forever.” Uri concludes: “He never left us again.” In Turkestan, Mother quit her job and Father went to work in the construction site. Uri went to the children’s home to live so he could get bread to eat every day. But he got ill again and went home to live with his parents. Uri was enrolled in first grade at the Turkestan Russian school. He learned to read and write Russian, befriended other children of refugees, and became a otlichnik–a student who got good grades. He also excelled in art so the teachers and students started calling him khdozhnik, artist.


    Uri pauses his narrative by saying a word about his parents. He describes his parents as “caring deeply for each other.” His father was an optimist believing things would always work out; his mother was a pessimist. She had no confidence in the future. She had become an orphan at age nine and had gone to live with relatives that treated her like a servant. Uri concludes: “Being an optimist must be good for one’s health, since father seldom got sick. Whereas Mother the pessimist, was frequently ill.” Uri and his parents spent three long years in Turkestan where contant hunger was a condition of life. But father was ever trying to make a better life. One day Father built a loom to make fabric; he tried to purchase and sell tobacco. Father’s ventures were failures, risking arrest. His family was still hungry with the shortages. Father finally got a legitimate job in shoe factory. Later he met a Jewish man, Boris Mirkin, who helped him get a shoe repair kiosk. Mirkin also was looking for an oil painter to fill in the Hebrew letters of his father’s tombstone. Father knew Hebrew and Aramaic script and promised to help him. They became friends. After getting the Kiosk, Uri’s situation improved dramatically. “Although we never got rich, we no longer starved, and no longer went to bed on an empty stomach.” Father also thrived as Mirkin recommended him to other store directors who needed banners. During the hot summer days, Uri was making friends, digging secret underground hideouts, and playing a popular game called knucklebones.He also watched open-air-theater patriotic Russian films with his friends by sneaking in through a hole in the wall since he had no money to buy a ticket. 

    When it became time for third grade, Uri’s parents enrolled him in a newly formed Polish school. This marked the beginning of Uri’s “scholastic confusion and drop in grades.” It was also 1945, near the end of the war. Uri was engrossed in reading the Russian version of the Wizard of Oz that he had gotten from a friend. He did not want to leave Turkestan without knowing the end of the story. He notes in his memoir the parallels between his own story and Dorothy’s adventures. “Little did we know at the time that our journey back to the west would be almost as filled with obstacles as Dorothy’s return to Kansas.” 

    “Father negotiated with the conductor for permission to get onto the train, and after the payment of some money, we were allowed to travel while standing up in the corridor, as illegal passengers once again. And so we left Turkestan behind forever.”


    Editor’s Notes

    Refer to Related Media for Photos of Uri, Ages 7 1/2 or 8 in Turkestan and Age 12, Paris (1947)

    Refer to Uri Shulevitz, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust–Memories of a Refugee Childhood  for Post-War (The Road Back, Poland and Germany, Paris)


    Refer to urishulevitz.com for additional biographical information.


    Editor’s Note:

    For an in-depth Interview with Uri Shulevitz on his memoir Chance: Escape from the Holocaust  refer to YouTube American Writer’s Museum, October 14, 2020. In this Interview, Uri discusses the genesis of his early art, his writing process, and his memoir Chance.   

  • Sources and Credits:


    The SSBJCC gratefully acknowledges the donation of Uri Shulevitz’s Chance: Escape from the Holocaust–Memories of a Refugee Childhood (2020)  by Eric and Jill Lavitsky (2022) in Honor of Eric’s cousin, Uri Shulevitz and donation of the digital family and historic photographs therein.