Former resident publishes book for young readers about a boy and his family needing to escape Nazis

In 12 days, a Holocaust remembrance book for young readers, written by a former Kamsack and Togo resident, will be released in bookstores in Canada and online.

Second Story Press, a company dedicated to publishing feminist-inspired books for adults and young readers, is releasing When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees on April 3.

article continues below

“Walter and his family stay one step ahead of the Nazis, hiding to save their lives,” says the publisher regarding Wees’s book.

“Walter is a young child when his parents decide to leave their home in Germany and start a new life in the Netherlands. As Jews, they know they are not safe under the Nazi regime. From one day to the next, Walter's world goes from safe and predictable to full of uncertainty.

“Walter is at first too young to appreciate the danger that he is in, and everything seems like a great adventure. But as the years pass and the war progresses, his family is forced to move again and again, from city to countryside to, eventually, a hidden village deep in the Dutch woods.

“As the danger of being discovered increases, they are forced to rely on strangers for their safety. Walter’s eyes are opened to the threat that surrounds them every day, and to the network of people who are risking their lives to help them stay hidden.

“Told through a combination of narrative and Walter’s letters to his grandmother and, later, his granddaughter, the book—based on a true story—shines a light on this part of Second World War history and the heroes of the Dutch resistance, particularly those involved in the hidden village. Without their protection, Walter, his family, and hundreds of others would not have survived.

“This is more than an account of one boy's wartime experience,” said Rona Altrows, author of At This Juncture. “It is a story of human resilience, the power of family, and the kindness of strangers even in the most extreme situations."

The book ends with a photograph of the author and the real-life Walter, on whose experiences this book is based.

Wees is the daughter of Moe and Anne Minuk, who, with their sons Ben and Don, moved from Togo to Kamsack in 1959. She left Kamsack in 1964 when she went to Saskatoon to attend university.

“I got married in 1967 and lived in Moose Jaw, Cornwall, Toronto, Halliburton, Guelph, Thompson and Winnipeg before I became an ex-wife and single mother to my daughter Jennifer, who was born in Lindsay, Ont. in 1969,” Wees said recently as she discussed her life and the release of her book.

“She and I spent a year in Winnipeg where I finished my B.Ed. We then moved to Calgary where I taught students with special needs (cognitively challenged, physically challenged, learning disabled and gifted) and then I had a six-year stint in ‘regular’ junior high as a humanities teacher, retiring in 2002.

“During that time I attended the University of Calgary where I got my diploma in educational psychology, and the University of Oregon where I received my M.Ed. in gifted and talented education.

“My pride and joy is the program I developed between 1988 and 1992 for gifted students with learning disabilities. I’ve written about that program in educational journals and presented around the world.

“After retirement I substitute taught, and was a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary in the faculty of education. In 2001 I became a debate coach at my school and we went all the way to provincial championships.

“I continued for two years after my retirement as a volunteer coach at the same school, and since then have coached and judged debates at a high school level and become an international debate coach for the World Schools Debating Championships.

“For the past nine years I have been working on this novel and four other children’s picture books; one based on a childhood experience in Togo and Runnymede.

“I volunteered for 10 years for Alberta Theatre Projects and am presently a volunteer (greeter and direction-giver) White Hatter at the Calgary Airport.

“I have also done extensive traveling, on my own, with my daughter, and with my significant other. Most of my travels have been to Holland where I have had a penpal since I was 12 years old. In 2007 I lived for a month in an apartment on the island where they live in Holland.

“My favourite way to travel is to cruise so I’ve been to the Baltics, Black Sea, Mediterranean, and Caribbean. I’ve spent extended times in Rome, Barcelona, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Bruges, Edinburgh, New York City, Washington DC, Bangkok and Cambodia.

“My favourite trip was 31 days in the Black Sea and Mediterranean in 2014 when I got to finally visit Jerusalem and Egypt, as well as Dubrovnik, Istanbul and other areas in Turkey, which quickly became a favourite spot in my memories.”

Recalling memories of her time in Kamsack, Wees said that the first fond memory that comes to mind is that of John Smandych, who had been her first principal in Kamsack.

“He used to come down to the basement of Victoria School where we were while the junior high was being built, and call me up to ‘teach’ the Grade 1 kids because their teacher was having morning sickness. I remember him saying, ‘You just have to read them some stories’ which I did on numerous occasions.

“One day he came back and I was sitting cross-legged on the teacher’s desk with the kids spread out in a semi-circle around me, and I was talking in weird voices from the book. He smiled and said, ‘Janet, you are going to be a teacher one day.’ And he was right; I always felt badly that I didn’t write him and let him know that his prediction came true.

“He also tutored me in Grade 7 geometry because I came halfway through the school year and Kamsack had finished geometry and was doing algebra whereas Togo did algebra first and geometry second. I was really good in algebra but sucked at geometry, so Mr. Smandych tutored me after school until I could pass the exams.

“My other fond memories are of babysitting the Banks kids at the lake for a couple of summers. I loved staying at Madge Lake and still do. Summers at the beach stand out. There are too many memories from junior high and high school to pinpoint but I remember it as fun and have continued many of those friendships for almost 60 years.

I loved drama in high school and remember how, in Grade 10, I was in a drama where I had to cry on stage. It was so hard, but just before the performance, my boyfriend at the time broke up with me and I was crying for real…almost through the whole play! It won me the best actress award, and I felt like a fraud because I wasn’t acting.

“I also remember reading comic books on some Saturday mornings with Orest (Rosowsky) on his verandah; no talking, just reading. I have fond memories of Orest because of the trouble we used to get in when we were in class. We were always talking to each other no matter where the teacher placed us in class. I remember thinking at that time that boys and girls could be just friends, but of course you couldn’t tell anyone because you would get teased and you had to pretend you didn’t like each other when in crowds.

“Just before he died, Orest and I had a long and sentimental visit. We reminisced and talked like adults, with no secrets and lots of laughter at how we were when we were kids, and as friends. He was one of the brightest people I knew.”

Copies of When We Were Shadows can be ordered online from Chapters/Indigo. Coles in Yorkton should have the book in stock after April 3.

“I have submitted two children’s picture books, based on a childhood experience, and the other based on my penpal’s granddaughter’s love of making cupcakes,” Wees said. “I have two other drafts of stories from Cambodia and Thailand.

“There is a man in Calgary whose family saved Jews in Holland during the Second World War and I want to interview him with the possibility of another book for children of the same age group as this one: nine to 13 years.”

Second Story Press says that it is proud that for over 25 years it has been publishing great books that matter.

“Our books are sold around the world, have been translated into over 50 languages, won many awards, and have been adapted for film and stage,” the publisher says. “Our list spans adult fiction and nonfiction; children’s fiction, nonfiction and picture books; and young adult fiction and nonfiction.