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Tribute to Writer, Holocaust Survivor

Israeli children's writer Uri Orlev subject of University Library exhibit

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January 19, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold
This archival photo in the University Library exhibit shows Jewish immigrants arriving in Palestine in 1945, including a 14-year-old Uri Orlev (at right), not long after being liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. 
EVANSTON, Ill. --- A small exhibit now at Northwestern University Library celebrates the 80th birthday of Uri Orlev, arguably the world’s best known and certainly the most translated writer of children’s literature about the Holocaust. In recent decades, Orlev has written of life in modern Israel, though always with an awareness of the past.

The tribute -- on the first floor of University Library, 1970 Campus Drive, though March 24 -- also celebrates the 30th anniversary of Orlev’s first and most enduring international success, “The Island on Bird Street.” A semi-autobiographical book written in 1981, “The Island on Bird Street” recounts a young boy’s struggle living alone in the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis.

Among other books by Orlev, the tribute features 10 editions of “The Island on Bird Street,” including the original Hebrew edition and translated editions in English, Spanish, French, Hungarian, Chinese and other languages. It also features documents from the Uri Orlev Collection at University Library, including a copy of an archival photograph of the writer as a 14-year-old arriving in Palestine by train in 1945 and a recent letter from Orlev to Northwestern students.

Born on Feb. 24, 1931, Orlev lived as a young boy in the Warsaw Ghetto. After his father was captured by the Russians and his mother shot and killed, he and his brother were smuggled out of the ghetto and hidden by Polish families. Eventually caught by the Nazis, they were sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Freed two years later, they migrated to Palestine and, in 1954, were united with their father.

Northwestern has acquired almost 200 editions of Orlev’s works, most of which can be borrowed from University Library. The Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections houses a large research dossier on Orlev and his work, including book reviews, interviews and hundreds of letters to the Israeli writer from young readers around the world, particularly from Germany and the U.S.

Orlev received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s literature in 1996. In presenting it, the jury stated: “Whether his stories are set in the Warsaw Ghetto or his new country Israel, he never loses the perspective of the child he was. He writes with integrity and humor, in a way which is never sentimental [and] shows how children can survive without bitterness in harsh and terrible times.”

The Orlev tribute is open to the general public seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. For further information, call (847) 467-5918.