By Kris Coronado
Sunday, January 16, 2011; W02
Children's book author Debbie Levy was helping her mother, Jutta Levy, with spring cleaning when she uncovered an object she'd never seen: a diary written by her mother as a 12-year-old.
"Let's put that away," Jutta had said. Luckily, Debbie disobeyed.
This wasn't just any diary.
The first entry was dated Sept. 28, 1938 -- the year that Jutta and her family left their home in Hamburg, Germany, and emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazi regime.
Debbie wrote a story of the diary's discovery for The Washington Post in 1998. Little did she know that she'd set a fortuitous series of events in motion.
A few weeks after the story was published, Debbie received a letter from one of Jutta's schoolmates at the Jewish School for Girls in Hamburg.
"Is this our Jutta?" it began.
More former classmates reached out, culminating in a reunion in 2000 of seven women -- from cities including London and San Diego -- near Jutta's Silver Spring home.
"It was happy. We had fun, very sentimental," says Jutta, now 84, of that summer day. "We were very anxious to know about each other's lives since we all went our separate ways."
It was also on this day that Jutta pulled out her childhood poesiealbum -- a book in which she and her German classmates and relatives would doodle and write bits of poetry. Just like the diary, this was another totem Debbie hadn't known about. Her creative wheels as a writer started turning. After having the album translated in 2006, Debbie began turning it into a book in 2007.
Published last March as "The Year of Goodbyes," the book includes excerpts of the whimsical illustrations and proverbs written in 1938 and -- like the diary -- reflects an innocence even in the most trying of times.
"One point of the book was to convey that children are going to find some fun in anything and look at how important friendships are," Debbie says. An afterword also includes information on the fates of those family members and friends mentioned.
The women reunited annually -- often in the D.C. area, once in Manhattan -- until 2008, when the health of two women made travel difficult.
They now get together when they can. Three even attended the younger Levy's book party in April.
Debbie and her mother are trying to bring "The Year of Goodbyes" to the attention of more young adult readers.
Jutta says she will make the effort as long as she is able. "We're a dying breed, and we are the only eyewitnesses," says Jutta, who now lives in Rockville. "Once we're gone, there are no eyewitnesses."
READ THE ORIGINAL STORY: Last Train Out (Post, Nov. 8, 1998)
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