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Author to tell mother's Holocaust survival story in Woodstock

Fern Schumer Chapman
Fern Schumer Chapman

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Fern Schumer Chapman has been telling her mother’s story for nearly 20 years.

It’s more relevant now than ever, she said. An immigrant before the label even really existed, her mother was 12 when she fled Nazi Germany to come to America alone in 1938.

“When I first starting doing this, I thought I was just presenting history,” Chapman said of her many speaking engagements at schools, libraries, churches and charity and civic events. 

“Suddenly, it has come full circle in ways I couldn’t imagine.”

An award-winning Chicago-based author and journalist, Chapman will present “Stumbling on History: An Art Project Compels a Small German Town to Face its Past” at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St., Woodstock.

The event is part of a Creative Living Series hosted by the Woodstock Fine Arts Association, a nonprofit group that aims to bring inspiring programming to the Opera House stage. Tickets cost $25 at 815-338-5300 or www.wwodstockoperahouse.com.

Chapman will spotlight the work of Gunter Demnig, a German artist and activist, who began a Stumbling Stones project in 1992. He created small bronze plaques – each bearing the name of a Holocaust victim – and embedded them in sidewalks near the victim’s former homes.

He has installed these “places of memory” in more than 1,000 communities in 22 European countries – more than 60,000 plaques to date.

Chapman’s mother returned to her small German town when her plaque was installed. While she had survived the Holocaust, most of her family died in death camps.

“For those killed or lost, there were no funerals, no places of remembrance,” Chapman said.

Chapman’s five books, including her memoir, “Motherland,” chronicling her mother’s journey, reflect the child immigrant experience. At a time when immigration issues consume the news, she said, the books have taken on added meaning.

“My mom’s life has been book-ended by anti-Semitism. Of course, that makes me sick,” she said. “I’m glad I have the opportunity to education young people, but I wish it didn’t have to be on this subject.”

Chapman said she tries not to make her presentations political as she talks about how the Holocaust impacted her family.

On Thursday, she said she’ll take the audience on the journey her mother took, as well as present the history behind Demnig’s memorial program.

“I think what was fascinating about going to Germany in 2014 and attending this event where the stones were installed to remember the families was all the ways in which Germans in the town felt a sense of responsibility as to what happened,” Chapman said. 

Many approached her mother to say they remembered her family and what had happened during the Holocaust. 

“I’m not sure she’s able to process it all,” Chapman said of her mother. “It’s been such an incredible journey for her from fleeing this little town to being recognized. She always wanted to take responsibility and give her an apology.”

She finally did get that apology in the form of a letter from the Lutheran Church, which is recounted in “Motherland,” Chapman said.

Along with a story about how trauma transmits itself in a family, the presentation, in a sense, is about how countries have taken responsibility for their historical national crimes, she said. It’s about atonement and how to face history, she said.

“I’m hoping that by presenting what the Germans are doing that it’ll make audience members think about America’s crimes how we atone for some of the things we’ve done,” she said.

Two of Schumer Chapman’s books, “Is it Night or Day?” and “Like Finding My Twin,” are used in middle school classrooms, and her books were featured twice on Oprah Winfrey shows. She has taught magazine writing and other seminars at Northwestern and Lake Forest College.

If You Go

“Stumbling on History: An Art Project Compels a Small German Town to Face Its Past”

WHEN: 10 a.m. Jan. 17

WHERE: Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St., Woodstock

COST & INFO: Award-winning author Fern Schumer Chapman will speak as part of a Creative Living Series hosted by the Woodstock Fine Arts Association. Schumer Chapman, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, will spotlight the work of Gunter Demnig, a German artist and activist. Demnig began his Stumbling Stones project in 1992, creating small bronze plaques – each bearing the name of a Holocaust victim – and embedding them in sidewalks near the victim’s former homes. Coffee and conversation will begin at 9 a.m. at Stage Left Café, with the program starting at 10 a.m. at the Opera House. Tickets are $25 each at 815-338-5300 or www.woodstockoperahouse.com.

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