Isabelle Kenagy, a senior at The Bishop's School, says it all started back in sixth grade. That's when she had the idea to write "From Vienna," a book about her great-grandmother — a Holocaust survivor.
Ilse Schlesinger Angove, whom Isabelle calls "Grams," left Austria, escaped to Trinidad, then eventually came to La Jolla to live the rest of her life. Ilse is 91 years old and lives at Casa de Manana Retirement Community.
"Grams is my everything," Isabelle tells the Light. "I love her so much. She is truly one of the most influential and special people in my life. Her endless optimism helps keep my life in perspective."
The bond between great-grandmother and great-grandchild is heartwarming. When asked about Isabelle, her smile goes wide and her eyes get misty. She lovingly grabs Isabelle's shoulders, and says, "Are you kidding? She's my life! She's a golden girl. They don't come that way anymore. She is so wonderful, so thoughtful, I'm so lucky to have her. I can't love her any more than I do."
From Vienna is the story of three Jewish cousins (one of them Ilse) living comfortably until Adolph Hitler marches in and annexes Austria, and they're forced to flee. "What's so wonderful about this book is Isabelle had little pieces from the time she was 6 to the old age of 17 — and just from little pieces that I told her all my life, she put that book together," Ilse explains. "This is all from her head. It makes the book even more important."
Isabelle got about four chapters done (in sixth grade) when school activities took priority. In 11th grade, she decided it was time to finish the manuscript. "My Grams and I had gotten even closer," she explains. "I realized that I needed to do this project before it was too late. I felt I finally had the maturity to fully approach the topic and I felt this need and responsibility to write."
Despite a busy course load for her junior year, Isabelle finished all 179 pages of the book with the help of her faculty advisor, Matthew Valji. Valji acted as reviewer and guide while she churned out chapters. Isabelle self-published the book at the end of her junior year. Amazon included the book in its Top Ten in Children's Holocaust Fiction, and it immediately became the No. 1 new release in Children's Holocaust Fiction.
For Ilse, the stories came easily, although sometimes painfully. Isabelle would ask her questions about her past while she sewed or knitted, and she offered dozens. But Isabelle had more to do. "The other characters required more research, as I had to do a lot of reading on Viennese Jews to make sure I was accurately representing the historical experience.
"I tried to find records of my family. But after looking into Holocaust databases in France, Israel, Poland, Germany, Vienna and Washington, D.C., we concluded that they must have been sent straight to the gas chambers in Auschwitz."
Before publishing the book, Isabelle also visited Vienna to put herself physically in the same place as her great-grandmother.
"I stayed very close to the Hoher Markt where my great-grandma lived," she recalls. "I also visited her old synagogue. From Vienna, we went to Berlin where I learned even more about the ins and outs of Hitler's ideology. We visited the house by Lake Wannsee where the final solution was decided on. Then we traveled to Krakow and visited Auschwitz. It was a very haunting and touching experience to know that I was standing in the place where my family and my characters had perished."
Isabelle said she also talked to many La Jolla residents to hear their memories of the Holocaust. She was shocked at the reaction she got at her first reading and book signing at Casa de Manana.
"Audience members were crying," she remembers. "I didn't think my words could bring people to tears. But then I realized that they were crying because they lived through the war and through this event. One lady told me that she found it so touching that young people are interested in the stories that she lived through."
Isabelle found a deeper meaning in her work as well. "I wanted my family's story to serve as a reminder to young people that this horrible atrocity didn't happen that long ago and could very easily happen again," she says.
The young author also sees a connection to what's going on in the world today. "This story shows how the lives of young people and their families can be so drastically altered by a failure in the democratic system and process," she muses. "I also think it's a strong reminder of what happens when we disregard human rights and human life."
Isabelle said she hopes to pursue a writing career and says she'll major in Journalism, English or Political Science in college. She hopes to write another book in her lifetime.
—"From Vienna" has sold more than 400 copies to date. It's available wherever books are sold.