Friday, September 16, 2022

Q&A with Sara Shemin Cass and Dan Burstein




Sara Shemin Cass and Dan Burstein are the authors of the new children's book The Ivy Hero: The Brave Life of Sergeant William Shemin. He was their grandfather; he fought in World War I and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Cass works at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Burstein is an author and is managing partner of the venture capital firm Millennium Technology Value Partners.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book about Sgt. William Shemin?  

Dan Burstein: The Ivy Hero was my cousin Sara’s idea. I had previously written 14 nonfiction books, generally for adults, on varied topics, but I had never written a children’s book. In 2015, many of our extended family members came together for a very special moment at the White House when both Sgt. William Shemin and Henry Johnson, an African American World War I hero, were posthumously awarded Medals of Honor by President Obama.


Under President Obama’s leadership, that day became a celebration of service to country, patriotism, and triumph over the dark forces of antisemitism, racism, and discrimination, which had prevented these two American heroes from receiving Medals of Honor a century earlier, in real time.


A few years after that momentous event, Sara had her first grandchild. She began to think that the generation of the family that she and I hailed from had known William Shemin firsthand. Our adult children had heard stories when the families had gathered and they were at the White House ceremony in 2015 and learned a lot on that occasion.


But what about the grandchildren, who were just born? Why not write a children’s book for them? My wife and I became grandparents soon after Sara did. We could envision ourselves reading such a book to our grandchildren and relished the idea of passing these stories along to future generations.

Sara Shemin Cass: The idea germinated when my son and daughter-in-law were expecting a baby in 2018. At that year’s Thanksgiving, I said to Dan, “So when are we going to write a children’s book about William Shemin?” He was immediately receptive to the idea and soon, the process began.


As we talked it over, we agreed that we should try to create a book that had a larger reach than just the Shemin family. I thought that, in this political and social environment, it would be important to have a book that would be uplifting and inspiring, particularly as William Shemin’s life demonstrated such things as bravery, patriotism, hard work, and other important family values.


We both understood that there could be interested readers among audiences and institutions involved with the military, veterans, and minorities that were discriminated against, especially but not only, Jewish and Black readers, because the book also tells the story of Henry Johnson, the African American hero who was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama simultaneously with my grandfather.


And we were hopeful that this book could be adopted by schools and libraries as a way to teach younger people values, such as bravery and patriotism, as well as history and social studies kinds of topics, such as the fight against discrimination, the story of immigration, and, of course, the events of WWI.


Elsie Shemin-Roth, Sgt. Shemin’s daughter (and my aunt), who led the fight over 15 years to have him re-considered for the Medal of Honor, urged the whole family to tell the story of William Shemin in conjunction with the story of Henry Johnson.


So that was one of our goals in writing the book—to weave together these two stories of bravery and courage that both take place on World War I battlefields in France in 1918—a Jewish American hero and an African American hero—both of whom then finally get the recognition they deserve by President Obama nearly a century later.


It was also important to us that Elsie be seen as a heroine in this book. We wanted to help ensure that girls would be able to relate to the book and be able to identify with the type of bravery that Elsie exhibited and to see that there was more than one way to be a hero outside of the battlefields of war.


Q: How did you two collaborate on the book and what was your process like?


DB: Sara and I worked very closely together in putting the material together. We utilized the resources of two professional children’s book writers to get us started. Most of this effort was done “virtually” during the pandemic years, when we were limited as to how much we could see each other in person, so we had a lot of conference calls and Zooms.


Elsie was amazing. She is not only the matriarch of the family, but the keeper of William Shemin’s legacy in every detail. It is her vision that infuses The Ivy Hero at every point.


She is in her 90s today and she was ready to respond to every email, answer every question, send every vintage family photo we wanted with captions explaining what was happening in the picture, and provide every relevant document we needed for the book.

The book will be officially published Oct. 25 and, as with any large-scale project, it has been brought to fruition through a small village of able, enthusiastic and seasoned publishing professionals--City Point Press for publishing; major traditional channels for distribution; a talented illustrator, a great designer, a really big team of family members helping out in every way imaginable, and an independent publicist.


Q: How much did you know about Bill Shemin’s life as you were growing up, and did you learn anything surprising as you worked on the book?


SSC: My grandfather was larger than life. As a child he was somewhat daunting – very tall and erect and walked with a cane. He spoke loudly and with confidence and was a disciplinarian. For example, when eating, we had to “clean our plates” and we couldn’t leave a restaurant unless everything was eaten.


He was proud of me, as I was the first grandchild, and was also a good student, took my school work seriously, and got good grades. He would test me on such things as the names of the U.S. presidents and the capitals for each of the 50 states. And he was especially proud when I turned 13 and he attended my bat mitzvah. He was thrilled that I was following the Jewish religion and this special ritual.

I learned several things from him as a child such as how to raise the flag, bring it down at the end of the day, and fold it in a special way. My three sisters and I had to stand at attention as this process unfolded each day and night when we took our summer vacations at his house in Chazy, New York. And I learned the importance of honesty and being a good citizen.

But his everlasting impression on me was solidified with the beautifully handwritten letters that he wrote to me during my childhood. His handwriting was like a professional calligrapher. He would write what he and my grandmother were doing and, at the same time, share his Shemin family values, such as the importance of staying with your family and religion and to “always do more than what is asked of you.”


I have saved all his letters. Looking back now, I see that this was an important way he passed down his values. I still read and treasure them to this day. They were also an inspiration for The Ivy Hero. An excerpt from one of the letters is included in the book, and readers will also be able to see first-hand the elegant handwriting, which is today a dying art.

After writing this book I gained a greater appreciation for the service and sacrifice of those who enter the military. And I gained an understanding of my grandfather’s pride for having served and having been part of something where he was willing to risk his life. I learned from my Aunt Elsie that he said “it was never about the medals.”


Growing up, his focus on the military and veterans was unique – no one else I knew talked about these things. And now I can finally understand and admire all the time he spent as an adult going to various veterans’ meetings and conventions and how the continued commitment to his country permeated his entire life.


While I knew a lot about my grandfather’s personal life, I really didn’t know that much about World War I history, until we did the research for the book. Nor did I know the important battles that he fought in. It was great to learn this history, including the importance of the 4th Infantry Division and significance of its ivy leaf logo and motto, “steadfast and loyal.”


The fact that my grandfather adopted the ivy leaf insignia as his logo for his greenhouse and nursery business really brought home to me the impact of his wartime experience and the meaning the military and World War I had on his adult life.

DB: My family had moved to southern California from the East Coast long before I was born. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, far away from most of my Shemin family relatives. Yet Bill Shemin loomed legendarily large in my household. My father’s mother was a Shemin and Bill was her first cousin.


Bill had given my father his first job when my father was a teenager. My father had worked for Bill in the Bronx greenhouse we mention in the book. My father used to tell me bedtime stories about his own childhood, and he would sometimes tell stories about Bill.

One time Bill and his wife Bertha came to visit us in California. It was the late 1950s. Bill didn’t fly. He and Bertha took a train. It was the first time I had been to the train station in Los Angeles. I was about 5 years old, and Bill told me stories about World War I. It was very exciting.
Almost a decade later, my family decided to go to the Montreal Expo ’67. After visiting  Montreal, we rented a car, and drove to New York City via the town of Chazy near Lake Champlain, where Bill and Bertha had their summer home. We stopped there to see them.


By this time, I was almost 14. I was very impressed with the garden they had in Chazy. Bill showed me all the vegetables and herbs he was growing there. This being the late 1960s—the golden age of fast and frozen foods in America—I think I can say our meals with Bill and Bertha were among the first farm-to-table meals of my life.  
Around 1981, my wife and I moved to New York City, and then eventually to Connecticut. We reconnected with a lot of the relatives that President Obama would refer to at the 2015 White House Medal of Honor ceremony as “a whole platoon of Shemins.”
In the late 2000s, I became aware of all the work Elsie was doing to get a bill passed through Congress to reconsider the cases of World War I soldiers who had been passed over for the Medal of Honor in their lifetimes because of racial or religious discrimination.


In 2014, just as Elsie was nearing success in her effort to have William Shemin considered for a posthumous Medal of Honor, our local Weston Historical Society in Connecticut put on a show about World War I history in our area. My wife and I added some materials about Sgt. Shemin’s history and Elsie’s campaign.


As I talked about this episode in history to interested friends and wrote an article about it for a local magazine, I got an overwhelmingly fascinated reception. I knew this would make for good storytelling in a book.


Q: How would you describe Bill Shemin's legacy today?

DB: A life of service—particularly in the military—but a larger sense of service and duty to your country…A belief in the “can do” spirit that says: If you see a problem, don’t wait for someone else to fix it, try to fix it yourself.
Bill had a strong sense of family and passed down important values. He believed in education, and in his Jewish faith—not in a dogmatic way—but with the values of Judaism infusing his life and being part of his moral compass. He also believed in honesty and the value of working hard. These values were passed down to his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren


As we note in the book, William Shemin was like many other first-generation American Jews born in this country from immigrant parents: He, and many soldiers like him, were so thankful that the United States had welcomed their families and provided them with a place to live and thrive and raise their children free from the oppression of Russia and many other places in Europe, they saw it as their duty to respond to the call for volunteers to fight in World War I.


Jews constituted only 3 percent of the U.S. population at the time of the Great War, but, because of people like Bill, they made up 6 percent of the armed forces who went into battle.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?  

SSC: We both hope, that young readers of any socioeconomic background, race, religion, or gender can be heroes, too. By telling the story of three different heroes—Bill, Henry, and Elsie—we wanted young people to see there are so many different ways to become a hero.


They don’t need “superpowers” (although it didn’t hurt that Bill was a big, strong guy and a great athlete). But what Bill needed most was courage, strength of character, belief in his country which had taken his family in as immigrants and refugees from Tsarist Russia, and the ability to follow his own moral compass. These were his real superpowers. Any young person can develop those character traits, even in today’s much more complex world.


DB: We also hope people will understand that, despite all the progress we made on every front against discrimination and for the expansion of rights in the 20th century, many of those rights are under renewed attach today. 


The Ivy Hero is particularly about antisemitism at the time of World War I toward people like William Shemin and racism at the time of World War I toward African American soldiers like Henry Johnson.


But as we all know many other minorities are under threats today; many groups who had hard fought and won civil and human rights established over the last century legally and morally are seeing a quickening erosion of those rights. Tolerance is giving way to hatred even faster than the global climate is changing.


The Ivy Hero is a story of one small battle in the war against injustice and hatred. If Elsie Shemin-Roth could win a small victory, perhaps you can too in whatever issue you are facing. We can all draw some inspiration from William Shemin’s story—and Henry Johnson’s and Elsie’s—for the many battles that have to be fought today and tomorrow.


Q: What are you working on now?

DB: For the next year, our goal is to get the word out about The Ivy Hero. Bill Shemin grew up in Bayonne, N.J., and there’s a school that was named for him there in 2019. The school district in Bayonne has ordered over two thousand books to use with students throughout their system.

Various members of the extended Shemin family and friends are trying to organize their own distribution initiatives of The Ivy Hero to schools, libraries, churches, museums, military bases, and synagogues in cities and towns all over America

I am a still relatively new grandfather (our grand-twins are now 3 years old) and, although I never saw myself as a children’s book writer, my wife and I have developed another idea or two for children’s books while working on this one. I am also working on several anthologies of my poems written over the last two decades, which I hope to publish in the not-too-distant future.


And of course, I continue my “day job” as a managing partner at Millennium Technology Value Partners, a New York-based venture capital firm. Venture capital is a field driven by innovation where there’s always new breakthroughs and always something new every day.
SSC: I still have a full-time job working in bank supervision at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where I have worked for over 37 years. Working on this book opened me up to a whole new world of writing and publishing.


I was able to learn so much from my cousin Dan and the other professionals that have participated in the project. I learned how common sense, not being afraid to express a viewpoint, and good organizational and financial skills can be applied to any field or project that one endeavors to participate in.

There is still so much more to do with this book in terms of marketing and getting the book “out there.” I am particularly excited about the curriculum that is being developed around The Ivy Hero by a teacher at the William Shemin Midtown Community School in Bayonne and how this educational material will be shared with other schools.


While I don’t think there is another book in me as an author, I may want to explore how I could assist an author to bring a book to publication.


Q: Anything else we should know?  

DB and SSC: There's a website for The Ivy Hero at
On the website, we hope not only to continue to tell the story of William Shemin and Henry Johnson in creative ways, but also to keep up with the news of all the other amazing Medal of Honor stories.


This includes most especially the efforts made by President Biden and President Obama before him (prompted by people like Elsie Shemin-Roth and many others), to recognize more of the unrecognized or under-recognized heroes--those who showed such courage and contributed so much to our country’s defense but were overlooked at the time of their service for Medals of Honor, because they didn’t fit the expected or assumed profile of a “hero.”  


New breakthroughs are being made in overcoming the legacy of racism and discrimination in recognizing these heroes from various wars and conflicts on a regular basis now. These stories are being told; other great books are being written. In a time where there are so many problems to deal with, it is always inspiring to learn about this history.


Many thanks, Deborah, for this opportunity to tell our story to a new audience of potential readers! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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