The Young Survivors is inspired by the life of your own mother, I believe, and specifically her experiences during the Holocaust, can you tell us a bit about this background and the decision to transform it into this book?
My mother was born in France in 1938. She lost her parents and two siblings, including her twin sister aged six, at Auschwitz. I always knew that my mother was a Holocaust survivor but she never spoke about it and it was a subject we avoided so as not to upset her. This changed in 2006 when my mother was reunited with a lady who had looked after her in the orphanage in Paris in 1943. This ‘opened the door’ to allow me to ask more questions and do some research. Mum remembered almost nothing herself – she had been so young during the war – but I started to gather information and build a picture of what happened to the family.
It’s so important to keep the victims’ memories alive by telling these stories and that’s why I decided to write The Young Survivors, as a tribute to my own family and the 75,000 French Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
Given that personal connection, did it make the storytelling easier or harder to write? Were there any particular elements that you struggled with because of this?
I think it must have made it more difficult for me, yet this was a story that I had to write. I managed to overcome these particular challenges by changing the names and writing it as historical fiction, so the characters were exactly that – characters – and not members of my family. If I had been thinking about my mother when I was writing about Georgette, I would have been in bits most of the time and, most probably, wouldn’t have been able to continue.
I found the children’s voices especially poignant, how important was it for you to give these voices and their stories prominence?
I wanted The Young Survivors to invite readers to consider the tragic fate of the Jewish children left behind after their parents were deported to Auschwitz, and the best way to do that was to write it in the first person through the eyes of the children or, as my publisher put it, I chose to write it in the most difficult way possible! Although the three narrators are siblings, they vary in ages from 17 to four and they each had very different experiences during the war.
What were the challenges and opportunities of writing from these perspectives? Did you connect with one character more than the others or were you able to inhabit them all similarly?
I found the boys more challenging because we are all girls in my family – I have one sister, two daughters and two nieces – so it was difficult to put myself in the mindset of teenage boys. Then again, Georgette was equally challenging because she was so young and I didn’t want to write in a babyish voice. I would say I connected most with Georgette as she is the character inspired by my mother.
The different age ranges of the three children gives a superb cross-section of experiences, did you ever consider including any adult perspectives, aside from the opening and closing chapters, or did you always want the focus solely on the children?
I did consider it but I decided to stick with the story being narrated by the children but using their voices to convey the feelings of their parents and other adults through how the children interpreted the demeanour, words and actions of the adults.
Without giving anything away, did you ever think about including Claude or Henriette’s perspectives?
I see Georgette as the spokesperson for Claude and Henriette, as they were together most of the time, whereas Pierre and Samuel took very different routes. But actually Henriette does have a voice…
During your research for the novel, I understand you connected with adults who survived this period, how was it to hear their experiences first-hand?
It was incredible. This was the most valuable part of my research, without a doubt. I met a lady called Denise who had looked after my mother in an orphanage near Paris in 1943/44. She was able to tell me what it had been like for the young children and their day-to-day lives. It was amazing to hear, particularly as my mother never spoke about it. I also met a man called Fred whose brother had been run over by Nazis in their small village near Poitiers and I was able to write that into my book. I meet Holocaust survivors often through my job; I work for The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) running a project to help members write their own life story books. Their stories are all amazing and I am privileged to hear them.
I feel that the novel really gives a sense of the life-long loss that survivors experienced, how do you think those experiences shaped not only the survivors’ lives, but the lives of their children and future generations?
That’s a very interesting subject which is being spoken about more these days as the ‘second generation’ (children of survivors) are losing their parents and thinking more about their relationships with their parents and with their own children. It can be very complicated. There are studies to suggest that PTSD can be passed down to children – inherited trauma – which I’m not an expert on but I do know that Holocaust survivors who grew up without parents often found it difficult to be a parent themselves, and in turn this may have an effect on how second generation survivors treat their own children. Like I said, it’s complicated!
There have been lots of brilliant books in recent years especially that focus on the Holocaust, including your own novel, how important are these stories today?
It’s so important to keep telling these stories and it’s not surprising that so many are being published now, as the last survivors leave us. If we want to make sure that the atrocities of the Holocaust are not repeated, it’s vital we keep these stories alive to educate future generations. However, I would add a word of caution about books which are not historically accurate as these can fuel Holocaust denial. I was meticulous in my research and delighted to receive a glowing endorsement from The Wiener Holocaust Library as testament to my hard work.
Do you think enough is done to keep this vital history alive and where do you feel we are at as a society in terms of recognising and remembering this period of history?
As I’ve mentioned I run a project for The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) called My Story to produce life story books for Holocaust survivors and refugees of Nazi persecution, which are available to read online. AJR also have a video testimony project called Refugee Voices, an archive of over 200 filmed interviews. And now we find that some second generation are taking over the responsibility of telling the stories of their parents, whether it is by writing a book or by speaking to schoolchildren. I have recently signed up to become a speaker for a new organisation called Generation2Generation which helps descendants of survivors to keep the history alive.
As a debut author what have been the biggest highs and lows of your experience so far?
The highs have been going to a bookshop to sign copies of The Young Survivors and see it on the shelves, and the amazing reviews which it has received including messages from people I haven’t seen for years who tell me how much they enjoyed it.
The lows have been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. My publication date was delayed from May to July, which turned out to be totally the right decision and gave me something positive to focus on during lockdown. I didn’t get my dream book launch, but I did have a fabulous socially distanced publication party with family and friends in my garden. My fellow book club members had The Young Survivors face masks made, and I bought a bottle of blue Prosecco from Italy. It was perfect.
My greatest sadness is that Mum won’t get to read my book. She died in 2010 and it was only after she passed that I felt able to research her story and write a book about it. If she were still alive I probably wouldn’t have been able to write it as it would have been too traumatic for her.
Are there any other books in the pipeline?
I do hope so.