Saturday, 15 September 2018

Even if I was never published, I would still be writing stories...

Interview with Elizabeth Chadwick
by Agnes A. Rose

Elizabeth Chadwick was born in Bury (Lancashire). When she was three years old she moved with her family to Scotland where she spent her childhood. Aged ten, she came to Nottingham and she has lived there ever since. She says of herself that she was born a storyteller. She remembers that before she could read and write, she would open her picture books at her favourite illustrations and make up some new tales. But she did not write anything down until she was fifteen. Her first foray into historical fiction, a work of fiction about the Holy Land in the twelfth century, led her to realise she wanted to write historical fiction for a living. After years of writing and rejections she was finally published in 1989. The novel was titled The Wild Hunt and won a Betty Trask Award. Elizabeth Chadwick has gone on to become one of Britain's foremost historical novelists and has been called by The Historical Novel Society “the best writer of medieval fiction currently around”. She is published internationally and her work has been translated into many languages. The author is renowned for her extensive research into the medieval period and particularly so in the area of the Marshal and Bigod families. Her novels about the 13th century magnate William Marshal, The Greatest Knight (2005) and The Scarlet Lion (2006), have brought her international acclaim. Recently her trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine has been published in Poland.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much that you accepted my invitation to take part in this interview. I am very honored that I can host you on my blog and talk to you. You create stories set in the era of the Middle Ages. Why? What is special in this epoch that you decided to write about it?

Published by SPHERE
(4 Dec. 2008)
Elizabeth Chadwick: It’s pure chance that it came to be the Middle Ages. I became interested in the period after I watched a couple of historical dramas on the television. The first was “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, starring Keith Michelle and I began writing a Tudor story. I was 14 at the time and it was the school holidays. When school began again, I put the book away. The next year the BBC put on a children's historical adventure series that was titled “Desert Crusader”. It was dubbed from French. The original was titled “Thibaud ou les Croisades” and you can find episodes these days on YouTube under that title. I fell in love with the hero and began writing my own form of fan fiction. However, the story developed a brand-new life of its own and became very from the character in the TV programme. Writing the book in between my school lessons made me realise that I wanted to write historical fiction for a living. I was only 16 years old, but I knew my career path. I wanted my story to feel as real as possible and that meant doing the research. The more I researched, the more interested, I became in the medieval period and the more I wanted to write about it. It was never ending circle, one interest feeding from the other.

AAR: Before you published “The Wild Hunt”, you couldn’t find a literary agent. Your books were rejected for many years. What were you feeling at that time? Were you furious because you knew that you were writing well but no one wanted to appreciate your work?

EC: Not in the least. I knew it was what I was meant to do and that at some point I would get there. Basically, I was serving my apprenticeship and those hours at the typewriter and in front of the screen had to be done. I never saw rejection as a personal thing. It just made me all the more determined that the next book I wrote would be so good that people wouldn't be able to refuse it. Even though it happened many times, it never put me off. I had been telling myself stories of one kind or another since small childhood so it was actually a part of who I was. Even if I was never published, I would still be writing stories. You need to be lucky to be published, but you also need to be good enough and the times I was being rejected, I was still learning my craft, but had not reached a high enough standard. Toward the end of my apprenticeship. If that is what you want to call it, I was recognising that I was becoming as good as the published novelists out there. I began winning competitions and I had faith that I would succeed. So no, I never felt furious. If I wasn't being published, then I wasn't good enough. I recognised that reality without beating myself up about it. It just gave me the determination to be better.

AAR: After having published “The Wild Hunt”, you wrote the continuation of that story. What motivated you to take on this challenge?

EC: My motivation was that I was interested in the family I had written about and wanted to continue their story for a while at least. The main drive to me is the writing and being curious about history and about the people who lived in that history, whether real or imaginary.

AAR: I must admit that I have been interested in the history of England for many years. I am still discovering something new in it. I also write and read a lot about the United Kingdom’s history. Three years ago I wrote an article about William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke. I know that in your literary output you have also books related to this character. Could you tell us something more about them? What motivated you to write about William Marshal and his family?

The Polish edition of
 "The Greatest Knight"
Published by AURUM PRESS (2010)
Translated by
Anna Krawczyk-Łaskarzewska
EC: William Marshal was the fourth son of John  FitzGilbert, who was the Royal Marshal at a time of great upheaval in England. He was of the middle rank of the aristocracy. But William was destined for greater things. He was nearly hanged as a small boy when he was a hostage during a siege. However, the king could not bring himself to do the deed and William was later returned to his family. He grew up to become an expert in the military arts, with a particular talent for the tournament when he made a name for himself.

He entered service with the Angevin kings, first as a tutor and Marshal to King Henry II’s eldest son, also called Henry. When young Henry died rebelling against his father, William swore to take the young man's cloak to Jerusalem and lay it on the tomb of the holy sepulchre. Having achieved his goal, he returned and continued to serve Henry II.

Following Henry's death, William entered the patronage of Richard the Lionheart, who granted him a hand in marriage of a young heiress, Isabelle de Clare. William now became a magnate of the realm and when Richard went on crusade he left William as one of the co-governors of the country. Following Richard's death, William also served King John and was one of the senior barons involved in issuing Magna Carta. For a while, he was also Regent of England for the young King Henry III.

His lifetime was one of high drama. He was a great fighter, sportsmen, statesman and politician. In his domestic life he was father to 10 children, five boys and five girls and his marriage seems to have been a long and loving partnership of 30 years. I have written several books about him. “The Greatest Knight” covers the part of his life as a young knight and leaves him in 1194 with his wife and the beginnings of his family and looking to expand his horizons. Its sequel “The Scarlet Lion” takes him through the rest of his life when he became a great politician and statesman and took on his wife's Irish lands. There is a prequel to these two novels titled “A Place Beyond Courage” that tells the story of his father John FitzGilbert. “The Time of Singing” is the story of a family related to the Marshals, the Bigods, and its sequel “To Defy A King” is the story of William Marshal's daughter Mahelt, who married into this family. My most recent novel in the UK is “Templar Silks”, a stand-alone novel covering the time that William spent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 

As far as what prompted me to write the Marshal stories – it is always about interest and curiosity with me. I go delving and then I want to know more. Originally I was just going to write about William Marshal because I felt he had a really interesting life that would translate well into the medium of the novel, but I discovered when I began researching that it went far beyond that and I had enough material for several novels and a passion to keep me interested for the rest of my life. I have been studying the marshals now for 15 years, and I'm still learning new things every day. I have a deep admiration for William Marshal. He was a man of his time, certainly, and operated within the norms of that society, but underlying that is a powerful integrity of which I feel there isn't enough in the world today.

The Polish edition of
 "Daughters of The Graal"
Published by
Translated by
Anna Krawczyk-Łaskarzewska
AAR:  Apart from the trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine and “The Greatest Knight”, your Polish readers can also read “Daughters of The Grail”. Could you tell us something more about this book? What prompted you to write this story?

EC: I was commissioned to write “Daughters of The Grail” by a film producer who had written a treatment and wanted it fleshing out into a novel. The film never got made but the book went on to be published around the world. It’s a sort of medieval “Da Vinci Code” with a slight fantasy element and covers the story of the persecution of the Cathars, among them the descendants of a certain bloodline.

AAR: Now let’s talk about your trilogy related to Eleanor of Aquitaine that has been published in Poland recently. It is said that Eleanor was the most prominent woman of 12th century Europe. She was recognized by Time magazine as one of the most influential and powerful women of the past millennium. Do you think that the Queen deserved to be called “the most influential woman of the millennium”?

EC: I think she was an amazing woman. Strong, forthright, resilient, very intelligent. I think there must be very many women of that period who have the same qualities, but Eleanor has been the one to stand in the spotlight. Yes, she deserves it for all that she was, but she could be part of a much greater chorus of women.

AAR:  What most surprised you while working on the trilogy?

EC: What really astonished me was how difficult it was to find a decent biography of Eleanor. There are numerous works an interested reader can study about her, but many are highly unreliable. They state opinions as facts and are very loose in their interpretations. Given that the only representation of Eleanor is her tomb effigy, a stylized stained glass window and a grey-haired lady in the Fécamp Psalter who may or may not be Eleanor, it’s astonishing to find her biographers calling her a black-haired, black-eyed beauty with a curvaceous figure that never ran to fat in old age. Or a saucy hot-blooded blonde, or a humorous green-eyed red-head. None of these can be taken as accurate because there is no existing physical description of Eleanor from her own lifetime. Basically most of her biographers cannot be trusted. I did find a couple of books that were grounded and gave good information but overall it was difficult to find decent factual works about her that didn’t leap off a cliff into flights of fantasy. I know I am writing fiction, but I like to have a strong grounding in a factual historical background and it was hard despite – or perhaps because of the numerous nonfiction works that have been written about Eleanor.

AAR: How much time did it take you to prepare to write the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine? Did you have any problems with researching?

EC: I have been writing medieval fiction for several decades, so I already had a base line awareness. Writing the William Marshal novels I had become familiar with Eleanor too, so I already had some research under my belt. I always research as I write, so probably the intensive research took about 18 months, but I already had a strong background awareness. My problems as above mentioned is that many of her biographers could not be trusted. I tried as much as possible to go back to primary source research, but that in itself is a difficult project. I can get by in Latin and Old French but I do prefer to read works in translation.

AAR: If you could travel back in time and meet Eleanor of Aquitaine, what would you like to tell her? How do you generally imagine meeting such the powerful Queen?

EC: I would tell her to run away from Henry II! What I would say from the research I have done is that anyone striving to know Eleanor better should read a book called “Inventing Eleanor” by Michael Evans, which shows how much has been made up about her down the centuries and how the image we have of her today (especially if we read some of her popular biographies) is nothing like the person who inhabited the 12th century.

Here is the Polish edition of the historical trilogy about Eleonor of Aquitaine:
The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown & The Autumn Throne.
They were published in 2017/2018 by PRÓSZYŃSKI I S-KA
Translated by Magdalena Moltzan-Małkowska

AAR: It is said that Richard the Lionheart was the most beloved child of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Could you tell us how you perceive this King? Have you written a novel about him? If not, do you have such a plan?

EC: No, I haven’t written about Richard the Lionheart nor do I plan to. My good friend Sharon Penman has written two excellent novels about him – “Lionheart” and “A King’s Ransom”, should anyone want to read a work of fiction about him. I would say that he was Eleanor’s favourite, but this was partly because from birth he was the son destined to inherit the maternal lands. He was raised to be her heir and so she was bound to gravitate to him. His skill was warfare. He was also an accomplished musician in his quieter moments and politically astute.  A complex and interesting man.

AAR: During the Second Crusade where the first Eleanor’s husband, Louis VII of France, took part in, there were some rumors that the Queen was having a love affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers. What do you think? Were there definitely just rumors, or maybe Eleanor really became the main character of the moral scandal?

EC: I don’t think she had an affair with her uncle. When you look at the evidence for and against in depth, it mostly emerges on the negative side. Some writers have suggested it happened, but I suspect it’s the sensationalism that draws them rather than admitting to the probable more prosaic truth. I have written a full blog about why I don’t think for one minute that they had an affair. Here’s the url.

AAR: As I mentioned above you live in Nottingham. According to the legend, Robin Hood was supposed to live near this place. He is also very strongly associated with two sons of Eleanor, Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. I must admit that I have been fascinated by Robin of Sherwood since my childhood. Although I have read and written about him a lot, he is still a mystery to me. Could you tell us what the truth is? Did the Eleanor’s sons really have anything to do with Robin Hood?    

EC: No, I don’t think they did. Indeed, I do not believe that Robin Hood was every actually around so early. He’s a product of the ballads of the later Middle Ages and as such is a fictional character. He may be an amalgam of several outlaw types rife in the 14th century onwards but in actuality the myth has grown out of itself and become the life that never was. Hollywood and modern fiction writers are the main instigators of Robin Hood in the late 12th and early 13th centuries I’m afraid.

Published by SPHERE
(7 Sept. 2006)
AAR: Let’s go back to your books for a moment. So far you have written a lot of novels. Do you have your favourite story among them; the one you love more than others?

EC: For me that would be a bit like asking a mother if she had a favourite child! Each book I write always has something unique about it that makes it special to me. My first published novel “The Wild Hunt” was the one that won a major UK award and that obtained me representation by a top London literary agency. “Lords of The White Castle” was my first attempt at biographical fiction and has been a bestseller, “The Greatest Knight” was a New York Times bestseller and started me on my journey with William Marshal. My Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy has led me to think in very different ways about a great Medieval queen and who she might have been really under all the glitter and dust we have sprinkled over her life. Every book has taught me something unique about the people and their life and times as I research. So the answer has to be no they are all my favourites.

AAR: And what about the protagonists? Is there the one that you like most and you always smile when you are thinking about him or her?

EC: It’s the same answer as the previous one but with a couple of exceptions. John Marshal in my novel “A Place Beyond Courage” has always stayed with me because I feel history has written him a bad deal – or rather our modern interpretation of history and our laziness in not actually pausing to lift the sheets and look under the surface has given us a simplistic view of a complex man striving to survive in very difficult times. And of course, the great William Marshal. A legend in his own lifetime, and even more of one today. But underneath it all a flesh and blood man with flaws and merits, passions, preferences and dislikes. I’d like to have been in a position to have known him in his own lifetime.

AAR: Is there anything, any era or a character, you would like to write about, but you think that the right time has not come to do it?

EC: Yes, many, but I’m not going to tell you. That’s something that creatively stays under my hat until I’m ready!

AAR: How important are your readers to you? Do you have a good contact with them? How much do they help you while writing?

EC: If I didn’t have readers I wouldn’t have a job! I get on very well with my readers, many of whom have become good friends. I have an open Facebook author group for news and features and feedback – it’s not all about promotion.  I share my research with my readers and daily doings. We’re all people with all our particular interests and skills and it’s good to socialize while doing the day job.

AAR: You told me that there is a chance of publishing your next book in Poland. Could you tell us something more about it if it is not a secret?

Published by SPHERE
(13 Sept. 2012)
EC: I think “Lady of the English” is soon to be published in Poland. It’s about two women and the struggle for the English crown in the 12th century. Matilda, daughter of the king, has had her throne usurped (as she sees it) by her cousin Stephen and she is determined to have it back for herself and her heirs. She is helped by her stepmother, who is actually Matilda’s own age and with a gentler personality, but nevertheless a steely determination to see that justice prevails.

AAR: Finally, I would like to ask you about your next project? Are you working on a new novel?

EC: I have just begun one, but since it is the very early stages and has not yet gone to contract, again I cannot say, beyond the fact that it is set in the 13th century and stars two very charismatic protagonists!

AAR: Elizabeth, thank you so much for this nice conversation. It was a great pleasure for me to be able to talk to you. Is there anything you would like to add or tell your Polish readers?

EC: Just thank you for reading my books and I hope you all continue to enjoy them! And thank you for interviewing me and asking such varied questions!

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

I met Henry by a random referral when I wrote for the newspaper...

Interview with Katrina Shawver
by Agnes A. Rose

Katrina Shawver is an experienced writer, blogger, speaker, and the author of Henry  A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America, an adult nonfiction biography released in 2017 to high praise. She holds a BA from the University of Arizona in English/Political Science, and began her writing career more than twenty years ago by writing hundreds of newspaper columns for The Arizona Republic. Her favorite quote is ”What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, USA with her husband Rick.

Agnes A. Rose: Katrina, I am very honored that I can host you on my blog and talk to you. In November you published your first book that tells about Henry Zguda who was a Catholic Pole. What happened that you met Henry? After all, there are many Poles who lived or still live in America because they left Poland due to the Second World War or communism. Why was it Henry?

Katrina Shawver:  I am equally honored by your interest. I met Henry by a random referral when I wrote for the newspaper. Except for that phone call we would have never met. I did not seek this story; it came to me by sheer luck and providence. I had never known anyone who was Polish before Henry. I still cannot explain the impulsive decision to offer to write his story, except that he was 85 years old, so there was no time to waste in capturing his memories. He and (his wife) Nancy had no children, and he had no siblings to leave his story to. His story truly would have been lost to history had we not met. He was also very nice and easy to talk with.

AAR: Henry Zguda was arrested in 1942 in Krakow by Germans and sent to Montelupich Prison. Next he went on to survive several concentration camps. Knowing the realities of the Nazi death camps it is very difficult to imagine how Henry was able to survive there. So could you tell the Polish readers, who have not read your book, what he did that he managed to save his life?

KS: Henry would argue that he survived because others saved his life several times, just as he helped who he could. I truly believe that every story of survival is unique and involves a great deal of luck. Did the guards look away at just the right moment? How does one manage to avoid typhus when everyone around you is dying of it? Why was the person standing behind you selected for a firing squad when you weren't? Things happen without explanation.

Henry was fortunate that he had studied German in high school so he could understand, read, and write German. Prisoners who understood German had a longer life expectancy in any concentration camp. At the time of his arrest, Henry was twenty-five-years old and a strong athlete. He was used to hard work and was a quick thinker. He did observe that academics and those accustomed to less physical conditions perished far faster. They just could not adapt physically to the harsh conditions.

AAR: What happened to Henry’s family when he was arrested?

KS: Henry was an only child, and his father died when Henry was an infant, so there was only Henry's mother, Karolina Zguda. She remained in Krakow and continued to work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family throughout the war. Henry's mother lived in Krakow her entire life.

AAR: When Henry arrived in America how did his life look like? What was the most important for him when he started living in a new place?

KS: Henry and a friend defected from communist Poland in 1956 when the regime became very hard line. Neither had ever been married. When he and his friend set sail for America two years later they were free to create new lives. He wanted to see the land of two of his movie heroes: Tom Mix and Elvis Presley.

AAR: Did Henry ever think about coming back to Poland and spending here the rest of his life? As we all know, Poland ceased to be a communist country in 1989.

KS: No. Henry arrived in New York City in January 1959 and married his wife Nancy a year later. She came from a large Italian family and they built a very happy life together. He later became a US citizen. Henry did visit Poland at least once in the 1970s that I know of. Nancy did not accompany him because she felt awkward not speaking Polish, and there was still an active arrest warrant for Henry as a defector. In 1989 when communism finally fell, Henry was already seventy-two years old, retired, his mother had long since passed away, and he had outlived most of his friends in Poland. His life was in the United States, even though he always carried Poland in his heart, and always told me how beautiful his home country was.

AAR: While researching what was the most frightening for you? What event in your hero’s camp life was the most gruesome?

KS: During the interviews, when Henry discussed some of the harder aspects of concentration camps, or when we looked through books of black-and-white photos, I wanted to stop the conversation. Redirect to something more pleasant. Nevertheless, I wanted to honor Henry, and so many others who did not have the opportunity to stop the tape, close the book, and change subjects. As to most gruesome? He briefly worked in the crematorium in Buchenwald, which I visited in 2013.

Katrina and Henry in 2003

AAR: How long did you work on this book? What was your most difficult challenge while writing?

KS: I met Henry in November 2002, so it has been fifteen years from beginning to publication. Unfortunately, Henry passed away a year after we met. Several times through the years I set the project aside, either overwhelmed as the amount of work needed to finish, or simply life interfered. I had three young children, an aging parent, and some family health issues that took priority. Until recently I also held a job, so the progress has been at a slower pace than if I was a full-time writer.

As to difficult challenges, there was nothing easy about this project. I read everything I could find with this caveat — I only speak English. Besides the huge task of research, translation of documents, and planning a trip to Poland, there were challenges transcribing each of the interviews. Henry used the terms and names he remembered in Polish and German, without translating to English. It was not practical to stop him after every word for an explanation. Even places, street names, and people I could only write out phonetically. When I reviewed my notes ten years later I had so many "aha" moments as to what Henry was saying that I had not understood at the time. Henry once joked "You should learn Polish. Then we could really talk."

AAR: Could you tell us how your meetings with your readers look like? While talking to them what do you pay your attention to? What questions do they ask?

KS: The book has only been out for two months. Over 85 people came to my book launch event in November, and many referred me to other book groups to speak. I have spoken at a Jewish Community Center, a genocide conference, and writers' groups. Everyone seems fascinated with the story. Except for Poles, Henry's story is a piece of history that no one has heard — the Holocaust as seen through Polish eyes. This story seems to resonate with so many people both as a forgotten and important piece of history, an intelligent read, and getting to know a likeable person such as Henry. Even in a concentration camp he found humor at times.

I do love connecting with an audience in person and enjoy public speaking. In addition to local events, I am really trying to reach out online and through social media. I can reach so many more people around the world from my computer. I feel fortunate to have connected with you

AAR: How much has Henry’s story affected your life? How has it changed?

KS:  Meeting Henry Zguda did change the direction of my life. When I began I did not know, what I did not know. Today I am a published author and educated on Poland and WWII and how little credit Poles, and Henry, have received for their suffering and deaths. Early on, I realized Henry's story represents so many other Poles who never received credit outside the Polish community, which I thought was terribly unfair. My definition of a bad day has changed. Compared to a bad day in a concentration camp, if all that happens is someone cuts me off in traffic or work is especially stressful, well that means I'm blessed to own a car, and that I'm employed. I am far more conscious of not wasting food — food was a precious commodity for most of Henry's life.

AAR: In your book you write that you and your husband were in Poland in October 2013. You visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Could you tell us something more about your trip?

KS: It helped that we had an excellent translator with us all day. I had an appointment in the morning with head of the archives for the museum. I had sent several research requests and prisoner names on ahead, and staff had pulled a huge stack of records for me to review. After going through the documents, Dr. Plosa very patiently answered all of my questions.

We had arranged for a private tour guide at 4 p.m. for a three-hour tour. I had very specific locations to see and questions to ask about Henry's experience. Henry was only imprisoned in the original Auschwitz I, so we spent most of our time there. At the end of the day I wanted to see Birkenau since there is a story of Henry walking to Birkenau. As it happened, my husband Rick, Magda our tour guide, and I were the only three people remaining in Birkenau as the museum closed, a place that used to hold more than 100,000 people. We shivered because it was a cold winter evening, dark, and silent. We had not brought enough warm clothes. There is no comparison to visiting a concentration camp on a cold dark day to get a sense for what it was like for miserable prisoners. In the silence I truly felt the ghosts of a million murdered souls who called to me "Do not forget us." I never will.

Published by Köehler Books
Virginia Beach (USA) 2017

AAR: How do you think why WWII is still a part of our culture today?

KS: I think there is an ongoing fascination with WWII for several reasons. We are still within two or three generations of the history and we still have a few survivors from that era, though not for much longer. They are all in their 80s and 90s so their memories are precious and golden and need to be captured before they are lost to history.

The Holocaust from the Jewish perspective has been extremely well documented and taught for three generations. There are thousands of "Holocaust" memoirs in print, and I think people are still trying to figure out "why" and "how" ordinary German people, many highly educated, could turn into truly evil killers, and participate in the calculated mass murder of millions of people.

AAR: Why are you so interested in Polish history? 

KS: Almost everyone asks me this. I am an American with no previous Polish connection. When I planned a trip to Poland many people asked "Why Poland?" I am quite unique. The simple truth is I met someone from Poland, offered to write his story, and needed to understand the reality and context of a time and place I had not experienced. I have always loved history, and a good writer must be curious and ask questions, especially why things happened, not just that they did. As a journalist I need to cross-check my sources, which means finding the same information at least twice. Early in our interviews I realized that the dynamics of European history and changing borders are extremely relevant to what happened to Poland during and after World War II.

AAR: Apart from writing you also deal with other things. Could you tell us something more about it?

KS: I love classical music and attending the symphony. I like to hike the mountain near my house, and try to find time to read. I also love taking my daughter out for mother-daughter dates. We are very close.

AAR: What is your next project? Could you tell us something about it?

KS: Right now I am focused on launching Henry and getting his story out to as many people as possible. I am confident the next story will come into my life at the right time.

AAR: Katrina, thank you very much for this conversation and for your book. I hope that someday your book will be translated into Polish. I am very happy that in America so many authors write about Poland and its history, especially about the wartime history. Is there anything you would like to say to the Poles?

KS: I too hope my book will be translated into Polish. I have gained a huge respect for Poland and Poles. The Polish-American Congress, Arizona division has been supportive, and included me as a guest at the Polish Heritage Ball recently. That the country continues to survive and today thrives is a testament to the strength of the culture. I am proud to say two copies of HENRY are in the library and collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. For English-speaking Poles, HENRY is available internationally through Book Depository, Amazon UK and others such booksellers.

I do love to hear from readers, even if it is only in Polish. I use online translation software so it is no problem reading a language other than English. For longer texts I have Polish friends who will help me with translations.

I can be found at:

Email: katrina [at]
HENRY on Book Depository: Click here
HENRY on Amazon UK: Click here

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here.
If you want to read my book review, please click here

Saturday, 16 December 2017

“Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America” by Katrina Shawver

Published by Köehler Books
Virginia Beach 2017
I read the book thanks to the author's courtesy. Thank you!

Krakow was one of the Polish cities that suffered severely from human casualties during the Second World War. When the cities such as Warsaw, Poznan, Bialystok, Gdansk or Elblag were virtually razed to the ground and suffered under the subsequent marches of hostile forces and the long-lasting Nazi occupation, Krakow being the largest and most important city in southern Poland, remained almost untouched. It is possible that this kind of situation resulted from the fact that the Germans wished to provide it some protection because they established the headquarters of the Nazi General Government there. In other words, the city was taken over by the Nazis becoming the capital of a pseudo-state which included the south-eastern half of present-day Poland and the south part of present-day Ukraine. That project was controlled by Hans Frank (1900-1946), who was declared as a war criminal and executed in Nuremberg after the end of the war. He chose Wawel Castle, the ancient seat of the Polish kings, as his first headquarters. So even though Krakow’s architecture was not as badly ruined as for example in Warsaw, the same cannot be said about the culture of the city and its inhabitants.

We must know that at the very beginning of the war, the Germans decided not to divide the city with the Jewish population. It is important to know that before the outbreak of the war, sixty thousand Jews lived in Krakow, which represented a quarter of the entire population. The German occupation of Krakow began on September 6, 1939. At that time, the Nazis liquidated the Jewish social organization and established their own, which was supported to deal with the issue not only of the Cracovian Jews, but also those living in the whole country. It was called the Jewish Council of Elders (in German: Judenrat). In April 1940 the Germans ordered the Jews to leave Krakow within the next four months. At that time thirty-five thousand Jews were evacuated from the city and only fifteen thousand of them remained there. Since that time Krakow became the capital of Poland occupied by the Nazis.

In March 1941, the Germans built a Ghetto in the Podgorze district south of the Vistula River where twenty thousand Jews lived, including Jews coming from surrounding towns. The Ghetto very quickly became a place where people were dying of starvation, and because of overcrowding, fatal diseases were also spread, not to mention the unimaginable brutality of the Germans, who murdered the Jews when they wanted to. Mass deportations from the Ghetto began in June 1942. At that time, five thousand Jews were sent to the death camp in Belzec. Apart from that, in October 1942, another six thousand Jews were also transported to Belzec. During that horrible action the Nazis executed those who were in the hospital and in the nursing home as well as children living in the orphanage. About a few hundred Jews died in the Ghetto. The Ghetto was liquated by Amon Göth (1908-1946), sending people, who were capable of working, to the Nazi camp at Plaszow, murdering others in the streets or in their homes, and sending the rest of them to die at Auschwitz.

SS staff in the Nazi death camp in Belzec (1942)

At the very beginning of the war, Krakow lost many of its leading thinkers, and it was when the Germans arrested the Jagiellonian University professors. It was November 6, 1939. The professors were sent to German concentration camps. The Poles who remained in Krakow witnessed the change of their city every day. Shops, houses and generally the whole districts were taken over by the Nazis. Even the Cracow Market Square lost its name because it was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz. During the war years, there was distinct resistance of the Cracovians. The Home Army (in Polish: Armia Krajowa) operated in the city. Its soldiers planned an uprising there, which was supposed to be similar to the rebellion that broke out in Warsaw on 1 August, 1944. Eventually, the decision about the uprising was, however, called off, and it happened because the Nazi forces were too large while many young Cracovians, who were able to fight, had been arrested. Apart from that there was the shortage of weapons that could be used during a possible uprising.

It is not without reason that above I mentioned the realities that had occurred in Krakow during the Second World War. I did it because the protagonist of the unusual biography by American journalist Katrina Shawver was associated just with Krakow. He was born there, grew up there and next he was arrested by the Germans, and then was locked up in a prison located on Montelupich Street. Originally this place served as a military barracks, and was located in a building that had belonged to the family of the Italian merchants and bankers called Montelupi since 16th century. In 1905 the Austrian authorities decided that there would be a military court which had formerly been located in Wawel Castle. Then the court was turned into a prison. During the Second World War, there was a Nazi police prison in this building under the control of the Gestapo. Between 1940 and 1944 there were about fifty thousand prisoners.

Prisoners of the Montelupich Prison in 1939 after the invasion of Poland 
by Nazi Germany.

It can be assumed that the life of Henry Zguda (1917-2003) promised to be really great. He was a great swimmer and water polo player, and he also knew foreign languages. If the war had not broken out, perhaps his life would have been different. In 1942 he was arrested by the Germans and imprisoned in the aforementioned prison on Montelupich Street. Then he was taken to Auschwitz and next he was sent to the Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald, which operated since July 1937 until the end of the war. Henry Zguda was also in the German camp in Flossenbürg. He also experienced a dramatic death march, finally reaching Dachau where he was liberated at the end of the war. His life in post-war communist Poland was not easy either. The new authorities began mass persecution which also affected Henry. Eventually he managed to emigrate to America where he married the love of his life and died in 2003 at the age of 86. However, he never forgot about swimming. For him the emigration to the United States was a sort of escape from a world that was no longer the same as Henry had known before the war. You have to remember that it would not have been possible for him to do it unless he had had his friends he could count on at any time.

Katrina Shawver’s book is an extraordinary account of the man who survived despite the enormous cruelty that was present in the Nazi concentration camps. While writing, the author took care of every detail. On the pages of this book a reader meets Henry who was a really unusual man. In addition there is so tragic story that you can be almost sure that there is no return to a normal life from that hell. In a very interesting way Katrina Shawver reveals the fate of Henry Zguda, and the whole book is enriched by numerous photographs. The biography is based on interviews with Henry Zguda between 2002 and 2003. It was just before his death. I think that some invisible force had to direct that Katrina Shawver could meet Henry to be able to write down his memories, which are a true tribute to all people who survived that terrible war and to its mortal victims. This kind of books should be published as much as possible, but unfortunately every year it is getting harder because the eyewitnesses of those events are less and less. 

Katrina Shawver and Henry Zguda in 2003

On the pages of the book we learn not only the events that took place in Henry Zguda’s life but also we can read how emotionally the author approached them. Therefore, there are also her observations and remarks. In addition a reader also learn what Poland had looked like prior to the war before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) decided to destroy not only the country but first of all the people living in it. The book's hero is a really beautiful character regardless of what part of his life his story is about. Very often Henry mentions an extraordinary inner strength that helped him survive the worst moments of his life. Some people may be surprised by the fact that despite the ubiquitous terror he never complained about his fate, although it does mean that he accepted it. It is possible that it resulted from his immense desire to live. I am sure that it was just his willingness to live that gave Henry the strength to survive each day. In my opinion Henry’s story, although very tragic, gives us hope and uplift.

There are many people in the world who do not really know much about the cruelty of the Second World War. They do not fully understand what the Holocaust was about. Therefore, this book can be a great source of information for them filling the gaps in their historical knowledge. I have no words to express my emotions after reading this book. For my part, I can only be grateful to the author that she decided to undertake such a difficult subject. For Poles, it is very important people around the world learn about the great drama we experienced when on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. But that's not all, because several days later (September 17) the Soviet Union, headed by Jozef Stalin (1878-1953), did the same. Therefore, I recommend Katrina Shawver’s book to anyone who wants to know the extraordinary story of the man who survived hell, and even so he never gave up and lost his faith in people.

Email: katrina [at]
HENRY on Book Depository: Click here
HENRY on Amazon UK: Click here

If you want to read this review in Polish, please click here

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

It was a story I’d wanted to write for years...

Interview with Margaret Leroy
by Agnes A. Rose

Margaret Leroy is a British novelist. As a child she wrote elaborate fantasy stories but she never showed them to anyone. When she was about 12, she stopped writing and she did not start again till her mid-twenties. She went to Oxford to study music. In her twenties she tried all sorts of things – music therapy, play-leading with children with disabilities, work in a toy shop, teaching. Finally she found work as a social worker. At first, she wrote non-fiction and a book for children. Her first novel – TRUST – was published in 1999. This book was adapted for a British television film with a screenplay by Matthew Hall as LOVING YOU in 2003. Later she wrote POSTCARDS FROM BERLIN (2003) that was also published as THE PERFECT MOTHER, and THE RIVER HOUSE (2005). In Poland we can read two of the Margaret Leroy’s books: THE SOLDIER’S WIFE and THE ENGLISH GIRL which were published by GOLA.

Agnes A. Rose: A very warm welcome to you, Margaret, and can I thank you, for taking time to talk to me today. Because recently I have read your book called THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, I would like to start our conversation just with it. The main character of this story is Vivienne de la Mare who gets involved in a forbidden love affair with an SS-officer. It is very controversial. Could you tell us what motivated you to create this story?

Margaret Leroy: It was a story I’d wanted to write for years, ever since I first learned about the Occupation of the Channel Islands by the Germans in WW2. It was a hidden piece of history, and I thought it would make a wonderful setting for a story. But I didn’t feel the right moment had come until I’d already written five contemporary novels: I was quite nervous about writing my first historical novel!

AAR: While writing the history of Vivienne and Gunther, weren’t you afraid that you would create negative emotions both in readers and critics?

ML: I guess I don’t really think about critics when I’m writing a novel – I just have a story which I want to tell. For me, the Occupation was fascinating to write about, because people face such difficult dilemmas in their everyday lives when they live alongside the enemy. I was interested in the moral complexity of the situations my heroine would have to confront, and I hope that people will empathise with her as they read the story.

AAR: We all know how women who fraternized with the enemy were punished not only during the Second World War but also after the war. You mention that in your novel, too. Do you think that Vivienne would also deserve such a punishment? After all, she loves that German officer in a way, and besides, she meets him in order to be able to provide food to her family when her husband is absent.

ML: In fact, women who’d slept with the enemy weren’t punished in that way on Guernsey, but some were punished on Jersey, one of the other islands. That was one of the reasons I chose Guernsey as my setting, as that wasn’t essentially part of the story I wanted to tell. As to whether she’d have deserved such punishment, I guess that’s for the reader to decide!

AAR: While reading THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, I got the impression that Vivienne’s mother-in-law is also a very important character in this story. Despite the fact that she lives in her own world, in a certain way she understands the reality that surrounds her. Did you have any difficulties creating this character?

ML: I think you’re absolutely right in what you say about her. She’s someone whose mind is starting to go, but she also sometimes sees into the heart of things. I used to work as a psychiatric social worker, and that background was helpful in creating the character – I had some understanding of the way someone suffering from dementia might talk or behave. And I like creating characters who may seem strange or different, but who have their own wisdom.

AAR: Why did you choose Guernsey as the setting of your book?

This is the Polish cover of
 "The Soldier's Wife"
Published by GOLA (2013)
Translated by Anna Wojtaszczyk
& Olga Wojtaszczyk 
ML: Before I wrote the book, I went to Guernsey on a research trip as I knew I couldn’t write the book if I didn’t love the place. And I was enchanted. Though the island is quite small, it was easy to leave the crowded bits behind and to seek out peaceful places, like the deep lanes of St Pierre du Bois, where I decided Vivienne should live. I even chose a particular house where I could picture her living. I find it a huge help in writing a story if I can see the setting very precisely in my mind’s eye. And once I’ve created that world, it’s always such a joy to return to it every time I sit down to write.

AAR: Your second book we can read in Polish is called THE ENGLISH GIRL. This is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who is offered the chance to study at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Pre-war Vienna is very beautiful and makes Stella Whittaker an amazing impression. What made you decide to write this kind of book? Its plot also focuses on the Second World War.

ML: I’d visited Vienna in my twenties, and found it an amazing place. In terms of culture, it’s so rich: Freud lived there, and so many celebrated musicians – Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart. And the coffee-shops are wonderful! I chose the 1930’s because I find those years just before war broke out very fascinating – the way people maybe sensed what was going to happen and yet it couldn’t be stopped.

AAR: And now let’s talk about your debut, please. I read on your website that your first book called TRUST deals with an allegation of sex abuse. This is a very serious problem. Could you tell us something more about this novel?

ML: At the time I wrote it, I was working as a social worker, and the seed of the story was something that happened to some people I knew. The story is told from the viewpoint of a woman, Chloe: her lover is a child psychologist who has an allegation of child abuse made against him. The incredibly difficult dilemma she faces is whether to believe him when he says the allegation is false. Should she trust him?

AAR: What made TRUST be adapted for a British television film? Do you remember what you felt when you found out about it?

ML: I was completely thrilled! It was so exciting for me to see my story on the screen, and they made a beautiful job of it. It was so strange to think that one day the idea had come to me, to write this story, and now it had grown into a television drama that was seen by an audience of eight million people.

AAR: What motivates you to write about difficult life problems?

This is the Polish cover of
"The English Girl"
Published by GOLA (2014)
Translated by Anna Wojtaszczyk
& Olga Wojtaszczyk
ML: My first thought was to say that this is because of my experience as a social worker. But I think the answer is more complicated than that – maybe I was drawn to social work for the same reason that I’m drawn to write stories about difficult life problems! I think I’ve always been intrigued by the darker side of human nature, and I always want to understand why people behave as they do. And of course many stories do deal with difficult things: you need to put your characters into extreme situations and see how they react.

AAR: Before you published TRUST, you had written non-fiction and a book for children. Could you tell us something more about this part of your writing career?

ML: I wrote books about miscarriage and female sexuality. I enjoyed researching and writing those books, but if I’m entirely honest they were also a way in to what I really wanted to do – writing novels. Through my non-fiction, I met publishers and literary agents, and began to understand how publishing works, and all that knowledge was helpful when I wanted to offer my first novel for publication.

AAR: Your latest book is entitled A BRIEF AFFAIR. Its plot also focuses on the Second World War. Why do you write about the war so often?

ML: My first five novels were set in the present day, but I’ve since written three WW2 books, and very much enjoyed writing them. There are still so many great stories to be told about WW2, and readers continue to be fascinated by it. But I think A BRIEF AFFAIR will be my last WW2 book, and I’m writing something quite different now.

AAR: How do you find the perfect balance between dialogue and narrative?


ML: I find this quite a difficult question to answer, as it’s not really something I think about consciously when I’m writing. My approach is first to write a plot outline, and then to write a quick first draft of the book, which will have most of the dialogue in, but not very much description. Then in later drafts I’ll fill out the story, and there will be much more narrative and description, but the dialogue will probably stay much as it is.

AAR: Could you tell us how your typical working day looks like?

ML: I only write in the mornings – I can’t write for longer than four or five hours at a time. In the afternoons, I deal with all the other things – research, email and so on. I also try to fit in a bit of exercise – writing is the most sedentary of occupations. I’m a fanatical swimmer, and I’m constantly dragging my poor husband off on long walks!

AAR: You mentioned above that now you are working on a new novel. Would you like to tell us something about it?

ML: My new novel is set in the New Forest, which is a beautiful part of England where I grew up, and where my grandfather was a forester, so I know the setting very well. The story has two strands – one is contemporary, and one takes place a thousand years ago. So this is something quite different for me, and utterly fascinating to write.

AAR: Margaret, thank you very much for this nice conversation. Is there anything you would like to add or tell your Polish readers?

ML: I’m so glad that you enjoy my novels. Happy reading!

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here