Thursday, 18 February 2016

I like to write stories that inspire me and others...

Interview with Wendy Holden
by Agnes A. Rose

Wendy Holden, also known as Taylor Holden, was born in 1961 in Pinner (North London). She is an experienced British novelist, journalist and author of screenplays. She has published more than thirty books, including two novels. Many of her works have been adapted for radio and television. She worked as a reporter for eighteen years, including ten years for the Daily Telegraph in London. She has also worked as an editor for the literary consulting firm – The Writer’s Workshop. In 2006 Wendy Holden published her first novel The Sense of Paper which widespread critical acclaim. Her non-fiction titles have chiefly chronicled the lives of remarkable subjects. The latest is Born Survivors which was published in Poland in 2015. The book is the incredible story of three mothers who defied death at the hands of the Nazis to give life. Wendy Holden has also written several significant bestsellers as a so-called ghostwriter, inter alia, Behind Enemy Lines, about a German Jewish spy, Till the Sun Grows Cold, about a young Englishwoman caught up in the war in Sudan, and Tomorrow to be Brave, about the only woman in the French Foreign Legion. She has also written a few celebrity biographies including A Lotus Grows in the Mud, with actress Goldie Hawn and Lady Blue Eyes, a collection of memories of Barbara Sinatra, the singer’s wife. She currently lives in Suffolk (England).

Agnes A. Rose: Wendy, I am very honored that I can host you on my blog and talk to you. Let’s start our conversation with your latest book which is really special and emotional. In “Born Survivors” you tell the story of Priska, Rachel and Anka. They were all pregnant when they entered Auschwitz II-Birkenau. What inspired you to reach for such a difficult subject?

Wendy Holden: I happened upon an obituary of a woman who’d been imprisoned in Auschwitz and had a baby there that died. Although I have read many books about the Holocaust, I’ve never read anything before about babies are born in concentration camps which set me on my quest. I was staggered to discover that nothing had been written previously. Further research led me to one mother and then the other two and their remarkable miracle babies. This is the first book ever to chronicle such a story.

Agnes A. Rose: Was it difficult to find the surviving children of Priska, Rachel and Anka? What was their reaction when you informed them that you were going to describe the dramatic history of their family?

Wendy Holden: I came across Anka’s baby Eva first and by chance she lived one hour from me in England. I spent the day with her and we laughed and cried and at the end I asked if she would allow me the great honour of writing her mother’s story. She reached across and touched my arm and told me, “I’ve been waiting for you for nearly 70 years.” I told her I believed her story to be unique and she said that for the first 65 years of her life she thought so too but then discovered the other two babies whose mothers had been on exactly the same journey as hers. That is when I knew I had to contact them as well and ask them if I could include their stories in this book. Fortunately for me, babies Hana and Mark were equally delighted and are thrilled that their mothers’ courage has finally been publicly honoured.

Agnes A. Rose: Knowing the realities of a concentration camp I cannot imagine how Priska, Rachel and Anka were able to hide their pregnancies. Why didn’t the Nazis murder these brave women? What did the women do that they managed to save not only their own lives but also their babies?

Wendy Holden: They were able to hide their pregnancies because they were given baggy clothing and each mother was almost starved and worked to death for the entire duration of their pregnancy. By the time of their babies were born, each weighed less than 70 pounds and infants under 3 pounds.

Agnes A. Rose: Priska, Rachel and Anka must have been extremely strong women not only psychologically but also physically. They were living in the very harsh camp conditions so they could loose their babies. How did they manage to take care of their health? Was it possible at all?

Wendy Holden: Each mother would say simply that they survived because of luck. They were lucky that they did not succumb to various diseases that rampaged through the camp. They were fortunate that they didn’t injure themselves and were dispatched back to Auschwitz. They were lucky that they were young, fit and healthy before the war and were able to survive the dramatic weight loss and mice infestation as well as bitter cold and unendurable living and working conditions.

Agnes A. Rose: All the babies were born before, during or after their mothers were transported to the Mauthausen Labor Camp in Austria. It was a seventeen-day hellish journey by train. Could you tell us something more about the circumstances of the babies’ births?

Wendy Holden & Hana Berger Moran
Hana is the daughter of Priska 
Wendy Holden:  Priska gave birth to baby Hana on a plank in the German factory the night before they were to be evacuated. The Nazis watched and leered and took bets on whether it might be a boy or a girl. They didn’t murder her or her baby as they knew they were being sent away to be gassed the next day anyway. Rachel gave birth to baby Mark a week later in an open coal wagon on the train full of dead and dying women in the middle of a deluge. She was close to death herself and never expected her, or her tiny infant, to survive. Anka gave birth to Eva on the back of a cart full of lice-infested women at the gates of the camp. Thrown into a barracks with her child while the Nazis prepared to flee, she was also not expected to live.

Agnes A. Rose: While researching what was the most frightening for you? What event in your heroines’ camp lives was the most gruesome?

Wendy Holden: Their experiences at Auschwitz II-Birkenau were probably he most terrifying for them. Each came under the eagle-eyed scrutiny of Dr Joseph Mengele, the “Angel of Death”. He asked each if they were pregnant and they all denied it, before being chosen for slave labour. Had been discovered while Auschwitz was still operational and Dr Mengele still in charge, they would have been sent back and treated most cruelly, as others were.

Agnes A. Rose: What challenges you the most in your writing “Born Survivors”?

Wendy Holden: The only way I could get through the researching and writing of it was to focus on finding the humanity in the inhumanity. Thanks to the kindness of strangers during their incarceration, these women and their babies survived. The stories of the people who risked their own lives to help them restored my faith in human nature.

Agnes A. Rose: During our conversation I cannot stop thinking about the women’s husbands. Could you tell us if they managed to survive the concentration camps?

Wendy Holden: Sadly, they did not. Each of them were killed by the Nazis just a few weeks or even days before their camps were liberated.

Agnes A. Rose: What were the lives of the women and their babies after the liberation?

Wendy Holden: Harrowing and extremely challenging. They not only lost their husbands but numerous members of their immediate family. They returned to their homes to discover their apartments occupied and their belongings stolen. They faced further anti-Semitism and all but Priska in Slovakia fled to start new lives abroad.

Agnes A. Rose: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your latest book?

Wendy Holden: Too many to list in one answer. I am not Jewish and I learned so much about their rich culture including the fact that they traditionally lay stones, not flowers, on graves. As I was writing and researching the book, I collected white pebbles from my local beach and when I visited each of the mothers’ graves in America, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, I lay three white pebbles at each tomb to represent each of them. I had a handful of stones left and when we launched the book in North America, the three babies placed my last three stones on the grave of the US liberator of the concentration camp where they were expected to die, as his sons looked on. It was a deeply emotional moment.

Agnes A. Rose: Sometimes I can hear that making art about the Holocaust is not ethical. Some editors have even said: “No more Holocaust stories.” What is your take on that? Did you feel concern about that while you were writing “Born Survivors”?

This is the Polish cover of "Born Survivors"
Published by SONIA DRAGA 
Katowice 2015
Translated by Przemysław Hejmej 
& Jerzy Rosuł
Wendy Holden: Not once. There can never be enough reminders of what happened in Europe within living memory, especially not while these three babies still survive. Hitler and his Nazis fully intended them to die along with the rest of Europe’s Jews. To be able to sit alongside these living breathing examples of courage, defiance and hope and know that within their lifetimes we have managed to triumph over such evil, is a timely reminder of how good can prevail.

Agnes A. Rose: In your book I read that during your researching you visited Poland. I would like to ask you about your experience of staying in Poland. Is there anything what most stuck in your memory?

Wendy Holden: I loved my visit to Poland, although probably the most harrowing part of my research was to follow in the mothers’ footsteps at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Krakow has become one of my favourite cities in the world and I also travelled to Lodz and Warsaw, so beautifully reconstructed after the war. When we launched the book in Warsaw I can honestly say that I had some of the most interesting and intelligent questions from the audience of almost anywhere I have been. Through largely an accident of geography, Poland has taken its place in history as centre stage of this terrible time and I was greatly encouraged to see a Jewish festival happening in Warsaw and young people so curious about the subject matter of my book. It is only through educating and informing the next generation that we can benefit from the lessons of the last.

Agnes A. Rose: So far you have written a lot of books. Is “Born Survivors” the most important to you?

Wendy Holden: “Born Survivors” is, without doubt, my most important book historically. It was the greatest privilege of my life to write and I consider it my legacy work.

Agnes A. Rose: 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?

Wendy Holden: In the last eight months I have travelled to 11 countries and spoken to hundreds of people about this book at museums, bookshops, synagogues, churches and literary festivals. I am usually accompanied by one of the babies – sometimes all three – and we speak for about an hour, detailing each of the mother’s stories before we take questions. Everywhere we go, people are visibly moved and often in tears and eager to shake the hands of these remarkable survivors. Some people want to know about forgiveness or the nature of evil. Many enquire what affects their births have had on them. The babies are all so positive and cheerful and optimistic – as were their mothers largely – that they usually say that they hope only to remind people of what happened so that it never happens again.

Agnes A. Rose: What is your next project? Could you tell us something more about it?

Wendy Holden: I like to write stories that inspire me and others. I am currently working on another inspirational memoir about somebody who has been dealt a very bad hand in life but who has turned it into a positive and decided to try to help others even less fortunate than himself. I am also working on a new novel that – although not set in the war – has echoes of it lurking in the background.

Agnes A. Rose: I am extremely grateful to you for this valuable interview. Is there anything you would like to tell your Polish readers?

Wendy Holden: (I hope my Polish is correct). Dziękuję za zainteresowanie tą ważną i inspirującą książką. Mam nadzieję, że Wam się spodoba i że odmieni Wasze życie tak samo, jak odmieniła moje. Wendy Holden x 

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

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