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] katrinashawver.com
Facebook: Read Katrina Shawver
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.