Suffolk author Wendy Holden has written both fiction and non-fiction. Her titles include Memories Are Made Of This - a biography of Dean Martin, written with his daughter Deana - and Haatchi and Little B: the inspiring true story of one boy and his dog.
Wendy’s latest book Born Survivors tells the incredible true story of three remarkable women who survived the selection process at Auschwitz, slave labour in a Dresden armaments factory and a hellish 17 day train transport to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, giving birth before, during and right at the end of that journey.
In 2016 Suffolk Libraries was delighted to welcome Wendy to Glemsford Library where she spoke at a Bookfest event along with Eva Clarke, one of the children whose birth features in Born Survivors.
Friday 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day and this piece remembers these children and those who did not survive the genocide.
1. When did you first become aware of Priska, Rachel and Anka?
In 2013 I read an obituary online late one night about a Canadian woman who had been in Auschwitz during the war and had a baby there that had died. It made me wonder if any babies had survived the camps and so I started to do some research. I couldn’t find anything at first and assumed they had all been killed.
Then I came across the name Eva Clarke and read the incredible story of her mother Anka and I was hooked. I went to spend the day with her at her home in Cambridge, England and at the end of it asked if she would allow me the privilege of writing her story. She reached out and touched my arm and told me she been waiting for me for 70 years. I believed her story to be unique but when I told her that, she laughed and said that she did too until 2010 when she discovered that two other babies have survived the same journey as her mother from Auschwitz through slave labour in Germany to Mauthausen concentration camp, where they expected to be gassed. To begin with I thought I would just write Eva’s story but then I spoke to Hana and Mark, the surviving children of Priska and Rachel, and I knew that I had to encompass the stories of all three mothers in one epic volume.
2. Some of the events you describe are harrowing. Did you ever have reservations about telling these stories?
There are some stories I left out of the book that were even more harrowing but I avoided them not because they were so terrible but because they only had indirect relevance. As a historian and biographer, I cannot sanitise the truth or recoil from the horror of what happened. What I hope I achieved, however, was a fair balance of uplifting stories too. Many readers tell me that, although distressing to read in parts, they came away from the book changed in many ways, and the overwhelming feeling is the restoration of confidence in the resilience of the human spirit and the power of a mother’s love.
3. As a writer it must have been very hard to write about these events then step back into everyday life?
It was but I found that living not far from the sea in Suffolk helped me enormously. Every day when it became too much for me, my husband and I would take our dogs and walk on the beach, where we searched for white pebbles. I’m not Jewish but I learned in the course of my research that it is the Jewish tradition to lay stones on graves instead of flowers. Knowing that I was going to visit all three mothers’ graves in the US, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as well as Auschwitz, the slave labour camp and Mauthausen, I gathered these stones and took them with me on my travels, laying three for each of the mothers at every site. It became a kind of mindful meditation and one that gave me great comfort.
4. I saw a quote from the Jewish Chronicle that described Born Survivors as “a worthy testament to the three women and the miraculous survival of their children.” That must have meant a lot to you?
It did and the reactions to the book have been overwhelmingly gratifying. Everywhere I go, I am touched by how much these stories move people. Perhaps the greatest gift came to me on a recent visit to Prague where I presented the book for the first time. A 90 year old woman who had lived through the same experiences as the three mothers I wrote about hugged me to her and, with tears in her eyes, told me that I couldn’t have described the events more precisely or with more heart. Her words made me cry with gratitude and humility.
5. What has been the reaction to your book in different parts of the world?
Born Survivors was a semi-finalist in the Goodreads Book of the Year for 2015 and has now been published in 22 countries and translated into 16 languages. I have been travelling the world speaking about it in diverse places, from theatres to the House of Lords, synagogues to schools. When one or all of the ‘babies’ (now 71) are with me, the reaction is especially emotional and people seem to want to reach out and touch these miracle survivors. Many ask if they can hug them. I often feel like a master magician, presenting this miraculous gift to the world.
6. What message would you like your readers to take away with them when they read the book?
That, with luck and courage, we can endure almost anything. I also hope it changed their lives in the way that it changed mine. After reading my book, the babies and I all pray that people come away with greater compassion and understanding for others, sympathy for the plight of the underdog and for refugees, and a sense that they can never complain about anything again!