What is it like knowing what your mother went through?
My mother suffered terribly as a child. Before they were killed by the Nazis, my grandparents made the most painful choice any parent could face. They decided to send my mother, who was only 12 years old, to live with relatives in America. She came to this country alone. These experiences deeply defined her.
By writing two books about my mother and her experiences, Is It Night or Day? and Motherland, I finally know her family story and I have gained a greater understanding of my mother. I feel deep empathy for her. Now, that her story is told, she seems to feel a sense of relief. She feels her suffering was not in vain.
In the description of Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust, you say that the trip you took was to repair your relationship with your mother. Why was it so fragile, if you don’t mind my asking.
My mother never spoke of her past. It seemed to me she had divorced herself from her own history. As far as I knew, she had no mother, no father, no cousins, no childhood friends. She had no stories and no religious traditions. Consequently, I knew nothing of her history, her family and her childhood. Her past was like a busy intersection that I was to avoid at all costs. This created a wedge in our relationship because I felt she was withholding important personal information from me and she felt she was protecting me from her painful past.
I’m assuming the trip was successful in that it did repair your relationship?
It was successful. During the trips to my mother’s homeland, she began to open up about her history and I began to understand what had shaped her. Motherland captures the transformation in our relationship.
When did you know you wanted to turn her story into books?
I always knew my mother’s stories ought to be told, but I waited until I was ready emotionally, and as a writer. Motherland is based upon two trips to my mother’s small home town in Germany. (Her family was one of only two Jewish families that had lived in the town. My mother’s family had helped settle the town in 1721.) I went on the first trip with the hope of finding whatever was left in Germany of my family. On my second trip, accompanied by my husband and children as well as my mother, I began to realize that I should write a book. With three generations together in my mother’s little town, I saw the larger story.
I learned about the program that brought my mother to America after Motherland was released. Then, I realized I had an opportunity to write another book since no one had written about this American program, organized by Quakers, Lutherans and Jewish groups, that saved 1,200 children. The three groups quietly organized and sent 10 children at a time on cruise ships. The program brought over 100 children a year between 1934 and 1945. Is It Night or Day? tells my mother’s story of childhood immigration on this program.
Why is it important to you that you visit schools to talk about your family’s experiences and your books?
My mother’s story is universal and it raises important issues of identity, prejudice, and assimilation. It sheds light on the story of becoming an American and I believe each of us can benefit from learning about that experience. Second, I wanted to show how a cataclysmic event such as World War II reaches beyond its participants and continues to shape future generations. Readers of Motherland can see how the past defines the present.
What made you choose Norton? Did someone from the school reach out to you?
Principal Michael O’Rourke contacted me after a teacher had read Is It Night or Day? and chased him down on “Back-to-School” night last fall. He told me that, when he saw the teacher running after him, he thought there “was a fire in the bathroom.” Actually, the teacher wanted to ask if the school might consider my book for an all-school reads program and invite me to speak in the spring. I am honored to have this opportunity.
How do you relate this story to children who might not quite understand the magnitude of it?
This is a story of childhood immigration. The backdrop is the Holocaust. Therefore, my presentations shed light on the anti-Semitism which forced my grandparents to make the painful choice to send their 12-year-old daughter to America all by herself. However, since my mother lived in America during World War II, the horrible violence of the Holocaust is not the focus of my presentation.
How do children generally react to your book and school visits?
They are fascinated with my mother’s experience since they are close to her age. They imagine what it would be like to be in my mother’s shoes. They come away with more empathy for some of their classmates who are immigrants or for those who are unlike themselves. In addition, they begin to understand that their parents’ experiences define both their parents and themselves.