I had the very great pleasure in conducting a unique interview. It is not often that you get to interview not only the author, but also the subject of the book. Colette Waddell and Nina Morecki agreed to answer some of my questions. Nina alas has been ill recently and so could only participate briefly.
Through The Eyes Of A Survivor chronicles Nina’s life growing up as a young Jewish girl in Poland during the Second World War. Nina witnessed the harsh rule of the Russians, and the inhumanity of the Nazi’s. her story is a shocking testament to human cruelty.
First, let me say thank you to you both for agreeing to take some time out and talk with me. I really enjoyed the book, and you are both to be congratulated of producing such a thought provoking work. Colette, the style of the book is unique, a vignette of the story, and then its historical and cultural significance, where did you get this superb idea from?
The idea came about almost by accident. As I transcribed my interviews with Nina I found myself reflecting upon how her story was affecting me personally. I began to wonder if the reader would have the same reactions, and how I might address those reactions. It seemed quite natural to insert this inner dialogue going on in my head as a way of guiding the reader through the oftentimes emotional journey of a Holocaust survivor. I was uncertain about including my own voice in Nina’s story until my editor assured me this method allowed the story to flow. She asked that I put more in, and so far I don’t regret writing in this style. Fortunately for the book most readers like it, and I was so pleased to hear that you also understood my intention in writing this way.
As far as including historical data, that seemed to me a given as a way of framing up Nina’s story. I think it sort of sets the scene for each event that occurred. The only problem I had was deciding if I had enough information to compare and contrast Nina’s testimony. I wanted the book to appeal to a wide range of readers, so I was frugal in how much historical information I presented.
Colette, you must have spent thousands of hours researching. What were your primary sources of information?
I was still raising four children while doing the research for this book, so my resources were rather limited to local libraries. Luckily, I had the University of California in my hometown of Santa Barbara at my disposal. I had recently graduated from that institution with a degree in history and anthropology, so I knew my way around and felt very comfortable obtaining information from their library. I love the feeling of the fourth floor, how the light comes through the windows and even the musty smell of the books. I would plop down in one of the tall rows of shelves containing German history and spend hours going through it. I probably spent too much time there, but it was so peaceful I couldn’t help myself!
Nina, I am curious, maybe the answer is in the book, and I just missed it. You were working for the Germans, but supplying information to the resistance, how did you manage to keep in touch with them?
I actually never knew exactly who these people were, or what they officially stood for except German defeat. Many people in these various resistance groups hated Jews as well as Germans, so it wouldn’t have been unusual for them to kill me instead of using me for resistance work. They kept their names completely secret so that nothing would be told to the Nazis even under torture, and I was very much afraid of the thought of torture. These resistance people, or “underground,” or whatever you want to call them, told me very little except where to look for work and what sort of things they needed smuggled to them. They wanted travel papers especially, and the stamps for these papers were accessible at the German Army postal unit where I obtained a position as a clerk. These members of the resistance instructed me to stamp travel papers whenever possible, and then drop them in a little mail slot located at the local train station. I never saw anyone collect these papers, and I was never contacted by this group again. Eventually my unit moved and I could no longer supply the stamped documents. I had no idea how to contact the resistance, and that made me feel a little guilty that I couldn’t help them anymore. By that time the Germans were losing the war and I was thinking of attempting an escape to the east.
A question for both of you. What kind of reader feedback are you getting? And how are early sales going?
Colette: So far the feedback has been very positive. Most of the readers I have spoken to call the book a “page-turner,” and have been deeply affected by Nina’s testimony. Because this was my first book I was a little self-conscious about whether readers would take on the task of exploring such a complicated story. I wanted so much for people to appreciate Nina’s message, and I believe that, for the most part this has occurred. Initial sales have been conservative; however we are hoping that, with the kind of exposure offered by reviewers such as you Simon, we might see an increased interest. Nina, what have people been saying to you about the book?
Nina: The people I have shown the book are very interested in the story and have asked for a copy. I tell them to go to www.topcatpress.com because this is the best way to obtain a book, however I am honored to send a signed copy if they ask. Most of the people I encounter are friends and family or members of the Jewish community. I would love to reach a bigger audience however, especially young people who I feel could benefit from knowing how the past affects their future.
One of the endearing aspects of the book was the clear friendship that developed between you as the book came together. Did this make it easier or harder to create the book?
Colette: For me, it was a double-edged sword. As a biographer in search of every detail of my subject’s story it was essential that Nina feel comfortable in divulging information, most of it incredibly personal. Nina has a wonderful sense of humor, and this served her well throughout the war years. There were times during the interviews in which we were both giggling like little girls, and because she is such a warm person it was easy to love Nina. Unfortunately, our friendship also made me very protective of her, and so learning about the pain she suffered at the hands of the Nazis was hard to bear. During those segments I had to step out of myself a little and become the objective interviewer. At the end of the day I felt drained, and I honestly don’t know how Nina can maintain such a positive attitude after experiencing such brutality. Overall, I would say working with Nina has made me a better person, and certainly more appreciative of my family and the freedom we enjoy in this country.
Colette, the book business is often a tough one to break into, was it hard finding a publisher?
Well, because of Nina’s age and the psychological benefit she would have in seeing her story in written form, I decided to self-publish. There simply was not enough time to seek out a literary agent who would then shop the manuscript around. It was more work than I expected, and I have to admit I dislike the business side of producing a book. I am of the opinion; however, that the time and expense spent was well worth it. Through the Eyes of a Survivor validates Nina’s struggle, and in a way it allows the family she lost during the way to come alive every time a new reader picks up the book.
Colette, I have never met an author that stops at one book, what is your next project?
Before beginning work on Nina’s story I had nearly completed the life history of a Navajo family living in Monument Valley, Utah. For better or worse I am more present in this story, because the family sort of adopted me over time. I spent many hours in a hogan (Navajo dwelling made of juniper logs and covered with earth), interviewing the matriarch of this family who spoke only her native tongue. I then obtained the stories of her adult children who were forced to attend “Indian Schools,” and then I rounded the story out with an interview with the latest generation with her own views on living as a Navajo. Ultimately I wanted to show how this family adapted over the years, how they approached each challenge with a subtle strength and humor, and how our two cultures complimented each other. I’m very excited about this project and hope to have it out through TopCat Press by next year.
In closing Nina and I would like to than you, Simon, for your interest and support of Through the Eyes of a Survivor. Doing this interview has been an absolute pleasure and we hope to hear more from your readers about their impression of the book!