"I often think how strange it is that tiny, seemingly insignificant moments can change the course of our lives forever. This is exactly what happened to my father, Harry, who grew up in Vienna, in Austria. In 1934, when he was four years old, he had just recovered from whooping cough, so his father, Frank, took him on a steamer boat ride, as a treat. He was sitting beside a beautifully-dressed woman, and as he kneeled on the seat to look out the window, his father told him to be careful not to scuff the woman’s dress. It turned out this woman was from England - she said in stunted German that he didn’t need to worry, and said what a lovely little boy my father was. Frank got chatting with this woman and her husband, a dentist – they were called Gladys and William Jones – who were in Vienna for a conference. They talked so much that the couple missed their stop, so Frank offered for them to come to their house for some of his wife Annie’s home-baked cake. He also offered to show them around Vienna the next day. Some weeks later, the Jones couple sent Frank a letter from their home in England, thanking them for their hospitality and for an unforgettable day. Frank, thankfully, kept that letter, and it’s the very reason I’m here today.
You see, my father was Jewish, and in 1938, life became incredibly difficult for his family. The Nazis took over Austria, and gradually began to strip away the rights of Jews who lived there. It became incredibly difficult for them to work, and they became accustomed to antisemitic abuse on the streets. They knew it was no longer safe to be Jewish in Vienna, their home. Frank was Czech, so initially, they escaped to Czechoslovakia. But when the Nazis took over there too, it became even harder to get out. My grandmother would wait in long queues in embassies trying to secure the paperwork, and eventually they gathered everything they needed. But they were missing one thing – an affidavit from a country they wanted to go to. They didn’t know anyone. Until, my grandfather remembered the letter he had received from the Jones couple. Four years after their first meeting, he wrote to them, telling them of his predicament. Gladys and William immediately wrote back saying they would do all they could. They helped them get their visas, and they even brought my father’s family to live with them near Chester for a year. My father and his parents were incredibly lucky – some of their relatives who didn’t get out in time ended up in concentration camps like Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.
My dad was very young at the time, but I remember my grandmother telling me proudly how England had saved her life. My mother is Jewish too – though her family were living in Manchester during the war – and although I am not religious, being Jewish has always formed a fundamental part of my identity. I grew up knowing that the Holocaust was part of my history, and I eventually realised I needed to write a book inspired by my father’s story.
My new Young Adult book, When the World Was Ours, has been in the making for 10 years. It’s about three young friends growing up during the Holocaust, whose lives all took very different turns. There’s Leo, inspired by my father, who managed to escape to England and grow up as an immigrant. Then there’s Max, an Austrian boy who, like so many other children, ends up in the Hitler Youth. And then there’s Elsa who is sent to Auschwitz; she is named after my great-aunt who died there. Her story comes from the many times I have asked myself what might have happened to my family if they hadn’t had that extraordinary stroke of luck.
Before I started writing the book in 2019, I researched the Holocaust as much as I could. I wanted to make sure these children’s stories were as true to life as possible. Alongside reading, attending conferences and visiting museums, I decided to visit the actual places where these atrocities happened. My wife Laura and I visited four different concentration camps, as well as museums and walking tours in Munich, Krakow, Prague, Amsterdam and Vienna.
It was very thorough, and very hard. Keeping my mental health above water was a very tricky balance. When we visited Dachau concentration camp, I felt this overwhelming sense of grief. At Mauthausen, there was a huge field where they’d invite locals to play football, and I felt an all-consuming rage. Then, at Auschwitz, I felt completely broken, and it was hard to pick myself up again. I went to the darkest feelings of grief and disbelief, but when I came back, it was almost cathartic. I just kept writing, and crying, and writing, and crying. I couldn’t stop. It was an incredible experience, though it was very emotional.
That trip, and writing the book, certainly deepened my closeness to my Jewish heritage. After visiting each concentration camp, we lit a candle and said Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. We had a really disturbing experience on a walking tour in Munich, with someone who sounded a bit sympathetic to the Nazis, so we went straight to a synagogue afterwards. It felt like coming across water in a desert, and I found myself soaking up my Jewishness. In a very strange way, the last year has added to that. My sister, brother and their children are more religious, and they’ve always held Friday night dinners. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all met on Zoom to light the candles and say Good Shabbas, our greeting for welcoming in the day of rest. I have felt much more connected to my Jewish faith.
Though it has been lovely to deepen this connection, it has felt difficult in some ways, too. My niece Frankie is a teacher in a Jewish school, and we'd have conversations about why our Jewish identity always feels so linked to hatred and oppression. She told me about a trip she took to Berlin with some friends, and after visiting a Jewish memorial, they said Kaddish too. She told me how it started off sombre, but then it got louder, and more powerful; she said it was almost like a chant of resistance. It was proof that we survived. When she told me that, it made me cry. It reminded me that, for many Jewish people, being alive today is an act of resistance.
Sometimes, seeing the fascination with Holocaust tales makes me feel a bit itchy and uncomfortable, but I’m willing to feel uncomfortable if it means people will learn something. Holocaust denial is rife at the moment, and very scary, particularly in this era of fake news. Antisemitism seems to be rising again, and there are so many other worrying developments, like the rise in Fascism in America and Europe, and the horrendous acts of racism and physical violence we are seeing against various oppressed minorities. It worries me that we haven’t learned from history, and become a society that knows to treat everybody fairly; with respect and dignity. I think it’s important to not just remember the past, but think about how we can build a kinder world.
My dad is 90 years old now – he has read all the drafts of my book, and he is very proud. I’m so glad I have written this book while he is still here – it’s been incredibly special to share it with him. People who lived through the Holocaust are becoming fewer in their numbers, and in 10 or 20 years there won’t be anyone left. So this is why we must remember – this year, and every year to come."
When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler (Simon and Schuster), is out now.
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