Candlewick recently published two books about Terezín, also known as Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Bohemia. While not an extermination camp, 50,000 Jews were cramped into a town built to house 2,000. Disease and malnutrition contributed to the deaths of many. Paul Janeczko is the author of Requiem, a book of poetry describing the Terezín experience. Ruth Thomson authored the nonfiction Terezín: Voices from the Holocaust. Elizabeth Bicknell served as editor for the two books, and Kaylan Adair assisted with permissions for Requiem. Candlewick’s senior publicist Tracy Miracle handles promotion.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Welcome, everyone. Let’s start off today’s questions with the authors. Paul and Ruth, what attracted you to write about Terezín?
Paul Janeczko (PJ): I got the idea for Requiem in 1993, when I read in a magazine about classical music a story about the “town Hitler gave the Jews.” I was shocked by the article, but at the same time drawn to the contrasts it contained, especially, of course, the contrast between the horrible environment and wonderful art that flourished in it. At the time I read the article, I had no idea that it was an “idea” for a book. I copied and filed the article. Over the years, the name of Terezín came up again and again in various articles and books. Still drawn to the story, I started collecting whatever information I could about the town. Finally, and I can’t recall the exact moment, I decided that I wanted to try to write a book that would give voice to the people of Terezin. Along the line, I had published Worlds Afire, the first book of poems that I wrote about a historical event, i.e., a circus fire in Hartford, CT, in 1944. Writing that book gave me more confidence to tackle a much more emotional story.
I also had the opportunity to visit Terezín. In the spring of 2008, I worked as a visiting writer at the American School in Warsaw. When my work was completed at the school, I decided that I would fly to Prague and visit Terezín. I wanted to see what vibe I would pick up in the town. So, I spent a day in the town and in the “Little Fortress” across the Ohře River, taking lots of pictures, visiting the museums, and just being there. I subsequently used the pictures I took as a slide show that I ran on my Mac as a screen saver. So, whenever the computer was on, those images of Terezín slowly floated across the screen of my computer.
Ruth Thomson (RT): I was working with Ben Uri, the museum of Jewish art in London, that asked me to write an educational pack about the Holocaust, using artworks related to it in their collection. Their works included a number of works by Leo Haas, one of the main artists in Terezín. Unfortunately the project was aborted, but during my research for it, I had become fascinated by the history of Terezín and thought that this would make an inspiring and moving book for young adults.
TWM: Paul, how did you come up with idea of multiple perspectives for the poems?
PJ: For one thing, it was the format that I had used in Worlds Afire, and it seemed to be a perfect fit for a story with many people. Sometimes my poems began with a person, say, a man who lost his shop in Prague to Nazi-sanctioned looters. At other times, the poems began with an object, like the bundles that the girls in the camp sorted. In the case of the poems that started out with an image of thing, I then needed to find someone who would be connected with that thing. In the case of the bundles, the speaker had to be, I felt, one of the teenage girls who worked in the bundles room. I wanted to give a lot of people the chance to tell their stories.
TWM: Were they difficult to group?
PJ: I don’t really see the poems as grouped, so much as part of a very loose chronological structure. And within that structure, I used the voice of a young boy, Miklos, to speak very short, imagistic poems that are placed at various points in the book, to sort of stitch it together. Miklos is introduced in the third poem in the book. He also speaks the final poem of the book. That final poem, by the way, is mirrored in the illustration called “The One Left Behind” by Fritz Lederer. All the illustrations in book, by the way, are black-and-white drawings created by inmates of Terezín who perished in the death camps.
TWM: Ruth, did you personally interview any Terezín survivors?
RT: I did not interview any Terezín survivors.
TWM: How long did it take you to write Terezín?
RT: It took an immense amount of time to write and produce Terezín. To begin with, I immersed myself in diaries, memoirs and other written accounts about life in Terezín. I then spent many more weeks listening to recordings of first-hand accounts from Terezín survivors about their experiences at the sound archives of the Imperial War Museum and making copious notes. Finally, I spent time both in Prague and Terezín, searching through archives, looking at pictures, documents, theatre programmes, children’s artwork etc; walking around and around Terezín over several days and choosing relevant contemporary shots for my (husband) photographer to take.
Once I had gathered all the material I needed, it then took me several more months to put the material into a coherent narrative, choose the most pertinent pictures to illustrate the points I wanted to make and work with the designer to create the book as you now see it. Finding and negotiating with the picture sources was an ongoing and particularly time-consuming experience —whether finding the right source, finding the copyright holders of the pictures (not necessarily the same thing) and negotiating their agreement. Before the book went to print, I sent it to be read by the Holocaust Education Trust and several Holocaust survivors for comment.
TWM: What was your goal for your book?
PJ: My main goal in the book was to let my characters tell their stories. I hoped that if I did a good job of it, young readers would hear what the people of Terezín had to say to them and recognize the horror and unbearable sadness of the lives of these innocent people.
RT: My goal for the book was to create a telling narrative of Terezín, using the words and pictures of those who were forced to live there, supplemented by original documents and ephemera to add authentic texture. I wanted to show that despite the Nazis’ brutality, deliberate cruelty and callousness, many people in Terezín managed to retain their dignity, hope, creativity and essential humanity.
TWM: Liz, was it planned or an accident to bring out two children’s books about Terezín this year?
Elizabeth Bicknell (EB): It was sort of planned! I’ve worked with Paul B. Janeczko for more than 15 years, and we have many projects in the works together at any given time. I think he originally mentioned to me he was thinking of a book of poems about Terezín five or six years ago. But it was put on hold so that he could go to the actual site and talk to people there. In the meantime, Franklin Watts, a British publisher of nonfiction books for young readers, contacted me about a book they were producing about Terezín. Since the two books seemed complementary to one another, I thought it would be terrific to publish them both.
TWM: What kind of vetting did you put the manuscripts through?
EB: Every book we publish is fact-checked and copyedited by in-house or freelance staff. Occasionally we also employ specialist readers—historians, scientists, biographers—but in these two cases we did not feel the need for specialized help.
TWM: Did you coordinate any kind of editing or publishing with each other?
EB: Originally the two books were slated to be published in the same season. But permissions issues delayed Requiem, as Kaylan will explain.
TWM: What attracted you to Requiem? To Terezín?
EB: I grew up in England, in the house in which my father had lived as a child during the Second World War. His stories of bombings, air raid shelters, finding shrapnel, and rationing were incredibly vivid. When I was about 12, I read Anne Frank’s Diary, and then a Thames Television series called The World at War came on television in 1973 (I was 16 at the time). I watched all 26 episodes with my mother in the evenings. I couldn’t believe that the atrocities committed were so recent. They seemed as if they ought to belong to an earlier, more barbaric era, and yet they were only 30 years ago (at the time). Moving to America in 1984 and encountering the phenomenon of Holocaust deniers (not that they don’t also exist in UK) made me determined to do my small part to uphold historically accurate narratives about the period. One reason I was so attracted to Terezín: Voices from the Holocaust was its use of archival material and quotes from survivors.
TWM: What do you think kids will react to? Why these books and why now?
EB: I think history is difficult to teach to kids when it is a dry recitation of facts, names, and battles. The scale is too grand and hard to keep in your mind. Focusing on the personal experiences of ordinary people—kids, especially—brings an era to life in a more vivid way. And it’s often the little details that speak most clearly—the bedbugs at the camp, for example, or the layout of bunks in a cell . . . those are scenes that kids can imagine and relate to, I think. Also, since the last survivors of Terezín are so very old now, it seems important to do all we can to keep their memories alive.
TWM: Terezín is so intricately laid out. What prompted the idea to lay it out that way?
EB: I think the material itself is so powerful that the design’s job is to keep it manageable for the reader. Short text excerpts matched with paintings, etchings, and other visual material mean the reader is not overwhelmed.
TWM: Were permissions ever an issue for Terezín?
EB: The permissions for Terezín were handled over in UK by Ruth Thomson and Franklin Watts, but for Requiem, in which we have also used a small sampling of inmates’ artwork, Kaylan contacted museums and archives literally around the world. She was heroic in tracking them down!
Kaylan Adair: When Paul submitted materials for Requiem, he included photocopies of artwork done by actual inmates which he’d found on his travels through the region. It was Paul’s hope that these images could make it into the final book. My job was to take these photocopies and first to assign artists and titles to the pieces and then to attempt to track down the originals (from which to make hi-resolution scans) and the copyright holders. The latter task proved to be a bit of a challenge, as it’s often quite difficult to ascertain if a particular individual or museum might be in possession of any given piece of artwork, and the language barrier further complicated the search at times. At one point things seemed a bit hopeless—we’d been quite close to getting scans of a large number of the pieces we wanted to use in the book, only to have our contact inform us that the museum had lost the volume containing these pieces! —and the book had to be rescheduled, but in the end we were able to track down all of the images and obtain permission to use them. We are tremendously grateful to the very kind and helpful staff at the Jewish Museum in Prague and the Jewish Museum Berlin, and to Mr. Eli Lev, the nephew of Fritz Lederer (one of the artists whose work is used in the book).
TWM: What has been the reaction to the two books?
EB: Each has received great reviews, and Requiem is the featured selection on the Poet Laureate’s website this month. It’s also been used as a readers’ theatre piece, which Paul can tell you more about. (It was performed earlier in November 2011 by the Open Book Players in Maine.) Kirkus Reviews said, “Moving and brutal, a poetic remembrance of a tragedy too vast to forget.”
TWM: And, finally, Tracy, how have you promoted) Requiem and Terezín?
Tracy Miracle: On the marketing side we sent both galleys and review copies out extensively to publishing trade media, newspaper reviews, bloggers and Jewish interest media prior to and in simultaneous to the book’s respective releases. We did a special e-release promoting both titles for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Resulting reviews have been strong for both books—which really helps the titles gain a positive profile with booksellers, as well as school and public librarians who we hope will share them with students and teachers for many years to come.
Read Terezin reviews>>>
Read Requiem reviews>>>