The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write The Assignment?
Liza Wiemer (LZ): On April 4, 2017, I visited Oswego, New York, for a book signing at River’s End Bookstore for my debut young adult novel, Hello? Before the event, I stopped at a local grocery store but couldn’t exit my car because of a downpour. So, I scrolled through Facebook. That’s when I saw the headline “Homework? NY Students Debate Exterminating Jews.” The article described how two teens, Archer Shurtliff and Jordan April, refused to do an antisemitic assignment requiring students to debate the merits of the Final Solution. To my shock, this took place in Oswego! How was possible that I ended up in a town where people supported an assignment advocating for the Holocaust?
I was horrified.
I decided to ask the bookstore owner to help me connect with the teens. I wanted to let them know them know that I thought they were brave. Four steps into the bookstore, there was Jordan, one of the teens from the article! It turned out she worked there. Later that evening, we had a three-way call with Archer.
For a more detailed explanation on how this novel came to be, check out my website post: The Story Behind The Assignment.
TWM: Was there any reason to place the story in upstate New York?
LW: As I’ve discovered, this type of an assignment can be given anywhere. Any country, any town, any school. The assignment that inspired this novel took place in upstate New York, so I created a fictitious town that had similar demographics. In addition, I included scenes that take place by Fort Ontario and in the Safe Haven Museum, which is dedicated to the nearly 1,000 European World War II refugees that were held at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. It was the only refugee shelter provided by the United States government and is located in upstate New York.
TWM: How did you come up with your cast of characters?
LW: I was inspired by Archer and Jordan’s courage, but from the moment I decided to write this novel, I made it very clear that it would be a work of fiction and would not represent them. For Cade, one of my main characters, I turned to the example of one of my aunts and uncles who owned a bed and breakfast. I imagined what it would be like for Cade to be raised in a similar environment. For my other main character, Logan, I decided her father would be the Mathematics Dean for SUNY-Lakeside. Lakeside doesn’t exist. I chose that profession to honor one of the people I met while I was doing research.
A former neighbor and Holocaust survivor, Jack Dygola, of blessed memory, had shared his harrowing story with me. I incorporated a great deal of it into the novel. We sat at my dining room table with tears streaming down our faces as he described what he endured and how he lived through the Holocaust.
At the end of my novel, readers are introduced to World War II veteran, Lieutenant Peter Franklin. His backstory was developed after I watched original footage and read about the real-life survival story of Navy Lieutenant Jack Taylor, who was enslaved at Mauthausen concentration camp.
From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to show a cast of characters that gave a well-rounded perspective on the impact an assignment like this can have on individual students, a class, a school, a community, and on a global level. Based on my research, I felt that the characters I chose represented a broad range of realistic perspectives and experiences.
TWM: What were your greatest challenges in writing this book?
LW: I did an extensive amount of research and it made me realize how very little I actually knew about the World War II and the Holocaust. I humbly recognize that I could devote the rest of my life to studying the topic and there would still be millions of stories and vast amounts of information I wouldn’t get to. As it was, I read thousands of pages, watched original footage and documentaries. I conducted interviews, spoke with experts, and traveled to some of the sites I included in my novel. The biggest challenge was having to decide what information to share, providing information I thought would be interesting and insightful without overwhelming the reader.
Another challenge was cutting some characters’ points-of-view. Originally, there were more Mr. Bartley chapters—the teacher in the novel. I also had chapters from the reporter’s perspective, the school secretary, and the New York Commissioner of Education that I deleted. Even though they were interesting, I have no regrets.
TWM: What were your greatest satisfactions?
LW: When I began this journey, I had no idea if I would get an agent to represent this novel or if the manuscript would eventually get published. I knew that writing this novel would require a tremendous amount or hard work, determination, and dedication without any guarantees. It was a huge leap of faith, something I needed to do. After thousands of hours of research, writing, rewriting and editing, it’s tremendously gratifying to see it in print and to hold the book in my hands.
One of my greatest satisfactions was sparked by research. In Ruth Gruber’s book, Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America, I read about baby Elia Montiljo. She died during the voyage from Naples, Italy to New York, New York, leaving her parents devastated. Under normal circumstances, she would have been buried at sea, but the Montiljos were granted their request to bring her to America. A crew member of USNS Henry Gibbins built a tiny coffin, and when the refugees arrived in Fort Ontario baby Elia’s parents were able to give her a proper burial. This story impacted me deeply. As part of my research, I planned to visit Fort Ontario to get a better understanding on what life was like for the refugees. That was important to me, but finding baby Elia’s grave became my personal mission I contacted Reverend George DeMass, past president of Safe Haven Museum and Oswego, NY historian, and asked for his help. During my return trip to Oswego, he took me, Jordan, and Archer to the Jewish section of the Riverside Cemetery. Archer finally found a small corner of a stone marker buried under leaves, grass, and lots of dirt. We uncovered it, revealing Rochel (Rachel/Elia) Montiljo’s grave. Per Jewish tradition, I placed a small rock on the marker. Uncovering the gravesite was a powerful, important moment. I made a promise to baby Elia that I would not only remember her, but share her story. Incorporating this experience into the novel was profound and satisfying.
TWM: Please describe your research process (did I detect some Christopher Browning in here?).
LW: Research was my first priority. Although I had my cast of characters and a general idea of who they were, what they valued and why, everything in this novel was steeped in the research I did. Indeed, you did detect some Christopher Browning! One of the books I used to research the Final Solution was his The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. I also read several other books as well as many websites to learn as much as I could about the Final Solution. The United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website was an invaluable tool, but I also spoke with their experts to get clarification on questions I had or to get answers I couldn’t find detailed information on their site or anywhere else. YouTube has an incredible amount of original footage as well as interviews with World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors, white supremacists. I researched hate crimes, New York state’s history, and delved into the background of a novel I incorporated into mine—Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
As word spread about my research about antisemitic and racist assignments, people contacted me on social media to share ones they read about or experienced firsthand. It was eye-opening and disturbing to discover how prevalent these types of assignments are and that they’ve been given across the globe.
TWM: What was your own emotional journey like while writing this book?
LW: It was intense. Remembering the antisemitic incidents I’d experienced as a child and throughout adulthood made me realize how I’d compartmentalized them and kept them behind a closed door. Those doors flew wide open. Once again, I felt the impact of antisemitism on an intimate level and had to come to terms with the fact that I’ve done things in the past to hide my Jewish identity, especially when I didn’t feel safe. As someone who loves being Jewish, this realization was painful. Balancing Jewish pride while confronting that fear wasn’t easy. The hate is real. I could never have moved forward if I hadn’t confronted these issues and fortified my determination to share this story. What transpired at Charlottesville, The Tree of Life Massacre, as well as many other horrific crimes against the Jewish people added fuel to my motivation to finish and see it published. I started out wanting to make a difference—to show students in particular how critical it is to speak up against hatred, to offer examples of courage. I don’t know where this journey will take me. But I remind myself every day that I’ve given and will continue to do my very best.
TWM: Who inspires you?
LW: To this day, my grandparents, Jack and Lena Goldberg, of blessed memory, inspire me. My grandma grew up in the South, and after my grandparents were married and had children, they moved from Milwaukee to Birmingham, Alabama. They saw and took action against racism. They endured horrible antisemitism. On many levels, they were incredible role models, showing me the importance of speaking up against hatred and injustice. Their actions spoke volumes. Because of them as well as my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don Goldberg, I had examples to help me become who I am today.
Elie Wiesel also inspires me as well as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist.
TWM: What’s next for you?
LW: In 1999, I had finished a picture book inspired by a story my grandfather had told me about his childhood. I turned down an offer from a small press to publish it because they wouldn’t guarantee that the illustrations would be done in color. I put the book in a drawer and would occasionally think about it, wondering how I could take the story out of the 1920s and make it modern. Recently, an idea came to me. I revised, revised, revised. It still has the spirit of my grandpa’s original story, but it’s set in today’s world. I have no doubt my grandpa would approve.