Book Time interviews Ella Burakowski about
Hidden Gold, A True Story of the Holocaust
By Lisa Day
Hidden Gold, A True Story of the Holocaust
Second Story Press, www.secondstorypress.ca
Questions to Ella Burakowski:
1. Growing up, did you know your parents were Holocaust survivors? Was this something that was talked about or, like many survivors, did they not say anything, wanting to move on?
I always knew I was the child of survivors. Our freezer was packed with bread because my parents were afraid we would starve. We were never allowed to discuss personal or family related items in public. Every morsel of food had to been eaten or we were not allowed to leave the table. Money was not spent on anything extra like a cookie or toy. Everything was a secret. My parents worked from morning till night to make ends meet and to ensure we had a Jewish education and Jewish friends.
They sacrificed so we would never have to know what they lived through. When I was two years old we moved from Israel to Canada and I grew up under one roof with my uncle’s family and my grandmother. When I went back to see the tiny house we lived in on Wychwood Avenue, in downtown Toronto, I wonder how we all managed to fit? All my clothes were hand-me-downs or sewn by my grandmother. I never had what the other kids had. I was different.
No one in our home ever spoke of the Holocaust. It was as though by not speaking about it, those horrors would disappear and life would be “normal.”
However, I always felt loved and safe, except sometimes at night when my parents would cry out in their sleep. It was hard as a child to hear their suffering and not understand. In January of 1972, my mom died in front of me of a massive coronary. I was 14. She took with her all the memories of her hard life. I remember thinking and praying that she was at peace now.
2. When did you start hearing stories about the Holocaust and your family stories?
I don’t remember life without knowing about the Holocaust. It was an unspoken reality. My parents sent me to a Jewish parochial school, where it was part of the curriculum. I was not the only one in that school whose parents were survivors. You could pick each one of us out of a lineup. There was something about the way we looked and acted.
We never really discussed the Holocaust at home. I learned most of my information in passing. It was always something I would have to pick up in conversations between my parents, their friends, various family members and what I was taught in school.
As a child, I wanted to fit in so badly but knew that my circumstances were different than most of my friends.
3. When did you decide to write down your family’s story? Why was it important at that point? Why did you write your uncle’s story?
A series of events lead me to write my family’s story.
My uncle had been looking for someone to write his memoir for a number of years, but never quite clicked with anyone.
Meanwhile in the fall of 2010, with winter fast approaching, I decided to take a continuing education course to get me out of the house at least one night through the dark winter evenings. With Photoshop, life drawing and pottery not available in my area, I was left with creative writing.
One of our assignments was to write a dialogue. I knew my mother, her siblings and my grandmother were hidden in secret cramped enclosure of a barn for over two years, and it always astonished me. I often wondered what they spoke about being together with no outside stimulus, starving, freezing and wondering if they would survive, for over two years. So that’s what I chose as my first dialogue – a conversation in that hiding place.
When I read it aloud to the class, they were fascinated and wanted to hear more. At the instructor’s request, all of my assignments after that, were about my family’s experiences during the war.
That was the beginning of how Hidden Gold evolved into a book.
4. Was there creative liberties taken? Why?
All the events in Hidden Gold are true, however, I took creative liberties in my writing to turn the historical events into a story that the reader could identify with.
In order to engage a young audience as well as adult readers, I wanted to put my reader, in the moment. I therefore created a story that includes dialogue, vivid descriptions, emotions and thoughts of each of the characters. Some of the plots that link to the real events were also created to make the flow more realistic.
My goal was to bring the characters to life, to help the reader visualize their surroundings and grasp the fear, loss, pain and choices that each and every character endured though this horrid journey.
5. I was a little disappointed at how the book ended, that the Gold family was let out of the barn and then we went to the future. I felt after reading all that suffering, it would have been nice to read happy news. Why did you write it that way?
Actually, I didn’t write it that way. I originally wrote Hidden Gold for my family to hand down through the generations, never realizing it would get published. As more people read it, the book took on a life of its own. Without exception, each person who read it felt Hidden Gold was a story that needed to be told.
After much thought I submitted the manuscript to Second Story Press and Margie Wolfe agreed that Hidden Gold was a story that would teach and touch people. My editor at Second Story Press wanted to target the book to a young adult (YA) audience and felt that it should end at liberation. The original manuscript was quite a bit longer and perhaps too much for a YA book.
In the book I wrote for my family there is a fourth part called After the war. It follows the Gold family as they returned to their home town, their grief in finding that any resemblance to their past life was gone, their experiences in post-war Poland and their decision to leave Europe.
After the war, anti-Semitism continued to rage throughout Europe. The Poles confiscated all Jewish property, assuming the Jews would never return. Today a Polish bank sits on the Gold family’s property, which they were never able to redeem.
While I was doing research for Hidden Gold, at the United States Holocaust Museum, I discovered that my father, who never spoke of his days through the Holocaust, was in a number of forced labour camps, before he was finally liberated from the Dachau Concentration Camp. Most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, but he was reunited with his one remaining brother in Israel. After the war my father worked for the UNRRA (United Nations Relief And Rehabilitation Administration) in Foehrenwald displace persons camp. That’s where my parents met and fell in love.
They smuggled onto a ship headed for Israel before it became a nation, but were turned away by the British and sent to Cyprus. Once again they found themselves in a camp, this time an interment camp. Eventually, the British allowed them to enter Israel and they began to make a new life for themselves.
Both my sister and I were born in Israel. After living through numerous wars with the Arabs, my mother longed for some peace and quiet. She longed to feel safe and be with her family. We boarded a plane in 1959 and came to Canada. Life was not easy in Canada. Once again my parents found themselves trying to build a new life for themselves and their children. They worked very hard trying to make ends meet, all the while wondering if they had made the right decision.
6. You would be considered a first-generation of Holocaust survivor, how did that awful period of time shape who you are?
I am considered a second-generation survivor and it absolutely affected me growing up. With both my parents being survivors it was not an easy gig. Many books have been written about children of Holocaust survivors, Goodreads lists 37 of them.
Even though my parents tried to protect my sister and I, they were both very broken people. When things are broken, it’s human nature to try to fix them. And fix them I did.
I have become an independent, strong woman. I’m a critical thinker and have a keen ability to identify common sense in most situations, which is why my advice column, “Ask Ella” in The Canadian Jewish News has been popular for over 20 years.
Growing up with no luxuries, has taught me to appreciate everything, from the smallest item like peanut butter, which we never had growing up, to living in my own home with my husband in the heart of Toronto. I take nothing for granted and I believe everything happens for a reason. I grew up in a home where my mother and grandmother were superstitious, in fact there are a couple of scenes in Hidden Gold where my grandmother, Hanna, relied on a dream or premonition to save herself and her children.
I am a strong supporter of Israel, a country that was created from the ashes of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust. I am proud to have been born in a country where family, acceptance of everyone, and education are priorities. A country whose people live life to the fullest, but who still lack the peace that my parents so yearned for.
I do everything with conviction and never stop half way. I attribute it all to being the child of Holocaust survivors.
7. What do you hope people take away from your book?
I hope that Hidden Gold will teach our young people what happens when we become complacent and allow others to do our thinking for us.
I hope this book will spark discussions and inspire further research into the Holocaust.
I hope people will learn how easily and quickly evil can penetrate each and every life.
I hope that anyone reading this book, will come away with the knowledge that being a silent bystander is not an option. We must all be cognizant of what is happening in the world around us today, and try to ensure that the atrocities inflicted on the Jews during the Holocaust does not happen anywhere else in the world ever again. We must not sit idly by and allow people to be tortured, killed and persecuted for their beliefs, religion and gender.
8. I always find Holocaust stories hard. I wouldn’t say they are good books – always well written, but horrific. It’s hard to recommend something where you know the ending of many people, but the middle is different, but always awful. Why should I recommend someone reading this book?
Life is not always about rainbows and flowers. In order to appreciate the good in life, you sometimes have to experience the bad. You need both, in order to find a balance, and truly appreciate what you have.
To quote the very wise Elie Weisel, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” To pretend that this disturbing period in our history did not exist, instead of learning from it, would mean that 11 million people died in vain. If no lessons are learned from the Holocaust, then history is doomed to be repeated. Ignoring the stories, the facts, does not make the evil disappear. It allows those whose goal it is take control and spread hate and terror succeed.
I sign every book with my name and the words, “Never Forget.” It’s important for all of us to educate ourselves, and others for humanity to survive.
9. Anything else you would like to say?
As a second-generation survivor, I am all too aware that we are a unique link to the past and the future. Very soon there will be no one left to directly tell these harrowing stories of survival. By writing Hidden Gold, I am passing on this remarkable story, in the hope of teaching and influencing for the better, the next generations.
I remember when I finished writing Hidden Gold, there was a sense of peace and calm that came over me. I felt like one of those people who carry the Olympic torch.
“Hidden Gold” is my metaphoric torch to pass on to the next runner, with the hope that they learn from history and keep the flame going and moving.
THE IN CHARACTER INTERVIEW
WITH ELLA BURAKOWSKI
When writing creative non-fiction, how does a writer approach character? The characters of the narrative are real people, and yet readers still need to connect — simply the fact that the characters are real is not enough. It's a delicate balance, curating a life in non-fiction, and one of which non-fiction writers have to be constantly conscious.
Today we're excited to speak with Ella Burakowski, author of Hidden Gold: A True Story of the Holocaust (Second Story Press) about the process of working with characters who were real people, as part of our In Character interview.
In Ella's case, she had even more impetus to be true to and respectful of her characters, as Hidden Gold is a family story, and one of the main characters is in fact Ella's mother, Shoshana.
Ella talks to us about connecting with her late mother through Hidden Gold, tuning one's ear for natural-sounding dialogue and the characters she has loved as a reader.
Tell us about the main character in your new book.
The main characters at the start of Hidden Gold are the Gold family, including Hanna the mother, Leib the father and their three children, Shoshana, Esther and David.
Hidden Gold is the true story of a family’s struggle to survive during the Holocaust. Hanna and her children are separated from Leib, and are on the run from the Nazis. They end up in hiding for over two years in a tiny secret compartment of a barn.
Hanna is smart, brave and bold. She keeps a level head at all times to ensure her family’s safety and keep them together. She is stoic, and rarely shows emotion. Even though she is separated from her husband Leib, she never gives up hope that they will all be reunited as a family.
Blue-eyed Shoshana, the eldest of the three siblings, born in 1919, spoke German perfectly, with no hint of a Yiddish accent. Leib and Hanna asked her on various occasions to come out of hiding and possibly save them from death. Her Slavic look and perfect dialect made her the ideal decoy to pretend she was not a Jew. Shoshana did what she had to, even though she was nervous and scared. She put her fears aside for the good of her family over and over again, but not without it taking a physical toll on her mind and body.
Esther, born in 1921, the forever optimist, was always able to find the positive no matter how dire the situation. She had a gift to be able to raise her family’s spirits when they were ready to give up hope. Esther was not squeamish and was therefore the one who could deal with delousing her mother, brother and sister on a regular basis, while in the barn.
The book begins with David’s birth in 1930. David is a brave, mischievous child, always getting into trouble. When the Nazis invade Pinczow, the Gold’s hometown in 1942, David and his family become separated from Leib, his father. David is forced to grow up quickly and take over the role as the man in the family. Even though he was a young child, he took his job of protecting his mother and two sisters very seriously. He never cried or complained, not even when he was stabbed or beaten.
Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?
I do believe that the characters take on a life of their own. Writing Hidden Gold was odd for me, especially writing Shoshana’s part.
Shoshana was my mother and she died when I was 14 years old. I never had a chance to really know her, and I certainly had no idea about what she experienced through the Holocaust. As I wrote, I often felt that someone was guiding my hand. The story came alive as the characters interacted and came to life on the pages. It was as though I was their instrument, but they were in control, not me as the author.
How do you choose names for your characters?
The names of the main characters are their real names, however for privacy purposes I changed the names of all the people the Gold family encountered throughout their journey.
It was important for me to keep the names authentic for the time period, and the geographical location of Jews, Poles and Germans in Nazi occupied Poland. However, I also wanted them to be meaningful. For example, when Hanna and her children were on the run they ended up in the town of Dzialoszyce. Word was out that the Germans were about to invade the town as they were systematically moving through Poland, rounding up Jews, killing them or transporting them to concentration camps for extermination. Hanna instructed her children to pack up, as they would leave in the morning to escape into the forest.
However, the night before she was about to leave, Hanna’s mother appeared in a dream and told Hanna not to run, because someone was coming to save them. That person, was a Jewish woman I named Nessa. In Hebrew the word “ness” means miracle. Even though Nessa’s purpose for being there was sinister, at that moment she was their miracle.
What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?
Writing realistic dialogue requires one to listen very intently to others. Spend time somewhere where you can overhear conversations, perhaps a coffee shop. Listen to people talking, but really listen, not so much to what they say, but to how they are saying it. Do they use contractions such as “they’re going” or do they say, “they are going?”
Dialogue has to be natural. Read what you’ve written aloud. Do you get tongue-tied or does your conversation flow smoothly?
To make my dialogue authentic for the time and place I added Yiddish, Polish and German. By adding these foreign words the scene automatically becomes more authentic and puts my reader into that time period and place. However, it has to be done so the reader doesn’t stumble. In order for the reader to understand, I would have the explanation disguised within the scene setting or the actual conversation.
I used the words Dzień dobry quite often. From the following example you can see that I used the time of day and the answer from the person who was being addressed, to help the reader quickly understand that Dzień dobry means good morning.
At daybreak they woke to see a Polish farmer making his way toward them.
He was older, dressed in working overalls, and carrying no tools.
He called out, “Dzień dobry.”
“Good morning,” they replied.
Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?
I aspire to be like my main characters, especially Shoshana who was my mother.
Writing Hidden Gold gave me an opportunity to walk in her shoes through the darkest time in her life. I felt her strength, her courage and her fear. I have often wondered how I would have reacted in her circumstance. Would I have had the conviction and selflessness that she had? Would I have put my family’s life above my own? I would like to think that I would, but who really knows? Would I have had the courage, clarity and strength Shoshana did?
For now I am very proud to be her daughter, I can only hope that somehow she knows that.
Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?
There have been more than a few memorable characters that I’ve encountered as a reader.
One of the most interesting characters is Owen Meany, in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen is very small and has a weird, irritating voice. His physical attributes and damaged, unnatural voice make people take notice of him. Owen is very principled, a strong believer in God, and he acts on his beliefs. He is probably the best developed, and one of the most unusual characters, I’ve ever come across in reading a piece of fiction.
Another character that stayed in my heart is Prabaker from the book Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. Early on in the book he was Lin’s (the main character) best friend and guide through India. He knew his way around the slums of Bombay. Prabaker had a natural funny demeanor and an enchanting warm heart. I couldn’t wait to get to the parts with this character. It was a joy to have known Prabaker.
One of my favorite female characters is Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Strong and edgy, she breaks all stereotypes of the way women are usually portrayed. No matter what life throws at her, she goes to great lengths to even the score. She is interestingly principled in a freakish sort of way.
What are you working on now?
I continue to write my advice column in The Canadian Jewish News as well as my blog.
As for book two, that is still rattling around in my brain, but very close to a final concept. I can tell you that it will be fiction, and I will still use ideas and events from my life to make it credible. It will revolve around a young girl who immigrates to Canada and faces emotional challenges as she attempts to fit in.
The topic is timely with the plight of refugees today. My sister and I lived the life of immigrant children after the Holocaust and I hope to tackle this controversial topic by focusing on the hopes and dreams of one little girl and the lengths she’ll go to, to fit into her new life.
Ella Burakowski has been writing a column in The Canadian Jewish News for the past 20 years. Now the Operations Manager at The CJN, Ella has been working full time at the paper, learning the newspaper business from the ground up. Born in Israel to two Holocaust survivors, Ella was compelled to write her family's story when her Uncle David described her family's experience during World War II.