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Friday, April 16, 2010

The Year of Goodbyes

Debbie Levy is the author of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry books for young people. Her most recent title is The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells (Disney-Hyperion 2010). The book is based on her mother's personal poetry album and it a deeply moving account of teens growing up under the dark shadow of the Nazi era. Debbie spoke with me at length about the process of writing The Year of Goodbyes.

THE YEAR OF GOODBYES is based on your mother's "poesiealbum," which is described as an autograph album with personal messages from friends. When did you discover that your mother had kept her poesiealbum for so many years? Since writing the book have you discovered others who saved their poesiealbums ?

I can’t say with certainty when my mother first shared her poesiealbum with me. When I was growing up (in Silver Spring, Maryland), there wasn’t much talk in our family about my mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany. My sister and I knew about the Holocaust, of course; we knew parents and grandparents of other kids who had survived concentration camps. But my mother, her sister, and my grandmother really didn’t talk much about their own experiences. I think my mother felt it didn’t warrant discussion—not when others had suffered in the camps.

It wasn’t until after the death of my grandmother—my mother’s mother—in the mid 1980s that my mother shared her diary, which along with the poesiealbum is also excerpted in THE YEAR OF GOODBYES. And it was around that same time that she began talking a little bit more about her childhood. I think this came about in connection with the grassroots efforts that led to the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Like many others, she and my late father participated in the fundraising for the museum; that caused her to open up more about her experience living in Germany in the 1930s during the rise of Nazism. Sometime after that, I became aware of the existence of the poesiealbum—but I didn’t examine it closely until years later.

Here’s what happened: I wrote an article, which covered a small corner of the larger story covered in the book. The article was published in The Washington Post in November 1998. Among its readers were a couple of women who had been classmates with my mother in Hamburg, Germany in the 1930s. Remember, they’re all in their seventies by this time. Many phone calls later, in 2000 my mother and six of her girlfriends from the Jewish School for Girls in Hamburg, Germany reunited for the first time in more than 60 years in Silver Spring, Maryland.

My mother brought out her poesiealbum to share with the “girls”—two of them had written in it. This was when I got my first good look at the poesiealbum. Without even knowing what the entries in it said—they’re in German and Polish and French—I was moved by this beat-up little book full of handwriting and drawings. I studied it, got it translated, and it became clear to me that it needed to be a central element in a book about my other’s story. So, as you know, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes begins with one of the handwritten entries from the poesiealbum.

As for other survivors’ poesiealbums, one of my mother’s former Hamburg classmates, who now lives in New York, has shared her own poesiealbum with me. In it, she has an entry written by my mother as a girl!

I'm sure it is striking for today's tweens to discover that twelve year olds in Nazi Germany had the same feeling and as emotions that kids experience today. What has the response been from young readers?

The book is so new that I haven’t heard from many young readers yet, so I only have a couple of anecdotes. I’m told by a friend that her daughter said to her mother after reading it: “Mom, we’re very lucky.” Also, this same girl said that Jutta and her friends reminded her of her own friends. Someone else sent me a book report a girl wrote right after reading THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, in which she said that one reason she found the book so interesting was because she hadn’t previously read anything with such details about the lives of people during this time.

The book is peppered with some unique artwork which appears to be vintage valentines or paper dolls. Can you tell me a bit about the inclusion of these pieces?

Those are reproductions of oblaten—colorful, die-cut, and often embossed stickers that European girls collected and traded in the 1930s (and before). I’m calling them “stickers,” but that’s something of a misnomer because they didn’t actually have adhesive on their reverse sides—you would apply glue and affix them to the pages. Girls used the oblaten to decorate poesiealbum pages. The images that are scattered throughout THE YEAR OF GOODBYES come from my mother’s cache of oblaten—which she brought with her to the U.S. from Hamburg when she and her family fled in November 1938. A few years ago, she and I found them tucked in an old envelope. Collectors today call these tiny works of art “scraps.”

The bakers among your readers may also know oblaten as also a type of thin, wafer-like cookie. No, the girls were not putting cookies in their poesiealbums!

The follow-up of Jutta's friends brings her story full circle. How difficult was the research required to complete your manuscript?

The research was difficult in two ways—it was, as you can understand, often extremely sad, and it was also challenging. Of the 30 people who make an appearance in my book, half were killed by the Nazis or their collaborators in the Holocaust.

As for the challenging aspect of the research: There is no one-stop resource that a researcher can go to for definitive information on people who were killed in, or survived, the Holocaust. Databases maintained by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust research center and museum in Jerusalem) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (in Washington, D.C.) are extremely useful, and I used them both. They have their limitations, however, and sometime include incorrect information—after all, they are based on reports and testimony filed by individuals, and human error can creep in. I also consulted various books and documents that the Holocaust Museum makes available to the public, such as memorial books published by various German entities. I used an array of directories and sources to track down survivors, or the survivors of survivors. Internet research was invaluable in this respect.

Even today, 65 years after the liberation of Europe from Nazi conquest, information is still dribbling out about Holocaust victims. For example, for years our family believed that my mother’s cousin Manja died in Auschwitz concentration camp, based on reports by other family members who survived that camp. But my research led me to a Page of Testimony in Yad Vashem’s database—a statement filed by another witness—who said Manja died in the Lodz Ghetto.

Then, as my book was about to go to press, I received word from a researcher at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. She had been searching for me in a huge recently opened archive which had been held in Germany since the end of the war. It’s called the International Tracing Service. She found German government records of Manja’s transfer from Auschwitz to Stutthof concentration camp in September 1944. This was late in the war. She had survived a long time! For an instant, I was hopeful there might be some good news. But the next document was a death certificate from Stutthof; stating that Manja died on January 7, 1945 from “complete body weakness.” I was already reconciled to thinking that that this young woman perished in a concentration camp. But to think of her surviving Auschwitz (where her mother died) and then being shipped hundreds of miles north to Stutthof was very difficult. And to think of Manja surviving until January 1945, with the end of the war only four months away—heartbreaking. Manja was 25 when she died in 1945—6 years older than my mother.

What was the most interesting part of writing THE YEAR OF GOODBYES?

I’m sorry, I can’t choose just one thing. I have to mention:

· Countless hours of interviewing and talking with my mother, and examining her keepsakes.

· Listening to my mother’s six classmates from Hamburg’s Jewish School for Girls at their reunions starting in 2000.

· Tracking down information about my mother’s Parisian cousin Guy Gotthelf, who wrote in her poesiealbum in November 1938. I started with a simple Google search on his name, which yielded a map showing Rue Guy Gotthelf (Guy Gotthelf Street) in Yerres, France. Of course, I had to find out whether this was “our” Guy.

· Finding the connections between what my mother’s friends wrote in her poesiealbum and what was going on around them in Hamburg and Germany as they wrote.

Debbie, thank you for sharing so much about your research and writing process for The Year of Goodbyes. It is a special book that is sure to be meaningful to young readers. To learn more about Debbie and her books, please visit:

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