THE WAR WITHIN THESE WALLS won an Honor Award in the Teen Reader category. My sincere congratulations and gratitude to three outstanding storytellers involved with this book, Author, Aline Sax, Illustrator, Caryl Strzelecki, and Translator, Laura Watkinson.
I reviewed the book here but just a quick note that this story takes place in the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto in the early 1940s. It culminates in four weeks of fighting between 750 Jewish fighters and 2,000 Nazi soldiers.
Author Aline Sax! First let me say, you have written a powerful story and created a character whose emotions carried me throughout. I wanted so much for Misha to win over this dreadful history.
In your story, the real life character, Mordecai Anielewicz motivated the resistance fighters with the words "We are going to shake our people awake. The eyes of the world will be upon us." In reality the Jewish resistance is not as well known as many holocaust stories. Did word of the resistance make it into the press in 1943? It’s hard to reconstruct exactly who knew about the uprising and when they heard about it. Of course the citizens of Warsaw knew, and the Polish resistance knew even beforehand. But little assistance was given to the Jewish resistance fighters, before and during the uprising. The Allied Powers knew what was going on with the Jews in Europe (although not to what extend!), but they didn’t react. Why not, is a complex question I won’t go into here.
How did you hear about it? Can you tell us how The War Within These Walls developed within you? In Belgium, the story of the uprising is rather unknown. I heard about it when I studied in Berlin. I took a course on ‘Poles, Germans and Jews during the Second World War’ where the subject came up. I started to investigate the matter more thoroughly and became fascinated by the courage of these young man and women and their decision not to wait and see, but to fight back, against all odds. I began wondering how life in the ghetto must have been, how terrible the situation must have been, how hopeless you must feel to make such a decision. And yet how brave … And that is how Misja’s story started to grow inside my head. The more I researched, the more I became convinced I had to tell this story. In Belgium, we only hear the stories of the round-ups, the camps, the gas chambers, the death marches, … Young people think of the Jews as lambs being led to the slaughter, passively packing up their stuff and boarding the trains. But story of the uprising shows they were not all that passive. They did resist, they did raise their voice, hoping to be heard, they did not accept what was happening but protested against the injustice being inflicted upon them. I think it’s important to tell this part of history as well.
I agree and I'm so glad you've done that. Please share how the book developed on paper and into print. It took a few years to finish the book … All was set in motion when Caryl, the illustrator, came up to me and asked me if we could make a book together about Poland during the Second World War. I was immediately interested. The moment he said ‘Poland’ and ‘Second World War’, I remembered my research on the Warsaw ghetto uprising. I picked up the thread again and started to investigate further into daily life in the ghetto. I developed the story and shared it with Caryl. He started drawing and I started writing. It was not clear right away how we would combine text and illustrations. I’m a novel writer, so I didn’t feel comfortable writing in balloons. Nevertheless, I felt this was not yet another novel, the story had to be told in verse-like sentences. It would have a bigger impact. It was not a rational decision. The story just unfolded in this rhythm. Caryl made a lot of drawings, which he showed me often. When the whole story was finished and Caryl had made more than a hundred illustrations, choices had to be made regarding which illustrations would make into the book and where. We got great help from the publisher’s graphic designer. Finding a publisher wasn’t hard at all. When we showed Marita, from De Eenhoorn (a Belgian publishing house renowned for its picture books and beautiful graphic design) a few texts and some illustrations, the story struck her, just as it had struck me and she was immediately enthusiastic about our plans.
I love hearing how all this unfolded as though it were meant to be. The design is beautiful even though the story is stark, sometimes gruesome, and filled with sorrow and anger. Researching and writing it must have been emotionally exhausting. Can you share how this story affected you and how you sustained yourself during its process? The War Within These Walls is not my first book about the Holocaust. I also wrote De laatste reis (The last journey), a book for children of 10 years and older. The story is about a girl and her mother being deported to Auschwitz. It is nevertheless emotionally hard to research and write on such a topic. I can search for sources and literature as an historian, unattached and with a scientific attitude, but when I start to write, I have to get in the shoes of my main character. I have to think like him, feel like him. I have to become him in order to create a realistic character and a gripping story. That could be numbing sometimes. Maybe that’s the reason why the prose is so sparse. I was as numbed as Misja, describing what he saw, what he went through.
You portrayed his changing feelings in such a believable manner. Horror, anger, defiance, despair and eventually back to motivating anger and even hope. Thank you, Aline for your emotional investment so that we could feel Misha's emotions too.
|Illustrator, Caryl Strzelecki|
It's a very good question… that I need to be able to answer.
Of course, you may not know this but at first the drawings were all made in color. It was a tough decision to make (The decision making process is never easy). All the first drawings were very large drawings, more illustrations than capturing the real story told by Aline. But they all were rejected by the publisher. So I had to do it all over again. Somehow, in this whole process, I became more and more mentally and emotionally aware, that this immense dark story didn’t need any color. So in reality it was a ‘work-in-progress decision’. I am happy with the result. (Here are some of the color illustrations that were never used.)
Oh my - starting all over - book making is tough business. But your collaboration paid off! Did you choose the tall, narrow size and shape or did the design department decide on this? I'm glad to say that the publisher asked us both, Aline and me, about the size of the book, if we had any suggestions. and we all agreed on it that it had to be a book that could easily be held in your hands. But our Belgium publisher in particular, DE Eenhoorn, is well-known for making beautiful books.
I asked Aline Sax about her emotional journey as she wrote this story. Can you talk about how you experienced this story and especially how you sustained yourself as you illustrated it?
I would lie to you if I said everyday was a struggle. But we did work for at least 4 years on it. It was therefore, at some moments, a difficult journey. But I found some help in thinking about my Polish father, who did survive 4 years of labor camp (Zwangsarbeit) in World War2, in Germany. I knew it would made him very proud if I would succeed. Afterwards, when seeing the result, you easily forget all the hard work you put in it.
It's impossible to be emotionally involved all the time and also to concentrate on your work. But there were times I really was depressed. I had to go through all the awful photos of dead innocent children, older people… just ordinary people all going to die and many already dead … you couldn't help asking yourself ‘why?’…
I am sorry for your father's experience. No wonder you were motivated. I know he would be so proud of you.
Which was the most difficult illustration for you to create? Why? At some point there was a picture of a dying woman that I failed totally in capturing on paper! The woman looked me straight into the eyes, 70 years later. At that moment I felt uneasy and guilty in my drawing room. I felt really like a vulture looking at all those dead bodies; It was strange and upsetting. I talked about it with Aline. She helped me to overcome it. She made me realize that I had to put my personal feelings aside. It also really motivated me and made me determined to do my job as well as possible. (But the drawing of the dying woman we never used.)
|Translator: Laura Watkinson|
Hi Laura. I see that you translate into English from Dutch, German, and Italian. How terrific that we English readers have access to fine European books because of your efforts. How did you settle on a career in book translation? I’ve always enjoyed learning languages and reading books, so the idea of a career in translation appealed to me from an early age. I was very aware of translation as a career option and, as I moved to different countries to teach English, more translation work began to slip into my portfolio. It really is the perfect portable career. I enjoy being involved in a story on that very intimate level and I appreciate the challenge of solving the tricky translation problems that arise.
Tricky translation problems - I can imagine them. Can you tell us a bit about the process you use when translating a book? I read the book first to get an overview of the story, and then I start translating. The first pass is usually quite rough, as I’m still finding my way around. Then, with each subsequent pass, I polish the text and play with different options. When the text is in a fairly decent shape, I might ask around for second opinions. I’m lucky that I know a lot of other translators, so there’s always someone to talk to about books and words, and lots of great places to do that in Amsterdam over a nice cup of coffee.
This sounds much like writing - even the fact that you have a community of translators around you. I also know that you started SCBWI in the Netherlands. So obviously, community is important to you. What is the most gratifying part about translating a story from one language into another? I know how frustrating it can be when you hear about a great book, but you can’t read it because you don’t have the necessary language skills. Or when you see the fabulous illustrations in a book like The War within These Walls and you’re intrigued and want to find out more, but it’s in a language you don’t speak. What’s really gratifying about conveying a great story from one language into another is that you open it up to so many more people. More than that, you also connect different cultures and help to build a route into a country’s literature, which may enable people to gain a better understanding of other cultures and countries. That can only be a good thing.
I like that idea of building a route into a country's literature. You said, in another interview, that it's important for you to like a book in order to translate it. How did you decide to take on The War Between The Walls? I have great respect for Eerdmans Books for Younger Readers and for my editor there, Kathleen Merz. I think they have an excellent eye for outstanding children’s literature from all over the world. So when they approached me with this text, I was already predisposed to take it on. I’m a big fan of graphic novels and the unusual design and Caryl Strzelecki’s striking illustrations also attracted me from the outset. I knew that I really wanted to work on this book when I started translating Aline Sax’s words in my head as I was reading the story for the first time, and found myself pondering some of the trickier points. The poetic aspect of the text appealed to me, too.
I was also very aware of the responsibility of conveying this important story to young English-speaking readers, and capturing the sense and tone of Aline’s writing. It is, of course, a tragic story and a hard one to tell, but it’s our recent history and it’s a tale that needs to be told.
I’m grateful that I had a chance to be part of the process, and I’m so pleased that the book has been recognized by the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.
I'm pleased too. This book is truly deserving and I'm grateful to each of you for your part in bringing this lesser known history to me and to many others. Thank you for investing so much time and emotional energy into Misha's story - and the story of those he fought for.
I wish you all much continued success. Congrats again and thank you for stopping by.
Readers, thank you for stopping in too, and do check out all the winners and their interviews over at the Association of Jewish Libraries blog.