Q. WHEN DID YOU AND YOUR FATHER BEGIN TO WRITE SURVIVORS CLUB?
A. When a well-known children’s book author named Sarah Mlynowski visited my children’s school in late 2014, I had the chance to speak with her one-on-one. In fact, Sarah is my sister’s cousin so we took her out to lunch while she was in town. I still remember my proud, big sister Lori saying, “Debbie is a great writer! She is going to help my dad document his history.” I was embarrassed – because I still hadn’t started working on the book I had promised myself, and my family, I would write. Survivors Club was still just an idea in our minds. Sarah encouraged me to dive in and get started. A few weeks later, in early 2015 – I set my New Year’s resolution and sat down with my father to officially begin writing Survivors Club.
Plans and research though, started earlier. When my nephew Jake was 13 and preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, he decided to make his "Mitzvah Project" about Holocaust education. He nudged his Papa to join him, speaking to peers and suddenly - my dad began to open up a bit. As a family, we started researching more and asking more questions. The genesis of this project - has been a slow evolution.
Q. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO COLLABORATE WITH YOUR DAD ON THIS PROJECT?
A. Amazing. This journey has been incredible from start to finish. And it wasn’t just a “dad-daughter” project. My older sister helped track down leads on new information. My mom is a gifted researcher (aside from being my hero in every other way), my little sister is the cheerleader who listened when the project hit roadblocks and my big brother set up a massive speaking engagement in 2015– my father’s first event with an adult audience. My husband, a talented writer and lawyer, kept me honest when it came to grammar and my 11-year-old son screened chapters for me as I wrote them.
Q. DO YOU THINK THAT YOU AND YOUR SIBLINGS WERE AFFECTED IN ANY WAY, BEING THE CHILDREN OF A SURVIVOR?
A. From my perspective, no. My dad (alongside my incredible mom) – has gone out of his way to create a world for his children that has been filled with joy. There is, amazingly, no dark side. He never even liked us to see scary movies, and never enjoyed them himself. When I was traveling Europe for a month after college, I called home to say I would be visiting Auschwitz. My father begged me not to go. He was careful to shield us from such awful details our whole lives. I listened to him, but years later – my parents visited Auschwitz together. I guess my dad was finally ready to acknowledge that terrible, awful past – even as he continues to always focus on a happy future.
My older sister, however, says she always saw small markings of his past and it did have an impact. She remembers a time when she, as a moody teenager, didn't want my father to take her somewhere with her friends. My dad was devastated and felt as though she was embarrassed of him. Our mom explained that he had been through a lot in his life and was more sensitive than some dads. He was brutally bullied and treated as a second-class citizen during his early childhood and some of that never left him.
My sister also pointed out - my father is ever-careful with money and was ever-determined to seek the highest education for his children. "They can't take your education away from you," she recalls him saying over and over again. I guess I always saw him as a conservative dad. It didn't occur to me as a child, that the root of it came from my dad's dark past.
Q. WAS IT DIFFICULT TO WRITE ABOUT SUCH A TRAGIC TOPIC?
A. It was incredibly hard. My friends know I don’t even like to read sad books, let alone write them. Fortunately, Survivors Club has a pretty amazing ending.
I will admit I cried more than once during the writing process. As a mom, writing about the final farewells between parents and children was the hardest part. It was such a tragic time in history and yet, I tried really hard to make sure readers feel the thread of optimism that runs throughout my family’s history.
Q. WHY DID YOU WRITE TO A MIDDLE-GRADE AUDIENCE?
A. I have three kids of my own and when we began working on Survivors Club my oldest was ten. It was time to start talking about the Holocaust. My father has eleven grandkids, in all. We both wanted exactly the right tool to help kids fully grasp the horror, but also know the miracles that happened - large and small. In my family, there was no better story than that of their Papa. All of the grandkids encouraged him to talk at their schools and just - talk out loud about what happened to him as a child. We are very proud of him for being so willing to share this story with others.
Q. DO YOU PLAN TO WRITE MORE BOOKS?
A. Yes! I am already working on a second book, but this time – I am trying my hand at a novel. I cover so many interesting stories as a journalist and a combination of news stories has inspired this next book idea. It will have a lot of twists and turns, just like all those unbelievable accounts that haunt me after I leave the news station. But I can promise this much – it will have a very important moral. I am writing this next book so that my kids understand the power of the internet and the permanence of the online world.