Saturday, 5 March 2016

Mother's Day

Hana and her mother Priska after the war

IT’S MOTHERING SUNDAY in the UK this weekend - a day that has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Even when I was young, we didn’t mark it in any special way because my Mum, who’d suffered considerable tragedy in her life and lived through the London Blitz, had little time for what she regarded as an entirely commercial enterprise.
      Having never become a mother myself, the day that my girlfriends spent being showered with flowers and chocolates by their offspring largely passed me by although I couldn’t of course avoid the full page ads in the newspapers, the battery of cards in the shops, or the irritation of being unable to book our favourite restaurant for Sunday lunch.
    Just like my dear old Mum, I never quite got the concept of setting aside one day a year to publicly celebrate the woman who’d given me life. I liked to think that I celebrated her every day, spontaneously buying her gifts all year round, not just when retailers dictated.
     Then one day I came across a story that changed my perception of motherhood forever. Three young Jewish women – Priska, Rachel, and Anka - all of whom had married for love and were hopeful of a long and happy life with their beloved husbands, found themselves newly pregnant and standing naked and shaved before Dr Josef Mengele at Auschwitz II Birkenau towards the end of 1944.
       Sind sie schwanger, fesche Frau?” he asked each of them. “Are you pregnant, pretty lady?” In that moment, none of them knew whether to admit their condition might save them or condemn them and their children to an unknown fate. Feeling instinctively that they were in the presence of danger, though, each answered “Nein.”
     From that fateful day onwards, their maternal courage would be tested to the limit. Sent to a German slave labour camp to be worked and almost starved to death for the duration of their pregnancies, they manage to conceal their unborn babies from everyone but especially the SS guards that treated them so cruelly. By the time they had come to full term, each mother weighed less than five stone (approximately seventy pounds) and the tiny infants they gave birth to in unspeakable circumstances weighed less than three pounds.
    The fact that all three mothers and their babies survived is testament to their defiance and hope. It is also down to luck – they were lucky that their babies were born towards the end of the war when the Germans were preparing to flee. They were fortunate to benefit from the kindness of strangers who risked their own lives to give them sustenance on their interminable journey to the penultimate fully functioning Nazi concentration camp. Mostly, they were lucky that the gas ran out the day before they arrived to be exterminated.
       All three mothers would say later that their survival was purely down to luck, but in researching their incredible stories I have come to believe that their stubborn determination to get back to their men after the war and show them the babies two didn’t even know existed, was also a pivotal factor. Tragically, all three husbands were murdered by the Nazis and never got to meet their miracle children. Their young wives all had to somehow find the strength to start anew with little or nothing to exist on, and very few family members left to rely on.
     In spite of the worst imaginable start, each of their infants went on to enjoy full, rich and happy lives. They had children of their own and have become devoted parents and grandparents in Britain and the US. Like me, they shall be raising a glass in salute this Mother’s Day to Priska, Rachel, and Anka, the three brave women who epitomize what this annual celebration was originally created for: a day in humble praise of mothers everywhere.

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance and Survival is now out in paperback in the UK, priced £8.99. It is currently available in hardback in the US and for pre-order there in paperback in time for Mother’s Day. Available from all good book stores and retailers.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A Year of Survival

FOR me, 2015 has been a year all about survival. Not just because it was the year that my book Born Survivors was published, but because Himself made it to sixty, and he and I have ended it partially (and, we hope, temporarily) disabled by the end of it.

Having started the year in Suffolk and then flown to New York for 10 days to catch up with friends and publishing colleagues, I launched Born Survivors in the Mauthausen concentration camp in May - with the three miracle 'babies' Hana, Mark and Eva by my side.

We then flew to London to appear on BBC Breakfast, Woman's Hour and numerous other shows before flying to Chicago to launch the book in North America at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

The book has been published in 21 countries and translated into 16 languages. It has been an international bestseller, reprinted many times over and continues to touch people worldwide. In all, I went on to visit 11 countries in 6 months.

The response has been completely overwhelming and all four of us are humbled and proud. After a brief Christmas break, we will resume the book tour next month, starting with Eva and I giving the annual Lord Merlyn Rees Memorial Lecture at the House of Lords. Two weeks later we'll appear on Clare Balding's BBC Radio 2 show, give a talk at the Cambridge Holocaust Memorial Day, and continue our tour of schools, Holocaust events and literary festivals.

In February, we'll be speaking at four events for Jewish Book Week in London, Leeds, Manchester and Bournemouth, and appear at Words by the Water festival in Cumbria. March will find me in Germany, Portugal, and Slovakia, with Hana. By May, we'll be on our way back to the USA to speak at various Holocaust museums and events, and in July, I hope to be speaking in Krakow and Auschwitz as part of World Youth Day.

In my spare time in what was a manic year, I completed In the Name of Gucci with Patricia Gucci, the only daughter of the late Aldo Gucci, the indefatigable driving force behind the global retail phenomenon. That will be published in May 2016 and promises to be a revelation into the life and loves of one of the world's most successful businessmen, with special emphasis on the enduring romance between him and Patricia's mother Bruna. It would make a cracking television drama!

After a week's break with my best friend Clare in the south of France, June found me in Istanbul with Himself and thirteen friends to celebrate his 60th birthday. We also had parties in London and Suffolk, before spending a few days in Italy and a glorious week together in Crete. 

It was an incredible and emotional time and, in our 35th year together, felt like an important milestone.

Sadly, within weeks - and especially after a quick flit to Portugal and Poland as part of the book tour and to celebrate a good friend's 60th, Himself began to suffer from the first signs of the Achilles tendon degeneration which would end up with him having surgery and spending the next 9 weeks on crutches.

It didn't stop him continuing to support and assist me at various book signings around Europe, though, and in everywhere from Sheffield to Henley, Cambridge to Bratislava, the Isle of Wight to Southwold, we sold out at every event.

In October, Eva and I were the guests of the Austrian embassy in London, where the ambassador kindly hosted a talk and book launch for invited guests. Himself attended on crutches and it was a spectacular venue in which to speak of the extraordinary events in the Second World War.

This year also saw the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf War. It was at this time in 1990 that I was preparing to spend Christmas in Baghdad. I'd been there virtually non-stop since Iraq invaded Kuwait that summer and Saddam Hussein had seized foreign hostages. By December, the US were preparing to invade and I was one of a handful of journalists bedding in for the duration. I was destined not to come home for good until late 1991.

Those were bittersweet days and on at least one occasion I didn't expect to survive and wrote a note to Himself which I placed inside my boot. Thankfully, I came home in one piece although permanently affected by some of the things I witnessed. I marked the anniversary in quiet contemplation of those who weren't so lucky. Here is a photo of me in Babylon back then. 

By November, I had started on a new novel about which I can only tell you the title - The Whisper of the Stars. I also wrote a treatment for a potential screenplay of Born Survivors, which is currently being considered in Hollywood - so watch this space.

Earlier this month, I agreed to take on an exciting new UK-based project to be published later next year and I shall be at my desk starting work on that on January 4. I am delighted to announce that my lovely friends at Sphere, the publishers of Born Survivors, were the successful bidders of that auction.

All seemed to be working out perfectly after an eventful, moving and fascinating year until December 17 when - two days after Himself finally relinquished his crutches - I fell into a pothole in the dark and broke my ankle. I shall now spend the next 6 weeks on crutches as it slowly heals.

It could have been a lot worse and so, once again, I am thankful for surviving and for still being here to continue to do what I love doing with the most remarkable people who entrust me to tell their stories.

Happy holidays to you all and may 2016 be a year filled with love, laughter and nothing but pleasant surprises xxx

Monday, 12 October 2015

Three white pebbles---Born Survivors

ANYONE watching us during those breezy Spring days would have assumed my husband and I were regular beachcombers - heads bowed, bodies curved to the earth as we stalked the Suffolk shore searched intently for white pebbles of roughly the same shape and size. 

"I need three for each mother," I reminded him as our eyes scanned the multi-coloured flints, shale and fragments of amber on the shore near Southwold. Our frequent pilgrimages to the beach became a kind of meditation – a chance to focus on the minutiae and forget the bigger story that crowded my head night and day and even gave my husband bad dreams.

"Do you have enough?" he asked the day we spread our horde across our kitchen table a few miles away and turned them reverentially in our hands. Mentally counting them and totting up their final resting places, I told him we still needed a few more. Once we had sufficient, they were placed in a soft cloth bag and packed in the bottom of my suitcase before we journeyed east across Europe.

Having selected the first three pebbles for something I wanted to do the second day of our tour, I found them a strangely comforting presence in my jacket pocket. My fingers closed tightly around them as the sheer scale of Auschwitz-II Birkenau robbed me of my breath. The ancient stones felt warm and smooth to the touch as I followed in the faltering footsteps of so many hapless souls disgorged into that camp's dark heart.

After endless hours of wandering and staring I finally found the right place for them – a parade ground at the remote building known as 'The Sauna' where the three young Jewish mothers-to be had been stripped and shaved before being inspected by Dr Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death’. At a simple memorial on the edge of that forbidding site, I laid my three pebbles side-by-side in the gesture I’d only recently discovered was traditional to the Jewish faith. Their pale purity seemed stark against the polished black granite.

I selected the next three pebbles for the town of Freiberg in Saxony in the former Eastern Bloc. They were not to be laid in its beautiful square or even at the steps of the slave labour factory where the mothers had been incarcerated for seven months as they hid their pregnancies from their SS guards. Instead, I laid them at the base of a harsh Communist-era granite headstone in the middle of a largely unnoticed cemetery. It marked the deaths of nine women like 'my’ mothers who sadly didn't survive the hard labour, starvation diet, or constant threat of murder, injury or infection during one of the bitterest winters in Europe's history. 

A little known town in the Czech Republic named Horní Bříza was where I placed the next three stones. Knowing how its brave inhabitants rallied to bake bread and make soup for my mothers and one thousand others on their interminable train journey south, I placed the pebbles on the sculpted memorial taking pride of place in the town’s cemetery for those who’d died in those wretched wagons.

At Mauthausen concentration camp overlooking the River Danube in Austria – the mothers’ final destination after all they’d been through – I placed three pebbles at the foot of the formidable granite gates that had seemed to them to represent the open mouth of Hell. By then two of the women had been delivered of malnourished 3lb babies that they’d hidden so long from their tormentors, and the third gave birth in the shadow of those gates. None believed they’d survive more than a few days spent in one of the worst of the camps, which had the nickname of The Bonegrinder. Had the Nazis not run out of gas, none would have.

My next cluster of stones was laid in a tree-lined cemetery in Bratislava in the Slovak Republic, whose name translates to Lark Valley. They were placed on the grave of Priska, my first mother, whose baby Hana had somehow survived even though her father and most of her family had perished. Priska not only made it through the war but lived until the age of ninety, surviving long enough to see her daughter thrive and present her with a beloved grandson.

I crossed the Atlantic to place the next three pebbles on a grave in Nashville, Tennessee - the resting place of Rachel, my second mother, who gave birth to Mark in an open coal wagon on that hellish train journey to Mauthausen. A father and grandfather, he accompanied me to pay our respects to her tireless eighty-four years of life, which only really began again when she moved to the United States.

The grave of Anka, the last of my mothers to give birth (to baby Eva at the gates) was the most difficult to find and in a moment of panic as the sun went down over the Czech countryside I thought we never would. Then we came upon it - an enchanted Jewish cemetery at the end of a grassy path in the middle of a copse where her ninety-six years on this earth were commemorated. I thought then that those three white stones laid there would be my last.

A few months later, however, I found myself standing with Eva, Hana and Mark at the Chicago headstone of a former American soldier named Albert Kosiek, who as a young sergeant had defied orders in May 1945 to liberate thousands of men and women from Mauthausen, including my mothers and babies, thereby saving their lives.

In my pocket were three final pebbles, scooped from the Southwold beach in the weeks before I flew to Illinois. In what seemed a fitting gesture and as two of Sgt Kosiek’s sons watched with glistening eyes, I handed the pale stones to the three children their father had saved and allowed my own tears to fall as they stepped forward and placed one for each of their mothers on the simple granite marker. It had taken them seventy years and me less than two but our journey was finally complete.

Born Survivors: Three young mothers and their extraordinary story of courage, defiance and survival by Wendy Holden, is being published in in 21 countries and translated into 16 languages. It is now available in the UK in paperback.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

My Wendy House

Where do you like to write? This is my Wendy House (built for me by Himself). Whenever I am home, I sit by the wood-burning stove in the winter or with the doors and windows thrown open in the summer. It's my place to think and scribble and read for research before heading to my office to write. How about you?

Before you answer, feel free to take a look at this review of my latest book Born Survivors, which also features a Meet the Author interview. Hope you like it!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Twenty years ago, I published my first book. My 34th is due out next spring. Here I reflect on the grit and the glamour of the writer's life - and on how much things have changed in since 1994.
Twenty years ago this week my first book was published - Unlawful Carnal Knowledge: The True Story of the Irish X Case was subsequently banned in Ireland, which made it an overnight success north of the border.

As a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, I was working full-time but took the week off to promote my book and enjoy a series of low-key celebratory events with my agent, my editor, and a few close friends who presented me with champagne and flowers. I signed some copies at a bookstore in Belfast (after a bomb scare), and my editor in Dublin took me for a splendid lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel.

In 1994, there was no mention of ebooks or interactive electronic editions, and neither Amazon nor Audible existed. I wasn't expected to hire a publicist, choose which voice-over actor I'd like to recite my work, or spend hours each week updating my social networking pages. I wrote a piece for the Sunday Times and appeared on Irish telly and the BBC, but nobody expected me to take part in interactive Skype chats with book clubs around the world, or attend public speaking engagements where I'd be cross-examined on my subject matter.

Life seemed simpler then.

In the two decades since my first book was released, I have had almost every publishing experience one can imagine. There have been gruelling and not-so-glamorous international book tours with horribly early starts, glittering launch parties in New York, London, Hollywood and Suffolk, and hours trapped in airless radio studios doing down-the-line interviews. I've been filmed for the NBC's Today show, TV stations in Paris, Gibraltar and Rome, sat in on Pebble Mill and The View, and had a Hollywood movie star unexpectedly pick up the bill for the Manhattan launch party of my first novel, The Sense of Paper.

Movie rights have been repeatedly optioned on Tomorrow To Be Brave, my book about the only woman in the French Foreign Legion, and I was with actors Caroline Quentin and Kevin Whately at the premiere of the TV mini-series that was adapted from my book Footprints in the Snow. I've appeared on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour to talk about the first Gulf War. I've given talks on the same subject to Government officials and sat gratefully in the green room of countless TV studios while my clients such as Goldie Hawn, Barbara Sinatra, Deana Martin, Haatchi & Little B, and Uggie the dog went "out front" to promote our work.

I've been deafened by hysterical fans who'd queued all night for the signature (or pawprint) of a star whose memoir I'd just penned, and I have criss-crossed the world First Class to stay in the sort of homes and hotel suites that most can only dream of. I also lived for 18 months in a crummy pension on the outskirts of Paris, resided in a smelly B&B in Humberside, and made my home for while in a Travelodge in the Home Counties.

To keep me on my toes, a television crew from the Swedish equivalent of Newsnight recently flew in from Stockholm to film me speaking about the history of post-traumatic stress disorder because of my book Shell Shock, and later this year I'll be giving a talk to more than 100 National Trust volunteers to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

From my clients, agents, and publishers over the years I've been presented with a variety of gifts including a shopping trolley full of sex toys, a Cartier watch, a Harrods pillow, a straw hat, a designer handbag, hampers, a solid gold bookmark, and enough flowers to fill an abandoned Borders store. Publishers have presented me with several framed book jackets as well as beautiful leather-bound copies of my titles, and I have a gratifying number of framed bestseller lists mounted under glass.

In this my anniversary month, my 33rd book has been published - The Beat of My Own Drum, the ghosted memoir of the American musician Sheila E, whose childhood sexual abuse almost ruined her life until she found healing through music. I represent myself these days, and the editor who worked on the book with me was recently made redundant, so there were no cards or flowers from her. If it weren't for my long-suffering husband there would have been no celebrations, and only a few of my friends even appreciated the milestone.

Meanwhile I sit in my garret in Suffolk, completing my 34th book - Born Survivors - a Holocaust memoir that was discovered, researched, written and agented entirely solo. The research for this project has taken me to San Francisco, Nashville, Auschwitz, Prague, and Bratislava, and the book will be launched at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria next May, followed by a three-country book tour and months of publicity.

To keep my American publishers happy, I recently had to complete a 10-page questionnaire that asked me to provide a comprehensive resumé and reviews, several hi-resolution author photographs, and the name and address of my publicist. I was instructed to give a full list of my titles, including all editions, dates of publication and numbers of copies sold (by my reckoning over a million all told).

They wanted the names of any academic organisations I belonged to, my media contacts, lists of any honours and awards, and articles I had written. They asked for an explanation of how I came to write this book, a snappy précis (including my assessment of its relevance), plus the flap copy, my opinion of its likely market, potential readers, lists of any known competitors, and an assessment of how it might "benefit" my audience.

I am to name people to whom advanced bound galleys should be sent (I suggested Stephen Spielberg), which awards I'd like to be nominated for, and the name of the speakers' bureau that represents me. They want to ensure that I have a Facebook and Twitter presence, they need my Skype and FaceTime details, and asked what I've posted lately on Pinterest, Voxer, Tumblr, Google and any number of other sites, some of which I have never heard of.

They automatically assume I have a website but would like to know whether I also have fan pages, engage in live chats, message boards, blogs or provide email newsletters. Tellingly, they didn't ask for the numbers of the phalanx of assistants I'd need to employ if I were to keep on top of all this, as they seem to be suggesting.

Twenty years is a long time in this business. For 17 of them it has been my sole source of income, and of that I am very proud. Many of the changes that have happened have crept up on me while I just kept writing and trying to do what I do best. It is only on such landmark occasions that I can pause to reflect on the evolution of the industry and wonder where it might take me from here.

With many of my ebook sales outstripping hardbacks for the first time, and the digital age firmly in charge of both how I work and promote myself, I have had to evolve too. The good news is that there is still a hunger for words in whatever shape and format they take. Here's to the next 20 years of writers like me still wanting to write, and readers still wanting to read what we have written - when we're not on Voxer, that is!

Born Survivors by Wendy Holden will be published by Little, Brown May 2015. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Shell Shock Revisited


by Wendy Holden

SIXTEEN YEARS ago I wrote a book about the history of shell shock - or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as it is now more popularly known.
     The book, which accompanied a Channel 4 documentary series, was published 18 months after I had returned from Iraq - where I reported on the First Gulf War for the Daily Telegraph - and long before I realised I was suffering from a form of shell shock myself.
     The effects of my experiences in the desert have never left me. I am still plagued by nightmares of mass graves, bloody torture chambers, and rotting corpses. I often ‘sleep-run’ to escape imaginary attackers, trying to throw myself from windows or hurl myself down stairs.
     I have broken several bones and snapped my husband’s ribs twice as he tried to contain my nighttime thrashings. We now have mountaineering ropes fixed at the top of the stairs, which are clipped to metal shackles each night before we go to bed.
     When I wrote Shell Shock: The Psychological Trauma of War (recently reissued on Kindle to mark the anniversary of the First World War), I had little understanding of the effects of war on the mind.
     For months, though, I listened to the moving testimonies of WWI survivors and immersed myself in the records of the amateur psychiatrists who tried to fathom what ‘molecular commotion’ was caused in the brain by the shock of exploding shells – hence the misnomer ‘shell shock’.
     Even though the history of war-related illness goes back centuries, the flood of cases in WWI caught the medical establishment completely off guard.
    The medical enthusiasts who flocked to the fashionable ‘new science’ because of the massive numbers of mental breakdowns didn’t yet know that they weren’t caused by something physical but by human minds torn between self-preservation and duty.
     Idealistic young men wholly unsuited to homicide had marched joyously to battle with very little training or preparation. The conflict was expected to be short and sharp. “It’ll all be over by Christmas!” was a popular cry.
     But war on the western front was different from any fought before. The nerve- shattering properties of the new killing machines brought mental resistance to saturation levels. Under a never-ending bombardment of bullets and shrapnel, men were unable to sleep or even think. The trenches offered shelter but also imprisoned and immobilized, creating a powerful urge to escape.
      Men drowned in the shell holes or were sucked into the wet mud. Mules and horses were maimed and lay suffering. Human corpses littered no man’s land to be eaten by rats. The sense of helplessness was exacerbated by the terror of mutilation that pushed men to the brink of mental illness for the first time in their lives.
     There was no glorious battles to be fought with honour; just a pitiless life under siege. The prospect of being blown to pieces was a fear that flesh could not support.
     No one was immune to the horrors and none could tell who would crack. Few knew what to do with the grimacing, twitching cases who either ran from the lines or lay crying in their trenches, tormented and ashamed.
     Terms like ‘knocked silly’ or ‘got the wind up’ abounded and some 300 ‘malingerers’ were shot for cowardice, while hundreds more were dispatched to ‘loony bins’ for a brutal regime of cold baths and padded cells.
      With a serious manpower crisis and a war to be won, much of the early treatment was nothing short of brutal. There was no shortage of guinea pigs so hapless soldiers were prodded and poked, filmed and mistreated. Radical therapies were tested, including high dosage electric shock treatment that sometimes killed patients. This kind of experimentation would previously only have been possible on animals.
     Officers were generally treated differently than the rank and file and were prescribed rest, silence, occupational therapy, even a milk diet - but that didn’t make their own personal hell any easier.
     Few were able to express the horrors of the battlefield quite so well as the soldier poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, both treated for shell shock. Sassoon wrote poignantly: “By night each man was back in his doomed sector of horror-stricken front line where the panic and stampede of some ghastly experience was re-enacted among the living faces of the dead.”
     The doctors enlisted into the Royal Army Military Corps to care for those whose minds gave way had little medical history to go on and no clear guidelines. Symptoms were confusingly diverse and might include paralysis, blindness, speech loss or impairment, hallucinations, amnesia, chronic depression, schizophrenia and suicidal thoughts.
      The top military brass continually refused to accept shellshock as genuine and feared mass panic in the ranks. Crucially, shell shock wasn’t admissible as a plea in a court martial for cowardice or desertion for which the ultimate penalty was death. From the military viewpoint men were either ‘mad or bad’ and the doctors were frequently reminded that the ‘A’ in RAMC stood for Army.
     But what to do with the thousands of gibbering wrecks sent back from the front, especially when ‘cured’ they would only be sent back for more. Psychiatry was on the fringes of acknowledged medical practice and the theories of some psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung were considered shocking, but something had to be done. And so the science of military psychology was born, designed to remove men’s moral objection to war.
     It was only thanks to the compassion of psychiatrists like Charles Myers and W.H. Rivers that a more sympathetic approach was eventually adopted. Rivers developed the ‘talking cure’ and believed ‘anxiety neurosis’ came about when men were torn between the desire to run away and the obligation to fight.
    The sight of a corpse – especially of someone familiar - was the most common trigger for mental breakdown as the image continually haunted a man’s dreams. Worn down with the mental struggle, a soldier’s body found a clever way out by exhibiting signs of serious illness to provide him with an escape route.
    The fledgling study of the relationship between war and madness came to represent a revolution in military attitudes to the fragility of men. It was later responsible for the setting up of modern systems of diagnosis and the treatment of mental illness.
      The death penalty for cowardice was abolished and terms like ‘war neurosis,’ battle exhaustion’ or ‘combat stress’ came into parlance. Those affected were given compassionate treatment instead of being forced from the army without a pension. Still, it wasn’t until 2006 that the executed ‘cowards’ of the trenches were pardoned.
    The First World War undoubtedly became a touchstone of horror by which all later conflicts would be compared. It was also a watershed in the acceptance of invisible injury. Most of the symptoms witnessed then have been seen in veterans of every war since.
    With screening and preparation coupled with the birth of forward psychiatry, soldiers, journalists and civilians are better cared for than ever when they are sent to the front line to witness things that may scar them mentally forever.
     As conflicts continue around the world, there is still much that the military and the rest of humanity needs to learn and understand about how the most extreme of human experiences can deliver a severe trauma to the moral and mental state in what will always be a battle for the mind.

·               Shell Shock: The Psychological Trauma of War by Wendy Holden is now available on Kindle, price £4.99