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!