Wednesday 11 August 2021

Keep Smiling Through

WHAT a strangely frightening and yet enlightening year we have had since the COVID lockdown in March 2020. Much of it feels like a bad dream now, and yet we all know of those who have suffered losses of a personal or professional nature and wish it could be otherwise.

But life goes on and, for me, lockdown was an unusually positive experience because I was invited to spend much of it with Captain Sir Tom Moore, the 99-year-old war veteran who raised £33 million for the NHS by walking up and down his back garden with his Zimmer frame in time for his 100th birthday. It was such an honour and a privilege to work with this remarkable old man and today I received a Nielsen Silver Bestseller Award for the sale of 250,000+ copies of the hardback of his book Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day. It certainly was for me! Our second book together, Life Lessons, is also selling well and so the legacy of a man I came to call my friend lives on. Bless him.

In spite of lockdown, 2020 also saw the release of two new editions of my books - a WWII 75 year special commemorative edition of my international bestseller Born Survivors, and the paperback of One Hundred Miracles, both of them books that I am especially proud of and which have now been published in a total of 32 countries.


2021 hasn't disappointed yet either, with the publication in Italy of Cento Miracoli, the Italian edition of One Hundred Miracles, and in Brazil of Um Mulher Extraordinaria, the Portugese edition of A Woman of Firsts, the amazing story of Edna Adan Ismail.


And, with the gradual lifting of restrictions, I was back on the road at the ever wonderful Ways with Words Festival at Dartington Hall in July, in between various Zoom presentations to everyone from educational bodies to corporate clients and my own creative writing students.

This coming month will be busiest of all and, to summarise, below is a list of the events where I'll be speaking, all of them in my home county of Suffolk for a change. Do please come and say hello of you're in the area.
  • Saturday August 21: FolkEast Glemham Hall, Books Tent at midday. In conversation about my books and the stories behind them
  • Sunday August 22: The Low House Literary Festival, Laxfield at 2pm. In conversation with another author about Remarkable Journeys of the Second World War
  • Wednesday August 25: Old Hall Cafe, Southwold. Supper and book chat from 7pm
  • Friday September 10: The Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth 7pm.
Once I've recovered from all that, I shall be entering a period of purdah for a big new writing project that will keep me occupied for the coming year and beyond. I promise you won't be disappointed so watch this space.

Stay safe and well everyone. We have more yet to face, but - in the words of Captain Tom - we need to 'Keep Smiling Through' and everything will be alright in the end.

Follow me:

Instagram: @wendyholdenbestsellingauthor
Twitter: @wendholden
Facebook: Wendy Holden Fan Page
Also on TikTok, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest

Saturday 9 February 2019

Three talks in two days at schools and a great new literary festival in Herts and Bucks this week with Eva Clarke, one of the miracle ‘babies’ from Born Survivors. The emotional impact we make is evident in every group we speak to. We must never forget.

Monday 12 December 2016

Christmas Charity

I WENT shopping today. The windows are full of fake snowflakes and fairy lights and the stores are playing festive music on a loop. Everything seems twinkly and shiny and new. With less than two weeks to go, everyone is getting geared up for the annual binge fest that is Christmas in the Western world.
     For the first time ever, though, I don’t have a long list of people to buy gifts for or have to wrack my brains about what to get for whom. In fact I don’t have a list at all this year, other than the one that adds up what I’d normally spend so that I can decide which charities to divide it between. 
     As strange as it feels to wander the shopping malls without a single card or present to buy, nothing is stranger than the responses I’ve had from friends and family when I explained what my husband and I were planning.
     “Great idea!” was the usual first response, inevitably followed by a pause and then, “Really? You’re not buying anyone anything?” A few added, sheepishly, “Not even me?”
     “No, not even you. And we’re not sending any cards either. This year we’re giving more than half the money we’d spend on you to the charities that are struggling to cope with the flood of Syrian refugees. We’re going to focus on the children who’ll be freezing this winter in miserable, wet camps far from their homes and all they’ve ever known. One frivolous gift for you could buy a family a tent or a groundsheet or some warm clothes. We’re sending the rest of the money to those caring for all the dogs and cats people had no choice but to leave behind.”
     Nodding, my friends and relatives would say, “Oh yes, of course. Good for you…,” but their smiles quite often don’t reach their eyes. One (male) friend added, only half-jokingly, “Clever you, more like! I guess that really lets you off the hook.”
        Undaunted, I’m going to stick to my plan. Yes, of course it ‘lets me off the hook’ from what can sometimes feel like the burden of the enforced spoiling of those we love at Christmas, but that was never the reason I decided to do it. And, despite what some may think, it does feel uncomfortably Scrooge-like not to give even the children a little something, or to send cards to those friends far away that we see too little of and who will undoubtedly worry that something has happened to us, or that they’ve been dropped.
        Then I think about my teenage nephew who first gave me the idea and my resolve returns. In September, when I asked him what he wanted for his 16th birthday, he took three weeks to think about it before texting me back, “I don’t need anything.” Impressed, I nevertheless asked his mother if she had any ideas. “Not really,” she replied. “He has everything he wants.” Exasperated, I pressed her and we finally settled on a £50 bottle of aftershave as she says that although he already has some, he would ‘probably appreciate’ some more.
     Pleased that I’d finally found something for him, I fretted that in just a few weeks’ time I’d have to repeat the whole process again for Christmas, knowing that his answer would almost certainly be the same. Uninspired, I’d probably give him a £50 voucher to buy something he wanted. Thinking back to my time as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, I knew how far that £50 would go in a bleak refugee camp. And having watched videos on Facebook about a paramedic who has stayed on in the ruins of Aleppo to feed the starving animals with whatever scraps he can find, I came up with the idea of sending our Christmas shopping money where it would be far better appreciated instead. 
     This isn’t the first time we’ve done something like this. In 1990, after I returned from Romania after reporting on the Christmas Day execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, I told my husband what I’d witnessed. Having gone with aid workers to some of the state orphanages and opened them up for the first time, we were faced with some truly shocking scenes. That summer, we forewent a summer holiday so that my husband could drive two consecutive truckloads of food, clothes and medical aid to some of the remotest orphanages in that broken country. Ever since then, we’ve supported one of the charities that I worked alongside out there.
     This year, we’re directing our attention to those in even more need. With a usual minimum Christmas spend of £25 for friends and neighbours and much more for family, plus the stamps for the hundred or so cards we usually send, I reckon that the final tally will surprise me and – I hope – go some way to providing a little festive cheer for the recipients. 

      With 13.5 people in Syria needing humanitarian assistance, and 4.8 million refugees, half of whom are children, we know that our gift will hardly change the world. But – for a few days this December - it will definitely change ours as we exchange fruit instead of gifts and give only hugs and kisses to those we love.

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