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‘After The War’: Writing about the Holocaust

Before I began working on my book After the War I was nervous. How was I going to write about children who had suffered unthinkably during and after the Holocaust?

It was only because I was so affected by the power of the Windermere Children’s story that I didn’t give up. I wanted to help tell their story: the true events that had happened to them.

I knew I had to understand as much as I could about what I was writing about. But I also knew I had to understand how I should write it.

To understand what I should write, I read as many books and blogs as I could around the subject – including Hannah Randall’s excellent blog about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – as well as listening to audio files, watching films, visiting museums in four countries and being fortunate enough to attend several survivor talks in person, including Arek Hersh, Ike Alterman, and Mala Tribich.

Arek Hersh (seated) and friends, taken shortly after the war in 1945 whilst in Prague

To understand how I should write it, I met with experts in Holocaust education, most notably Trevor Avery from the Lake District Holocaust Project, who acted as my mentor throughout. And still does.

After the War is a story of three children who survive the Holocaust and come to the UK as refugees after the the Second World War. It is based very closely on the true stories of many of the 300 children who were brought by the Jewish Council from Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in August 1945 to Windermere in the English Lake District.

The over-riding message from everything I read and the conversations I had, while trying to work out how to write After the War was that, whatever I wrote, it must be based on primary sources, the testimony of the survivors themselves.

Trevor Avery showed me where the best sources were and then helped me decide what worked and what didn’t when I presented early drafts of the scenes to him.

For me, the words of the Windermere Boys themselves was everything. Every scene in the book is based on the testimony of one of the survivors.

For example, one of my characters, when he arrives bewildered in England, admits that all he knows about the country where he was now a refugee was that his father had a bicycle and used to import tyres that had ‘Made in England’ moulded into the rubber. This is a story I heard Ike Alterman tell at an event in Windermere Library in 2019.

For me, sticking so closely to what the real Windermere Children said means I can tell an authentic story. And because it relates to a real person, it has an inbuilt authenticity, telling the story, not just of a boy coming to England as a refugee, but also allowing me to show that these children who had spent years in ghettos, in slavery and in concentration camps had had full and ordinary lives before.

They had fathers. Their fathers had bicycles. They were rounded characters and not one-dimensional victims with no sense of who they were outside the concentration camp.

It was blogs like Hannah Randall’s article on about how some children’s books about the Holocaust show the Jewish victims only as victims and don’t show the lives they had before the war that helped me not make the same mistake.

Another source I used was of Sir Ben Helfgott who tells the story of how – once he had been liberated by the Russians in Theresienstadt – he travelled to his home town to see who or what was left.  On arrival, he was driven out under threat of death by the local people who used to live in the same town before the Nazis arrived.

I found that shocking when I heard Ben Helfgott speak about it. And I know readers find it shocking when they read about it in After the War.

I frequently am asked ‘Did that really happen?’

It is important that I can say yes to that question whenever I am asked it about any scene in After the War.

If I can’t say yes then they could accuse me of making it up. And – by extension – some people could use that to suggest that the whole book is grounded in nothing and that the Holocaust – even – is grounded in nothing. That is how Holocaust denial and distortion operates. And that is the complete opposite of what I was trying to achieve in After the War.

Tom Palmer is a children’s author based in Halifax. He writes about history and tries his best to do intensive research and base his stories of the testimony of those who were there. His books include After the War, Arctic Star and Over the Line, the true story of two Huddersfield Town players who volunteer to fight in the WW1 trenches.

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