Alexandra Zapruder is the author of Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust, and the co-producer and author of the documentary film I'm Still Here.
Q: How did you first get interested in young people's diaries from the Holocaust, and when did you get the idea to turn this material into a book?
A: When I graduated from Smith College, I took a job at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was still being developed and built. As a researcher for the museum’s exhibition for young visitors, Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, I came across a handful of diaries written by teenagers during the Holocaust. They had all been translated and published in English but were out of print.
When I read them, I was simply overwhelmed. The writers were insightful, thoughtful, and complicated young people and their accounts of life during the Holocaust were more compelling than anything I had read up to that time. I was troubled by the idea that their diaries were every bit as meaningful, interesting, and—in many cases—beautifully written as Anne Frank’s diary, but they were totally unknown. I don’t know exactly when I got the idea to do the book, but I know that my first thought was to try to publish in a single edition just the few diaries that I had initially found.
Then, when I made up my mind to research the subject and see if I could find more diaries, the project took on a life of its own. By the time Salvaged Pages came out, 10 years later, I had identified more than 60 diaries of teenagers. Of the 15 diaries included in the book, 10 had never been published in English before. In the 10 years that have passed since Salvaged Pages was published, another dozen or so have surfaced and been published.
Q: People are well aware of Anne Frank's diary, which you discuss in your book, but these other diarists were more obscure. Were their diaries similar in some ways to that of Anne Frank, or did you find many differences depending on the various personalities of the teenagers involved?
A: Every diary is different, just as every young person is different. Anne Frank had an unusual, lively, and very colorful style. Other writers were more earnest or serious. Some sound very young and innocent. Others seem older than their years. Some are angry, sarcastic, or even bitter. Others alternate between hopefulness and despair. Some describe in great detail their own personal circumstances, leaving us with valuable records of the texture of daily life during the Holocaust. Others focus more on their internal lives, reflecting on relationships with loved ones, faith, and identity. Some were ambitious writers, who sketched scenes of daily life around them, chronicling the events of the Holocaust as it affected not only themselves but their communities as a whole.
So, I would say that the diaries differ based on personality, and also circumstances. For example, diaries written by young people who were refugees are very different from those written in hiding or in ghettos. Diaries written during the Nazi takeover of power in central Europe are vastly different in tone and content from those written in Eastern Europe as the war dragged on through the early 40s.
At the same time, there are certainly echoes across the diaries. Many young people suffered the same kinds of hardships in the form of hunger, cold, deprivation, separation from loved ones, fear, anxiety, and illness. Many diaries reflect the moral complexities of surviving great suffering. And many writers shared the vacillation between hope and despair that characterizes so much of life during this period. So, I would say that each writer has his or her own style and voice, but there are definitely common elements that appear across the body of material as a whole.
Q: You also have been involved in a documentary film, I'm Still Here, based on the book--could you tell us more about that?
A: I was contacted in early 2000 by a director from MTV Networks named Lauren Lazin, who had heard about my work (the book had not yet been published) and who wanted to do a documentary film on the subject for young audiences. I was, frankly, a little skeptical at first. I was worried that MTV would not have the same view of the material as I did, and that they might want to make a film that didn’t treat the subject matter as seriously as I felt it required.
However, after spending a lot of time with Lauren and her staff, I grew to trust her and have great faith in her abilities as a director. I co-produced and wrote the film, and we worked together very well. The goal of the project was to make a film that adhered as closely as possible to Salvaged Pages and that made the subject matter compelling and informative for young audiences. We used a lot of historical photos and footage, and were able to include images of the diarists, their diaries, and in some cases, artwork they made. The film aired on MTV in 2005 and was ultimately nominated for two Emmy awards. It is now used widely in classrooms around the country. I worked closely with the brilliant educators and staff at Facing History and Ourselves, an educational nonprofit in Boston , to develop in-depth educational materials for teachers using the film in their classrooms.
Q: How difficult has it been for you personally to focus on this wrenching subject?
A: Initially, it was very difficult. I did not know much about the Holocaust when I began work at the museum and I found the information to be compelling but also hard to manage emotionally. I found myself engulfed by the magnitude of the suffering and death, and it was hard for me to keep my bearings. When I began seriously working on research for Salvaged Pages, I became completely single-minded about it. I cringe now when I think about the fact that, for years, whether I was having coffee with a friend or at a dinner party, I hardly talked about anything else. It was totally absorbing.
Over time, I learned how to develop a relationship to the material that worked for me. In some ways, I think of writing about the Holocaust like approaching a savage animal. I needed to get close enough to it to understand it, describe its contours and character, and to have compassion for its victims, but I couldn’t allow myself to get so close emotionally that it could overwhelm me. It was a delicate balance and it took time.
I also have to say that even as painful as the subject is, I was always immensely grateful that I stumbled into this work. I love these diaries and the courage and wisdom that they represent. I remain deeply moved by these young people who left us such important historical and literary records. So, even on difficult days, I wanted to be doing the work, and I felt intensely aware of how lucky I was to be studying the Holocaust and not trying to survive it.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Like everyone, I am juggling a lot of projects. Last spring, I finished editing and writing an introduction to a newly discovered diary of a teenage girl who lived in a Polish ghetto during the Holocaust. I am in the process of writing a Level 3 Reader (for 7-9 year olds) biography of Anne Frank for National Geographic. And I continue to travel regularly for Salvaged Pages to work with teachers and students who are using the book in their classrooms.
At the same time, I am beginning work on a book about my grandfather, Abraham Zapruder, who is known for having taken a home movie of the assassination of President Kennedy. It will be a work of narrative nonfiction that tells not only the story of my grandfather’s life and how the film came into being, but the compelling, colorful, and extraordinary history of the film over the following forty years. While this project will likely be several years in the making, I am writing an essay about my grandfather for a book about President Kennedy’s life and assassination to be published by LIFE Books in September 2013.
Interview with Deborah Kalb.