Kathy Kacer is the author of The Sound of Freedom, a new novel for children, and To Look a Nazi in the Eye, a new nonfiction book for young adults. Her other books include To Hope and Back and The Magician of Auschwitz. She lives in Toronto.
Q: Your new novel The Sound of Freedom is based on a true story. How did you first learn about it, and how did you research the story?
A: I wasn’t the one who found this story. It was actually Rick Wilks, the publisher of Annick Press, who brought the story to me.
He asked if I would be interested in developing an historical fiction novel that revolved around a famous violinist named Bronislaw Huberman who rescued about 100 Jewish musicians and their families from across Europe during the Second World War. He brought these musicians to what was then British Mandate Palestine and formed what would become the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.
There is a lot that has been written about Huberman and even a documentary about his life. So it wasn’t difficult to delve into his background and understand how and why he undertook to rescue these Jewish musicians.
Once I had all the historical pieces in place, I knew I could create a fictional girl who was the daughter of one of the musicians who was rescued. That’s really how the book came about.
Q: What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you worked on the book?
A: It’s always important to me to ensure that the historical context within which a fictional book is written is accurate. All the details of Huberman’s quest to save Jewish musicians are true – how he recruited the best musicians; how he managed to get them out of Europe at a time when the borders were closing to Jews trying to escape; how he got exit visas for them; the delays and obstacles that he faced along the way.
I really had free rein to develop my fictional girl and her family. That part is always fun – creating a young girl that my readers will relate to; giving her all the hopes and dreams of any young teenager; having her stand up for the things she wants and believes in. All those things are part of developing any fictional character.
But again, in this case, Anna needed to live in a place and time that was real. I chose Krakow, Poland, in 1936 as a starting off point for the story. And again, all the details about Poland at that time had to be real.
It’s always a balancing act between fact and fiction, and I tread that line very carefully, weaving my character in and out of the events of the approaching war.
Q: You also have another recent book, To Look a Nazi in the Eye. How did you end up working with Jordana Lebowitz on this project?
A: To Look a Nazi in the Eye is creative non-fiction and focuses on the story of Oscar Groening, one of the last Nazi war criminals to stand trial in Germany in 2015. He was tried and convicted of being complicit in the murder of 300,000 Jews in Auschwitz where he worked as a guard. I had been following the trial of Groening, which was world-wide news, and wanted to write about him.
But I was struggling to find a way into the story – a way that would really connect with my readership. And then I read an article about Jordana who, at 19, decided to travel to Germany so that she could be an observer at this history-making trial.
I thought it was remarkable that a 19-year-old would undertake such a journey, and I thought that Jordana’s story was the perfect vehicle within which to write about the trail. I contacted her and asked if she would be willing to meet with me. She agreed and we began to meet on a regular basis so that I could unravel all the details of her experience in Germany.
Q: What do you hope readers learn about the Holocaust from reading Jordana's experiences at a Nazi war crimes trial?
A: There are so many issues that I hope readers will think about when reading about Jordana’s experience – what it means to bring a 94-year-old to trial after so many years; how justice can (or can’t) be served this many years after a crime has been committed; what is an appropriate sentence for a crime of this magnitude. Those are all issues that Jordana grappled with while she was in Germany.
In addition to those discussion points there is also so much that I hope my audience will be inspired by as they read about Jordana – her passion to become a young activist; her determination to become a spokesperson for this history for her generation; her drive and fearlessness. Those traits of Jordana’s were all inspiring to me and I hope they will be inspiring to my readers.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Oh, I have so many projects in the works! The Sound of Freedom is actually the first in four-part series of books called The Heroes Quartet. Each book will focus on a heroic person who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
The second book (due out in March 2019) is about Marcel Marceau, the famous mime artist. He rescued about 150 Jewish children by smuggling them out of France and into Switzerland. It’s another remarkable story! The third and fourth books in the series will be about women rescuers; I’m not sure who they will be yet!
After that, I have a long format picture book coming out with Second Story Press which is based on a true story about Prince Philip’s mother. She was a princess living in Greece during the Second World War and she hid a Jewish family in her residence during that time.
Finally, I’ve written a lovely historical fiction with the acclaimed children’s author, Eric Walters. It’s about a teenage girl who auditions for a school musical. She tries to get her grandfather involved in the production only to discover that he has a secret past which ties him to the Holocaust and prevents him from being around music. That one will be published by Penguin Random House and will be out in September, 2019.
After that, I’ve got a few more ideas for books. There are always more stories to tell!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: In addition to my writing I continue to speak to schools, colleges, libraries, and community groups about my books, my writing and my mission to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive for future generations. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am committed to finding and writing as many of these stories as possible. But I also love speaking about my work!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb