Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the author of Don't Tell the Nazis, a new middle grade novel for children. Her many other books for young people include Making Bombs for Hitler and The War Below. She lives in Brantford, Ontario.
Q: You note that Don't Tell the Nazis was based on the actual story of a woman named Krystia. How did you learn about her, and at what point did you decide to write this book?
A: Don’t Tell the Nazis was inspired by the true story of Kateryna Sikorska and her daughter Krystia, who hid three Jewish friends under their kitchen floor during the Holocaust.
Krystia's daughter, journalist and filmmaker Iryna Korpan, approached me in 2012 at a public event. She handed me a copy of her excellent documentary called She Paid the Ultimate Price, then explained that it was about her own mother’s and grandmother’s heroic actions in World War II Ukraine.
She asked if I would consider writing a book about it. After reviewing the documentary and doing some preliminary research, I agreed.
Q: How did you research the book?
A: I interviewed Krystia at length and she answered my questions as they came up. Krystia herself was only 8 years old when these events unfolded, and while her experiences were seared into her brain, it's never a good idea to rely on just one person's memory.
I accessed other first-person accounts of the same era: Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, Ethnic German and German. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union it was nearly impossible to access accurate accounts like Krystia's but in the last decades, scholars have been filling in the gaps. Recent academic dissertations and other studies were very helpful.
Q: What did you see as the right blend between the historical Krystia and your own creation?
A: I had originally planned to write this book as non-fiction, but as I got into the interviews and research, I realized that writing it that way would not do the story justice. Many of the people who lived through those times had been killed. How could I interview them? How could I quote them?
But the other problem was that as I delved into the complicated events of the time, I realized that the story extended far beyond Krystia and her family. I ditched my original manuscript and started from scratch.
The real-life Krystia was only 8 years old in 1941, though her courageous actions were that of a mature individual. Today’s readers might have difficulty understanding that someone so young could accomplish all that Krystia did. I felt that making her older would make her actions more relatable.
Maria was only 7. Dolik and Leon were older teens. For the sake of the story I made them closer in age to Krystia so they could be classmates and friends. Krystia also had an older sister named Iryna who was 10, but it was Krystia who sneaked food and documents into the ghetto to help the Jews.
Krystia’s actual town was Pidhaytsi, which means under the wood. I’ve named it Viteretz, which means breezy, and I’ve made the town much smaller. I populated my novel with composite secondary characters based on my research.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: Krystia's bravery takes my breath away. I hope that she inspires readers to step outside of themselves when they witness grave injustice.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've just finished writing a companion novel to Don't Tell the Nazis.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Krystia died last spring, but she was the guest of honor at the Canadian launch of this novel, published there as Don't Tell the Enemy in 2018. Attached is a photo of her with me and her extended family. At the launch, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.