Kathy Kacer is the author of The Brushmaker's Daughter, a new middle grade novel that takes place during World War II. Her many other books include Masters of Silence and Broken Strings. She lives in Toronto.
Q: How did you learn about German factory owner Otto Weidt, and how did you come up with the idea for your character Lillian and her father?
A: It was actually a close relative of mine - someone who loves Second World War history - who sent me a short article about Otto Weidt and urged me to write a book about him. I was immediately intrigued by the story of a man who had saved dozens of blind and deaf Jews by employing them in his brush factory and saving them from deportation.
I had to put the project on the back burner for a year or two while I finished up another novel. But I finally dug it out and was lucky that Second Story Press was as intrigued with the idea as I was.
Q: What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you wrote this novel?
A: I always knew that I would have to create a fictional protagonist for the book. That was the character of 12-year-old Lillian, who arrives at the factory with her father, looking for a place to hide. Lillian's father is blind and no one is willing to help them until they meet Otto Weidt.
The truth is, there were no children who worked at the factory. And because this book is a middle-grade novel, I needed to have a young person in the story.
But I was also determined to fill the book with as many "real" people as I could, and add as much authenticity to the story as I was able. All of the workers whom Lillian meets at the factory were real people who were employed there. The woman who takes in Lillian and her father and gives a place to stay was also a real person. And of course, Otto is very real.
I loved being able to blend Lillian's fictional story line with the real stories of Jewish people who were actually hidden in the factory.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: In addition to reading whatever I could find about Otto Weidt, I was fortunate to visit the Otto Weidt factory in Berlin a couple of years ago. It's now a small museum, open to the public. There is nothing like walking in the actual setting of a book to help bring that book to life!
I spent hours there, pouring over the stories of people who had been lucky enough to be taken in by Otto Weidt. I touched the walls of the factory and took pictures of some of the brushes that had been made there.
Not all the stories were happy ones. In fact, many of the people whom Otto Weidt protected were eventually arrested and killed in the death camps. But everything about that visit to the factory helped bring the story to life.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I am especially intrigued these days with stories of heroic people - those brave individuals who were willing to risk their lives for the Jewish friends and neighbors. Sadly, we know there were not enough of them! But each one was heroic and each one acts as a role model for young people today.
I want young readers to think about what Otto Weidt was willing to do, and to ask themselves how they can be champions for people in need and stand up for people in their community. That would be wonderful!!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently writing a book about a remarkable group of German teenagers - both boys and girls - who called themselves The Edelweiss Pirates. They were opposed to everything that the Hitler Youth stood for and they became a kind of rebel group, trying to oppose the Nazi government and protest in any way they could.
The book focuses on a 15-year-old German boy who is forced to join the Hitler Youth, but also discovers the Edelweiss Pirates and is drawn to their philosophy of resistance and defiance. I'm so excited by this book; it's the first time I've written about a German teen during that time, how they were influenced by the government's propaganda machine, and the choices (or lack of choices) that German citizens had.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: As always, I'd love to connect with readers and with educators. Especially in these times of distance and isolation, I'd love to do as many virtual school and library visits as I can. I can be contacted at email@example.com for more information.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathy Kacer.