Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Q&A with Jori Epstein




Jori Epstein is the author of the book The Upstander: How Surviving the Holocaust Sparked Max Glauben's Mission to Dismantle Hate. Epstein is a reporter for USA Today.


Q: How did you first meet Max Glauben, and at what point did you decide to write a book with him?


A: I grew up in the same Dallas Jewish community as Max Glauben. But we truly began to build our relationship when I was 17 years old and joined March of the Living, a Holocaust remembrance and education program.


Max was the Holocaust survivor guiding my high school classmates and me through death camps. I remember vividly sitting on the musty wooden floor of a barrack in Majdanek, the death camp to which Max and his family were forcibly transported—and the camp where Max’s mother and brother were murdered.


He shared a memory of how he survived and then said: “I don’t think I’ve told anyone that before.” That’s when my responsibility as a witness clicked. I wanted to ensure Max’s memories were told again.


Fast forward four years, I moved back to Dallas after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. It’s now June 2016. My first weekend home, Max and I reconnected at our synagogue.


He had just received a fresh batch of records from the Red Cross that documented his testimony. He wanted to transform into a book the testimony he had delivered orally.


I had just finished my college thesis and blurted out: “Why don’t I write your book, Max?” I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I still don’t. But that summer, we began. Five years later, we published The Upstander


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Max has long encouraged students and audiences via his lecture: “Be an upstander, not a bystander.” His lesson emulates the oft-quoted saying that all it takes for evil to go unchecked is for good people to do nothing.


Undoubtedly, the Nazis are responsible for the horrific murder of 6 million Jews and millions more during the Holocaust. But the passivity and negligence of bystanders allowed their evil to persist. It’s our responsibility to ensure not only that our words and actions don’t further hate, but also that we actively combat prejudice and intolerance. 


Max doesn’t just encourage others to stand up for what’s right. He epitomizes life as an Upstander himself. Despite the grief, trauma and immense pain Max withstood during the Holocaust, he devotes his life to educating our world on the perils of hate.


Max transforms his pain into purpose and uses the moral authority his survival bestowed upon him to inspire others. We can—and must—all learn from his example. Let’s each channel our unique talents to better our community.


Q: How did the two of you work together on the book, and how did writing it affect you?


A: As a journalist, I’ve written hundreds if not thousands of articles. I aimed to attack this writing process building off the foundation of systems I established to report articles.


First, I needed to master the material. How could I learn as much as possible about Max’s life, lessons, and legacy? I read through a 300-page oral history he sat for in 1990, noting it, re-reading it and re-noting it. I cross-referenced that oral history with other interviews he gave, attending his speeches too. I combed through piles of documents Max has received.


With that basis, Max and I meticulously discussed each chapter of his life. What was his childhood like before the war? His ghetto imprisonment, concentration camp survival, life as a displaced person? How did he rebuild a life with family, love and productivity—and what wounds could he never repair? Gradually, we constructed a cohesive narrative.


One particularly unique element of The Upstander: Nearly half of the book discusses Max’s postwar experience. Why? Surviving the Holocaust never leaves a person. Lessons abound from how we move forward with trauma. Interviews with Max’s wife, children, grandchildren and students helped me paint that picture.


Max taught me immensely during this process. I learned the necessity of trust in reporting vulnerable stories, and I learned how much more powerful testimony is when emotional reflection augments the facts. I feel a responsibility to share Max’s legacy responsibly and live by his messages.


On a more personal note, despite our 66.5-year age gap, Max and I have developed a deep friendship. We laugh together and problem-solve; we challenge each other and support each other. I never imagined this friendship beforehand; now, I cannot imagine my life without it.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope readers understand that Max doesn’t believe he survived because he is superhuman. Rather, he tapped into how deeply human he is to outlast the Nazi torture and build a new life for his family. We, too, each have greater strength within us than we realize. We must harness our strengths for good.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am a full-time NFL reporter for USA Today. I write feature, investigative and news analysis pieces primarily on the Dallas Cowboys. Football season is in full-swing, with plenty of narratives to chase.


In the book-writing world, Max and I are actively amplifying the messages of The Upstander, eager to reach goals not yet hit. We wrote this memoir with middle school, high school, and university audiences in mind.


We want Max’s testimony—poignant yet digestible, historically verified yet strategically narrow in scope—to become a resource for schools now that many states mandate Holocaust education in their curricula.


We feel strongly this book will resonate with adults. But we also strive to reach students and welcome schools who want to partner with us for a powerful educational opportunity.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Please share our book and message with schools. The Upstander is available on Amazon here: Max tells me often he wants to sell 1 million copies. We certainly have not yet. Will you help us toward our goal?


On Twitter: @JoriEpstein

On Instagram: @JoriEpstein


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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