Monday, January 15, 2024

Q&A with Robin Black




Robin Black is the author, with Harry Pila, of the book The Journey of a Hidden Child, which focuses on Pila's experiences during the Holocaust. Black is based in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: How did you end up working with Harry Pila on this book about his experiences during the Holocaust?


A: I had already co-authored and researched two previous Holocaust memoirs; one for a survivor, and one for the son of survivors.


Harry was the father-in-law of a late friend of mine. When Harry’s son, Jay, met with my husband to discuss a business proposition about 15 years after my friend’s death, Jay learned about my career and forwarded my information to Harry, who was looking for someone to write his story.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Harry came to me knowing virtually nothing about what his parents had been through. All he “knew” came from his mother, since his father didn’t survive.


It turns out that his mother was untruthful about much of her past and virtually all of the scant information she told Harry about his father.  I’m sure she had her reasons for doing this, which I posit in the book.


So initially I was researching someone who didn’t truly exist. Harry didn’t even have his father’s real name.


I relied on the internet to begin my research. Once I exhausted it as a source of information, I visited the library at the United States Holocaust Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. (The research library has since moved to Bowie, Maryland.)


Remember, I did NOT know that the information I had about Harry’s father was false; as such, his story was a huge dead end, and I told Harry that I didn’t think I was going to have enough information for a book.


I didn’t think I’d find much at the USHMM. I was totally wrong. For me, Jan. 6 has significance beyond the insurrection. It’s the anniversary of the day the floodgates of information spilled out about Harry’s father’s true identity, thus making avenues for research seem infinite to me. And it happened within five minutes of my arrival at the museum library.


The staff there is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. I told them that I was there to do research on Holocaust victims from Belgium.


Within minutes, the librarian on duty handed me a large volume entitled Give Them a Face, published by Kazerne Dossin, the Memorial, Museum, and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights in Belgium. The museum inhabits the actual transit camp from which all Jews apprehended in Belgium were held before deportation to Auschwitz.


I turned a few pages and within seconds, a picture of Harry’s father, complete with his true name, was staring back at me. Another page revealed a color picture of the Transport List from which Harry’s parents were deported.


This revealed that they were  sent to Auschwitz together, debunking virtually everything Harry thought he knew about his father. The list showed his father’s true name, birthday, country of origin, and that he was a Jew. This was all a huge surprise, and was the stepping stone to all my further research.


I also depend on several excellent websites. is where I start looking for documentation. It is the website of The Arolsen Archives—International Center on Nazi Persecution (formerly the International Tracing Service (ITS)).


The archive contains about 30 million documents from concentration camps, details of forced labor, and files on displaced persons.


It wasn’t until 2019 that the Center uploaded about 13 million records. Therefore, I had no access to these when writing my first two books.


As of last year, only 46 percent of the archives were available. The center is working on digitizing their entire collection, which means if you don’t find what you’re looking for, it’s possible it could show up in the future.


Before Arolsen became available, I relied on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,, as well as,,, and some others that aren’t as well known, but were very helpful to me.


I also used the sources cited in various Wikipedia pages, not Wikipedia itself. As a writer of non-fiction history, I must be absolutely sure that everything I write is completely factual.

My last book had over 200 cited sources. The research is rigorous, but it’s my favorite part of the process. I am absolutely addicted to solving mysteries for my clients.


With Journey, I also used German Wikipedia for the first time, finding sources in German, including a set of books that I was able to purchase; I translated the chapters that were useful to me. Looking for sources in German opened up a whole new world for me. English language sources gave me the skeleton. German sources filled in the flesh.


Q: The author Keren Blankfeld called the book “a powerful record of sacrifice and resistance in the face of terror.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it is a very apt. description. Harry’s parents were active members of the Resistance movement in Belgium. Both handed out anti-Nazi pamphlets on the streets of Brussels. It wasn’t a question of if they would be caught, but when.


As a mother of three children, I can’t imagine having to part with my 6-week-old infant. Harry’s parents saved his life. Had they chosen to keep him, he and his mother would have been sent directly to the gas chambers upon arrival to Auschwitz.


Virtually all women who arrived with children were sent immediately to their deaths. There were two lines formed upon arrival—those slated for labor, and those slated for gassing. Mothers with children went right to the gas.


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


A: As a former teacher, when I write a book, I don’t assume that the reader knows anything about the Holocaust. I give a lot of history, a lot of background information. But I include it in a way that’s not too simplified for the reader who does have some knowledge. My first goal is to teach something new to the reader.


Obviously, no one knows Harry’s story. Harry didn’t even know his story! But with the history I include, the reader is learning, at least broadly, about the Holocaust, as well as the persecution of the Jews that occurred in the years before the war started.


I don’t soften what happened to Harry’s parents, who were each actively tortured by the Nazis.  I want the reader to be repulsed by what happened to them. They are just two people of millions who were tortured and/or murdered.


As antisemitism rises in the United States and the rest of the world, I hope readers will see the absolute cruelty and senselessness of it, and be horrified by how blind hatred and prejudice led the Nazis to commit genocide and turn the world upside down.


There’s a saying that the Holocaust began with words. I see the Jew-haters of today using the same language as the propagandists in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.


It is absolutely stunning to me that the many lessons of the past have failed to register with so many people today. Did they not receive an adequate education on the Holocaust? Or did they, and choose to turn a blind eye to its many lessons?


Nazi Germany’s hatred of the Jews (and other populations, such as Gays, Romanis, etc.) caused the destruction of Nazi Germany. Though we lost 6 million Jews, we are still here. The Nazi Party in Germany was extinguished in 1945.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: After finishing the edits on Harry’s book, I told my husband I didn’t want to write any more books; I wanted to pursue a career in Holocaust research. I realized how good I was at it, how much I love it, and how I wanted to devote the rest of my career to it.


I spent a solid 18 months networking with some really good leads towards securing a job in that field. I applied to and was accepted to a master’s program where I could study under my idol in the field, Dr. Wendy Lower, in the hopes it would help me get a job.


After speaking to Dr. Lower for over an hour, where she told me I didn’t need a master’s, that I had already done the work (the head of the History department told me the exact same thing), I decided to renew my job search. But without a Ph.D. in Holocaust Studies, I have been unsuccessful.


In June 2023, I received a call from a woman named Lisa, who was looking for someone to research and write a book on her father.


When he was a child, he and his family were kicked out of their town in Poland when the Nazis invaded in early September 1939. They ended up with relatives in eastern Ukraine and were ultimately exiled to Siberia. After reading some material Lisa sent to me, doing some initial research, I accepted the project.


I am excited to be working on a part of history that has been largely overlooked. Many Jews were exiled to Siberia, to the gulags, and to towns where they didn’t need to be imprisoned because there was no survivable way of escaping.


But in these towns, the adults were forced laborers in the most brutal of conditions, including my client’s grandfather. While exile to Siberia saved many Jews, many died from starvation and the severe weather there. They were passively, rather than actively murdered.


What history of Siberia during World War II [there is] has been largely overlooked and overshadowed by Holocaust history.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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