The title of today's blog entry "Always keep hope" comes from my mom. That's her in today's pic, and that's my dad watching her. And on the computer screen you can see 150 students from Dumas Intermediate School in Dumas, Texas. I was invited to do a Skype visit with two groups of students from Dumas -- and because I was speaking about my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mother's real-life experience in a Nazi concentration camp, it made sense for me to do the Skypes from my parents' house so that the students could meet my mom.
It's hard -- even for a writer -- to find words to tell you about what happened this morning. My mom is 85, a little frail, and far less connected to people than she used to be. Sometimes, she has trouble finding words for her sentences, but today, well, she was amazing. I did most of the talking (about writing in general, about how I did the research for What World Is Left), but I think it's safe to say that my mom stole the show!
The students deserve credit, too. Not only did they listen attentively, but they had prepared excellent, sensitive questions. A young man named Fabian asked my mom, "Who or what did you miss most?" My first reaction was that I should have thought of asking that question back in 2007 when I was researching the book! My mom paused for a moment before answering Fabian's question and I could feel her going back in time. She did not miss anyone or anything when she was in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. "You only could think of survival," she told Fabian.
Joaquim wanted to know what my mom ate for breakfast when she was imprisoned at Theresienstadt. "It's a very short story," my mom answered -- displaying her trademark sense of humor (I told the students that for me, my mom's humour is a sign of her resilience and courage.) Then she went on to explain that breakfast was a cup of fake coffee and two slices of dark bread.
Even the school's prinicpal, Mr. Rhodes, had a question for my mom. "I hope it won't be too difficult," my mom said, joking again. Mr. Rhodes wanted to know how the Holocaust affected my mom's view of God. "Did you ever feel that God had forgotten you?' he asked. I have to tell you that the question kind of took my breath away -- it's another question I've never asked my mom. Her answer? "God must have tried to stop it, but He didn't succeed."
I am feeling very privileged that I got to "travel" to Dumas today, and that I got to bring my parents along, too. Just as the title of today's blog entry comes from my mom, I'm also going to give her the last word. Before we shut down Skype, I asked my mom to say good-bye to the students. She told them, "Thanks. It made me feel hopeful."
Thanks to the Grade Six classes at Dumas Intermediate School, to your teachers who prepared you so well, to Mr. Rhodes, and Mrs. Craigmiles for arranging today's visit.
Aww, Mo...your mother's irrepressible spirit will always shine through. Nice to see her sense of humour is intact, even if the words take a little longer to come. Give her a hug from me. Jennifer
Dear Mrs. Polak,
This is Miss Redus and my 9th period Reading class writing to you. They have pleaded with me to leave you a note as soon as possible! We cannot thank you enough for your visit today. It is one thing to read the events you wrote about, but it's an entirely different experience to hear it first hand. That is something we could not provide, no matter how long we study the Holocaust. You provided a once in a lifetime unforgettable experience for our students. Thank you ever so much for sharing your wonderfully written book, your time, and your humorous parents with us. This was an extremely humbling morning and we whole heartedly thank you for providing us with this opportunity.
Thank you and blessings from us all,
Sarah Redus and 9th period Reading class
Hi Monique i was in todays skype call i was in the first call and i have a question for you and your mother the question for you is has there ever been discussion of making what world is left into
A movie? The question for your mother is How has being in Theresienstadt affected your life outside of the camp?
And i also wanted to thank you and your mother for skyping with us. It was extremely fun and intresting to here your advice,your mothers advice,and the stories. Your advice and your mithers advice and stories have really opened up my eyes and i know now that i have courage i just have to pull it out of my heart. Tell your mother i said she's beautiful! Bye!
Thank you so much for talking with our students at Dumas Intermediate school. They were really excited and honored to meet you and your parents. I have several students that wanted to ask some more questions for your mother.
Joshua and Diego wanted to ask your mother if Adolf Hitler ever came to the camp at Theresienstadt? Abigail and Juan asked if your mother ever tried or thought about escaping the concentration camp at Theresienstadt? Jonathan wanted to why she waited so long to tell you her story? I personally want to thank your mother for her final words to us "Never loose hope!" It is something that has stuck with all weekend and will continue to remain with me forever!
Thank you again from everyone at Dumas Intermediate!
Barbara Dewees (6th grade reading/writing teacher) and my classes
Hi Miss Redus, Miss Redus's 9th period Reading class, and Brailey,
I was very happy to read your messages -- and my parents have read them too. It was a great experience for us to "be" with all of you. And my mom is still talking about the beautiful young faces she got to see on Friday morning. Brailey, that is a very good question about how the rest of my mom's life was affected by her time in the concentration camp. We had a family dinner tonight at my sister's house, and I brought pen and paper so I could ask my mom for the answer. Here's what she told me: "My years in Theresienstadt taught me to find alternatives, to make do with less. My life is ruled by 'not necessary.' The bare minimum is all I need. I also learned to think about others before I think of myself." Thanks for getting me to ask the question, Brailey... I learned from my mom's answer too. Have a good week in Dumas. Keep those questions coming!
PS: Miss Dewees, I just saw your message now. I am able to answer some of your class's questions. Tell Joshua and Diego that as far as I know, Hitler never went to Theresienstadt, though other prominent Nazis did visit. I'll have to ask my mom Abigail and Juan's question about if she ever thought about or tried escaping. That's another good question that I should have asked when I was researching the book. But I do think I can answer Jonathan's question about why my mom waited so long to tell her story. I think it was partly because the memories were so painful, and also because she was afraid that the information would upset me too much. So, in a way, I guess, she was protecting both of us. Miss Dewees, I'm glad you were inspired by my mom's message of hope -- I was too!
It's Monique again, back with the answer to Abigail and Juan's question. I just got off the phone with my mom and I asked her whether she ever tried to escape when she was in Theresienstadt. She told me that though she may have dreamed of escaping, she knew it would have been impossible. Here's what she said: "It was a walled-in city and there were barbed wire fences. There were heavily armed guards in all the watch towers. Sometimes, someone tried to escape, but they were shot and killed on the spot." I hope these stories are not making you guys too sad. It makes me a little sad to imagine my mother in those days, but the stories -- and passing them on to you -- also remind me how lucky we are to have our freedom.
I would like to sincerely thank you and your parents for spending the entire morning with us at Dumas Intermediate School. I feel like I could sit down and speak with all three of you for hours and enjoy every minute of it. You went above and beyond our expectations. You challenged our students, made us laugh, and occasionally brought tears to our eyes. You are a beautiful and generous family. I am so grateful for our time together. Please thank your parents for taking the time to give us insight into another place and time. May God richly bless you and keep you.
Hi My name is Jazmine Cargill and I skyped you in school and i had a ? For your mom . this is my ? How long after the Hollcost did she got marryed
Good morning again to my friends in Dumas,
Just so you know -- my parents are reading your comments too -- and enjoying them very much. Mr. Rhodes, thanks for your kind, heartfelt message. I do many school visits and I've found that it's rare that a principal makes the time to participate. Thank you for that! Jazmine, my parents got married in New York in 1954. But they met after the war in Holland when they were both at law school in a city called Leiden.
hi monique i am a 6th grade student and i just want to thank you for giving the time to speack to all the 6th grade students about your moms tragic story that breakes my heart and your story just now that i will be praying every day for you and your family. well i love to wright i have been writing stories since i was 8 years old and when you were giving us some writing tips about how to become a writter i was listing and i used those tips and now there helping. so thank you that helped me very much and hope you and your family are doing good.
hi its me jenifer again and i have a quote for your mom.never give up on what you believe in and no matter what gets onyour way dont let it stop u and bring u down just keep your head up and keep going
Hi Miss Polak I was in the skype call and i want to ask your mom if she was ever face to face with Hitler
Hi Jenifer and Julian, Thanks for the new comments. Jenifer, you sound like you have a big heart -- that's good for a writer since you need to feel your characters' feelings. Good luck with YOUR stories. Julian, my mom never met Hitler face-to-face. She says to tell you guys "hi" and that she is reading the comments on my blog post too! It's getting cold in Montreal. I'll send you a picture of our first snowfall when it comes!
Awe thanks Monique and hopefully you are doing good and I just wanted to now when did u start writing stories
Hi Monique it me again I just thought of another question how did u get your writings out there for everyone to read
Hello again to my friends in Dumas! We're having our first snowstorm here in Montreal. Looks pretty out there, but it's cold and if you don't wear the right boots, your feet get super wet. Jazmine, I think what inspired me to write books is my MOM. She used to be the best storyteller. I'd look for her in a room and there would always be a crowd gathered round her listening to her stories. Now that she's older, she has slowed down a bit, though she is still pretty smart and funny. Jenifer, I've been writing stories since I was a kid, but I got serious about trying to get published when I was in my 30s. I got my writing out there for everyone to read by submitting my work to different publishers. At first, they pretty much all said no to my manuscripts, so I kept writing new and improved ones until I sold the first one, which was published in 2004. It was hard at first, but now it's easier for me to sell my work. My adivce: keep writing and don't give up.