‘People can’t identify with six million dead, but they can identify with three mothers’
- Credit: Eva Clarke
In a sleepy corner of Suffolk lives Wendy Holden. The former journalist has lived quite the life. She spent 18 years working as a reporter, including time as a war correspondent in the Middle East during the first Gulf War.
Leaving the fast-paced world of the newsroom behind, Wendy settled in Halesworth and has dedicated her ‘second career’ to telling the incredible life stories of others, with a chance encounter leading the author to discover one of her most harrowing projects to date.
In ‘Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope’, Wendy unfurls the stories of three pregnant Jewish women, taken to concentration camps during the Second World War.
Originally released in 2015 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II – she re-released the book recently, and believes the stories are just as relevant as ever in helping us battle injustice and intolerance.
Explaining how she first came across such a tale, she says: “It was all by chance and great luck. I was reading something late at night online about a woman who died in Canada in her 80s, and she had been pregnant and gave birth when she was in Auschwitz. She was so scared to be pregnant there, as the Nazi were taking their babies away.
“It had devastated her so much that she dedicated her life to Holocaust education. I then wondered if there were any babies who survived the camps. So I started to look, and that’s how I came across Eva Clarke, whose mother Anka gave birth to her in the Mauthausen concentration camp.”
Inspired but what she knew thus far, Wendy swiftly got in touch with Eva and arranged a meet-up to find out more about the duo's odds-defying story.
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“Honestly, if Eva had lived in Australia, I'd have gotten on a plane to meet her. But it was with great fortune that she lived in Cambridge.”
Wendy and Eva spent the day together, with Eva recounting in great depth her background and memories.
Sadly, Eva's mother Anka had passed away just six months prior at the age of 96.
“When I finished talking with her, I asked her if she’d do me the honour of letting me write her mother’s story, and she said ‘I’ve been waiting for you for 70 years’. It was wonderful.”
During their meet-up, Eva also told Wendy about two other children who were born in concentration camps - and from then she knew had a trio of remarkable stories to tell.
“I realised I had to write about all three mothers and their babies, as it wouldn’t have been fair to leave any of them out, and I’m glad I did because it’s formed such a fully-rounded story.”
Wendy then flew out to the United States to meet Wisconsin-based Mark Olsky, and Hana Berger-Moran, who resides in California. Their mothers Rachel and Priska gave birth to them in Auschwitz in 1945.
“All three of them spend their lives doing amazing things. Mark is a doctor, Hana is a biologist who works in cancer research, and Eva spends her retirement teaching Holocaust education in schools. The three of them are the most life-enhancing people you could ever hope to meet. They’ve taken this opportunity after surviving and have gone on to become incredibly kind human beings who are so generous with their time.”
Wendy spent a great deal of time with the three survivors, and visited their mothers’ birthplaces and final resting places before coming back to Suffolk to pen her book.
“When I met Eva, it was 18 months before the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, so I set that as my deadline. In that time, I went to Auschwitz, and all of the towns where the mothers were born. Two were born in Czechoslovakia, and one in Poland. All three mothers sadly passed away by the time I began working on the book, so I visited all of their graves including one in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I also spent a lot of time conducting research in the archives of European museums, in order to corroborate everything, as when you’re writing about the Holocaust you have to be wary of Holocaust deniers and make sure you’ve got your facts right.”
The writing process was, understandably, harrowing at times.
“It’s a sad story tell, and of course it took its toll at times, but I came from the perspective of knowing these three babies had survived, and there was a happy ending. They’ve all gone on to have their own children and grandchildren, continuing their legacy. It’s an incredible honour and privilege to be able to chronicle their history, sharing it across the world.”
Born Survivors, which has since been published in 22 countries and translated into 16 languages, has also has been adapted on school curriculums for year nines and above.
“I feel that’s exactly what should be happening. We live in a world full of intolerance, with a lack of compassion, and we need that to change,” adds Wendy.
Just last year, the book was re-released with a new foreword and additional information. It features new material throughout, and on the audiobook version there is an interview with Eva and Wendy.
And while last year’s lockdown meant events across the globe were cancelled, Wendy and Eva are excited to be able to discuss the book’s new edition at the Two Rivers Book Festival in Halesworth this Friday evening. “It’s a talk we give regularly. We tell all three mothers’ stories, and then Eva goes into more detail about her mother, as well as her father who was murdered by the Nazis.
“People can’t identify with six million dead, but they can identify with three mothers. They were beautiful, fashionable women. The sort of women we’d like as friends, and they had everything to look forward to until the Nazis invaded. I see the book as a chance to bring them to life with words and pictures, and have people realise this could happen anywhere – and still is happening.
“I feel slightly guilty as I brought Eva, Mark and Hana into the spotlight, but the experience has been wonderful for them. They feel validated and closer to their late mothers thanks to my research, and I’ve been able to tell them things they didn’t even know about their own families.”
A gut-wrenching yet inspiring read, Wendy hopes the book not only opens people’s eyes to these atrocities that happened in living memory, but makes readers question their surroundings and their history.
“We all need to ask our families members around us to share their stories. So many people say they wished they asked their grandparents more questions, and taken notes or recorded what they had to say. It’s important to keep these stories alive, and that’s one of the best ways to do that.”
To find out more about Wendy and her work, visit her website.