How Reading Saved My Father’s Life

Growing up in Austria

I inherited a love of reading from both my parents. They read widely and encouraged me to explore all kinds of books and to value the importance of words.

Today my father turns ninety-eight. He has seen many changes in his long life time – the advent of the motor car, WWII, the invention of computers and so much more.

My father arriving in Australia aged 16

He still reads the Age newspaper regularly and as his mobility has declined, words have become even more important to him.

My father became an avid reader as a small child. He was an only child, a lonely child. His mother had a hectic social life and his father was busy building his business. Books were my father’s solace and companions. They were his friends, they provided characters for him to spend time with, and  allowed him to step into different worlds, to feel connected.

He also read non fiction voraciously – particularly newspapers. Europe was becoming increasingly unsettled in the early years of his childhood, and after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor  in 1933 and introduced policies to isolate and persecute Jews, my father suspected that his family’s comfortable life in Vienna wasn’t going to last.

Although he hadn’t been raised in the Jewish faith, his parents were married in a synagogue, and my father knew that was enough to put his family at risk.

His father was too busy working to keep up with everything that was going on around them, and his mother didn’t take an interest in world affairs. So as a boy, my father took it upon himself to keep across the news and report back to his family.

My grandfather is the baby in this photo with a sister, Roza who perished at Auschwitz

At first, his parents dismissed his concerns as paranoia. They believed that he spent too much time reading.

In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, decreeing that Jews could not be full German citizens. The more my father read, the more he realised how the rights of Jews were being eroded.   He told his parents that they needed to start thinking about an exit plan, that they should leave Austria because it was becoming unsafe.

At first his parents were too busy to pay attention. But my father read more and more about Jewish arrests and persecution, and his parents were forced to acknowledge that what he was reading in the papers had a good deal of truth in it. They began to plan for a possible future away from their homeland.

In the Autumn of 1938, 17 year-old Herschel Grynzspan became outraged at the treatment of his Polish Jew parents who had been exiled from Poland. His anger built and on 7 November 1938, he was so incensed that he shot German Diplomat, Ernst Vom Rath in Paris. Vom Rath died two days later from his wounds and the Nazi Party used this incident to incite further hatred of Jews.

The Nazis retaliated quickly and between the 9 and 10 November they smashed synagogues and shops and arrested thousands of Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps. This event became known as Kristallnacht, (Night of Broken Glass).

It seemed that my father’s parents had left their run too late. My grandfather was one of those arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp.

They called him a preventative prisoner because he hadn’t committed any crime, but because he was a Jew they believed that it was only a matter of time before he did.

One of my grandfather’s letters from Dachau

My grandfather wrote to his wife and son from Dachau, heavily censored letters with hidden meaning where he urged them to hurry their plans to escape from Austria.

“Write to Huttert Limited London, Region Street, a Mrs Holzer to remind her that she should not forget something which is particularly important right now.”

“My friend has not let me down. I am happy no end that you are with Pauline. Hope to see you soon.”


My grandfather was one of the lucky ones, released from Dachau in early 1939 on the condition that he and his family would emigrate and leave behind EVERYTHING they owned. Plans to leave were accelerated.

With fake identities, they escaped by train, fleeing for their lives, nervous every time the train stopped, wondering if they would be searched, and their true identities discovered.

They arrived in Australia on 1 May 1939, a short time before WW11 began. 

If they hadn’t had the help of generous Austrians who risked their own lives to help, my father and his parents would most likely have perished along with other family members who were murdered at Auschwitz.

My father’s reading and awareness of the true seriousness of the situation they faced, allowed his family to plan and leave Austria in the nick of time.

I grew up hearing accounts of my father’s escape and what his life was like before he left his homeland. His story led to me writing Beyond Belief, inspired by the true story of Muslims at a Paris Mosque who saved Jewish children in WW2. 

It has also made me reflect on the importance of reading, and how it connects us, can alert us to danger, and keeps us informed of what’s happening in the world around us.

If my father hadn’t been such an avid reader, he might never have survived Hitler’s Nazis and made it to Australia where he has lived in peace for the last eighty-two years.

My father with two of his great grandchildren in April this year – photo courtesy of Priscilla Matters

Your Story is Our Story – Junior Years Student Perspective

YEAR THREE PERSPECTIVE

By Laila Pardo, Year 6.

During the last few weeks we have been working with Australian author, Dee White, learning how authors create their stories.

The Yarrawonga College P-12 Editorial Committee interviewed students in the junior years and asked them about their experiences during the Your Story is Our Story Project.

We have gone around to a few classes interviewing year 3 students about their experience working with Dee. 

The first question I asked was what have you learnt?

Ava said she learnt how to write a proper story, and Sam learnt how to put proper language into his writing piece. The others also said they have learnt how to use their punctuation in the right way. 

All the students I spoke to would have liked it to have Dee come in a lot more. Some of the people I spoke to have said that Dee White has made a huge impact on them. They said that they have started to like writing more than they used to. 

Dee really likes to come in and help us with our writing piece. 

Personally, I think it was pretty fun to have a great author to help us with our own writing piece.

The Editorial Committee hard at work on their stories

YEAR TWO PERSPECTIVE

By Grace Foran, Year 6

Last week I interviewed some year 2’s about working with author, Dee White.

Dee White has been working with students from Prep up to Year 8. While interviewing the year 2’s I learnt about how much they have been enjoying working with Dee!

A little bit about Dee: Dee White has written many books including, Letters to Leonardo, Beyond Belief and the year 2’s favourite Eddy Popcorn! Dee has been coming here for a few weeks and has been working with the students on story writing.

I interviewed six kids and found very positive feedback! Most of the kids said that they loved working with Dee and that their stories are coming along well. 

The Year 2’s are writing a realistic fiction story based on an event they experienced themselves. The kids have been making their own puppets and using them as characters for their stories. A few lucky kids even got to hold the Eddy Popcorn puppet! 

A lot of kids have been loving being creative and all the kids I interviewed only had positive things to say about Dee and her visits!

Stella and Hunter have both said that they have learnt more about creating their own characters. Taylah said that the sessions with Dee helped her get more ideas and Layken said Dee gave him lots of tips to write his story.

Overall the year 2’s found the experience enjoyable and are very proud of their stories.

YEAR THREE PERSPECTIVE

By Ava Cox, Year 6

During the last few weeks of term we have invited Dee White to help us improve our writing and write a realistic fiction piece with us. 

While she has been at our school, students have had the opportunity to write, edit and illustrate with Dee.

On Tuesday, week 8 some of the students from the Editorial Committee went over and interviewed some of the junior grades. My friend and I went over to the year three’s to interview them, here are some responses.

All of the girls I spoke to are enjoying writing very much and love it when Dee comes. Right now the year threes are learning to plan and write a realistic fiction story based on the character they put on a milk carton they made. On their milk cartons they have put some pictures of missing people or animals. 

Everyone I spoke to has started to enjoy writing more now that Dee has come to visit. 

We are all very grateful that Dee has come to work with us, we can’t thank her enough. It will be great to have a book full of stories and a school full of authors! 

YEAR ONE PERSPECTIVE

By Jackson White, Year 8

The year 1 students at Yarrawonga College were enthused about Dee White visiting them for the Your Story is Our Story project.

I got to interview of them last week and here are some of their responses. 

All of the year 1s found it amazing having Dee White, an Australian author, here at Yarrawonga College. And they all thought that writing their own stories was the best. 

Some students said that they love writing stories because they get to show their ideas. One said, ‘It’s fun to write about past experiences and what you did on the weekend.’

From stories based on a koala sleeping all day, to a magpie at the skatepark that crashes a lot, they all made funny fiction stories based on animals they can see or hear around them.

Some of the characters that came out of the students’ imaginations included Edie the Koala who loves to sleep, Kangy the kangaroo who loves to play in bushes, Ed the magpie who loves to skate, and Lizzy the koala who loves to play. 

They all can’t wait till they get their creative stories put into a book for each other to read.

Thanks to all the students from the Editorial Committee for their great pieces. It was so much fun working with you all.

Dee

Thanks to Creative Victoria and Creative Learning Partnerships for making this program possible.

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The Year 8 Perspective by Hadia Mirza and Grace Thackray

Yarrawonga College P-8 was privileged to experience four weeks with Dee White, an Australian author who has published more than 20 books. 

Dee has spent four weeks sharing tips on how she writes her stories and encouraging us with our writing.

The Your Story is Our Story project that brought Dee to our school was a one-off event that was supposed to happen in 2020 but due to covid-19 it could not go ahead. Luckily this year it took place.

Hadia and Grace

On 10 of June 2021, Hadia Mirza and Grace Thackray finally got the opportunity to interview some people about the Dee White project. We wanted to see what students thought of this new experience. Here are the responses of the year eight students. 

Most students rated this project highly, scoring it between 6-10 stars. Some students, if they could, would want to change the amount of time put towards the project and would love to work with Dee longer. Some people said that this project really affected their opinion on writing. In the Year Eight grade, students are writing all kinds of stories from drama to action. 

This project not only helped people develop their writing skills but also other talents they could put into creating a story. Students look forward to having better writing skills at the end of this project. 

Dee said, “I have loved working on the project. It’s great to see how enthusiastic you all are.” 

She also said how much she loved the students’ ideas. 

We are all so lucky to have had this experience. Thanks to all the students who contributed to our research, and thanks to Dee for helping us. 

Hadia and Grace

Writing is Tough by Daniel O’Connor – Year 6

As part of the Your Story is Our Story project, some students wrote about their experiences working with me in the classroom to help them create their stories. This piece is by Daniel in Year 6.

Writing is tough – even writing funny books, skinny books, picture books, thick books, serious books, kid’s books. Yet lots and lots of people say that when they have time they’ll write a book.

They usually aren’t so fortunate as to have author, Dee White to help them get their stories to publication.

Over the past 4 weeks, students including myself have been given the holy chance to not only work with an excellent author but actually get the opportunity to have our stories published in a full length book combining all of the year sixes and many other grade’s narratives into an illustrated book properly published and everything a kids dream right? I mean… it was always mine at least.

Writing a book usually means the agony of waiting, waiting, waiting for a publisher. Publishers take forever to look at the book. If you’re a new author waiting a year to get a response is nothing, that is if they even look at it. Then it’s often rejected. If you’re a published author it is quicker, easier, but it doesn’t mean guaranteed acceptance of publication.

When looking for a publisher, Dee suggests that you look at other books with the topic you’re writing about then see who published it or supported the idea, and try to get in contact with them. That is exactly what Dee White did with (for example) her best-selling novel: Beyond Belief which is honestly my favourite, closely followed by Eddy Popcorn (Guide to Parent Training & Guide to Teacher Taming.)

Dee is a very calm, relaxed, inspirational and supportive author, who has supported me through many narrative changes, edits etc and for once I’m not dried out of ideas after her lessons. Each lesson gets me more and more ideas.

 I think my favourite part of her visit(s) is teaching me how to come up with my own ideas. For a realistic example, when I was formerly asked to write, I usually would write a story word for word based on a movie or with slight adjustments, but with Dee I feel more confident and self love for my own ideas and much more. Even after her visits are finally up I still have 2 slim books to teach me a lot about original content, narratives and how to make ideas. I always used to struggle to add more to my brainstorm sheet which I keep in my writing folder but ever since Dee’s 1ST VISIT I have added more than 10!

On the behalf of year 6 and all the other grades we would like to thank you Dee White for all you have done for us and how inspiring and supportive you are to our ideas I think more than the whole year 6 can say: We want you as a permanent writing teacher for real. Thank you again Dee you have no idea what you have really done for us.

Author in residence Final Day – Your Story is Our Story

Today I used books by Australian authors, Nova Weetman, Penny Tangey and Felice Arena (as well as some of my own works) to demonstrate to Year 5 and 6 students that there are many different ways to end stories.

We talked about what story endings need to include in order to satisfy the reader.

We also discussed things to look for when revising your work, and the anthology that student’s stories will be going in.

It was great chatting about words and language and one of a writer’s most important tools, a thesaurus.

Students enjoyed using the thesaurus’ that I donated to the Year 4, 5 and 6 classrooms.

Sadly, these were my final classroom sessions for the project.

In the afternoon, I worked with the Editorial and Marketing committee, finalising the pieces they had written. These pieces will be published in the newsletter and on this blog.

The last part of the day was bittersweet, saying farewell to the beautiful Preps, Year 1 and Year 2 students at Yarrawonga College P-12 and getting photos to be used in their anthologies.

Year 2 students have been very creative with their puppet characters.

I’ve had such an amazing time working with the respectful and enthusiastic students in Years P-8 and I’ll miss them and the incredibly supportive, friendly and dedicated teachers and other staff who have all been part of the Your Story is Our Story project.

Some of the proud Year 1 students with their amazing stories
The enthusiastic Prep students told me all about their stories.

I’ve learnt some great tips from the teaching staff and have been so inspired by the students.

I can’t wait to read all their amazing stories in the Year Level anthologies.

Dee

Thanks to Creative Victoria and Creative Learning Partnerships for making this program possible.

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Author in residence Day 18 – Your Story is Our Story

So exciting to spend time in Year 4 today.

Many of them have finished the first drafts of their amazing stories inspired by their ‘Missing’ milk carton characters.

We took a photo with the Year 4 students to go in the back of their anthology

Such great imaginations. Their characters went missing on kayaks, from cars and in all sorts of locations and circumstances.

They had some very creative solutions to help their characters find their way home.

We also talked about how hard story endings are to write, and how to make them interesting and satisfying for readers.

Discussing story endings

Many students were using their thesaurus to find more interesting words to use in their stories.

Some of them have been illustrating their stories as they write them.

I worked with my final group of Year 8 students on the Your Story is Our Story project.

With Year 8’s we also looked at creative ways to end stories and went through steps that authors use when revising their stories.

After school, enthusiastic young readers and writers came to pay for pre-ordered books and get them signed.

Dee

Thanks to Creative Victoria and Creative Learning Partnerships for making this program possible.

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Author in residence Day 17 – Your Story is Our Story

Today I met with a very enthusiastic and talented extension group of Year 5 writers to talk about the life of an author, the publishing industry and writing in general.

Students also worked on a piece for the upcoming Write Around the Murray writing competition open to students in Years 3-12. More details can be found here

I worked with Year 7 and 8 students on story endings and self-editing, and how to work through those times in your story when you’re not sure what to write next.

We talked about mini plotting a scene to help you work out what to write, and also different ways to overcome writer’s block.

We also discussed the design and formatting of the anthologies where students will have their work published.

It’s so inspiring to see students being creative and getting immersed in their stories.

Dee

Thanks to Creative Victoria and Creative Learning Partnerships for making this program possible.

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Author in residence Day 16 – Your Story is Our Story

Day 16 started with the Year 3 students, and Eddy and I were feeling a bit sad to be spending our second last day at the P-4 campus.

Students had some fabulous story beginnings, and we talked about the essential elements of a great story.

I can’t wait to read their stories.


I had three sessions with students in Years 7 and 8 and we talked about how difficult endings are to write and shared some tips on how to think of a great finish to a story.

We also talked about the revision process and how long it can take a book to get published from the original idea to see the book on shelves.

Students worked enthusiastically on their stories and we also discussed how it’s okay to write new story beginning if you’re not happy with the one you have, and how the beginning of a story can change depending on what happens in the middle and end.

Years 3-8 Writer’s Club met at lunchtime. Students shared some great stories with the group and we talked about the Write Around the Murray writing competition open to students in Years 3-12. More details can be found here.

An inspiring and productive start to my final week working with students at Yarrawonga College P-12.

Dee

Thanks to Creative Victoria and Creative Learning Partnerships for making this program possible.

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Author in residence Day 15 – Your Story is Our Story

Students in Year 2 worked on the endings of their stories today. We talked about different ways to make the ending of a story more interesting.

We also shared tips on revising your story, and things to check including word choice, ‘show don’t tell’, checking to see that your story makes sense and reading your story aloud.

Eddy Popcorn enjoyed hanging out with the Year 2’s today and talking about his books.

The Year 4 writing extension class was full of ideas for entering the Write the Murray short story and poetry writing competition.

Enthusiastic Year 4 writing extension students
Year 4 writing extension students shared their stories and had lots of questions about writing

We talked about starting a writer’s group to encourage each other and help each other to become better writers. Some writers also read their creative and compelling pieces to the group.

The Year 3’s milk cartons used to inspire their stories are awesome.

Year 3 students worked on their story beginnings and we talked about how to know where to start your story.

We also looked at techniques to make sure you show and don’t tell in your story, and how to expand dialogue using setting, character and action.

Dialogue activity – observing what people do and their body language while they are talking as well as what they say.

Using their story plans, students made a great start on writing their story beginnings.

The day finished with another meeting of the enthusiastic Editorial and Marketing Committee working on their articles inspired by their interviews with younger students about the Your Story is Our Story project.

Our illustrators hard at work.

Brainstorming article ideas.

Our roving reporters hard at work.

A busy end to another great week!

Dee

Thanks to Creative Victoria and Creative Learning Partnerships for making this program possible.

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Author in residence Day 14 – Your Story is Our Story

The day started with a year 6 extension group of very keen and talented writers. We talked about overcoming writer’s block and they worked on pieces for the Write Around the Murray short story and poetry awards.

Then we created a puppet super story with Prep students.

Afterwards they did story telling in pairs, using their puppets to tell each other what their story was about. The aim was to help them get their story straight in their heads before attempting to write it.

Preps had lots of fun with this activity and their stories were amazing.

Next session was with Year 1 students. We worked on making stories better. We looked at the group story that was written last session and looked at ways to improve vocabulary, add more action to theirs stories and use correct grammar and punctuation.

The students worked on revising and developing the stories they had already written.

In Year 4 we focussed on ‘Show don’t tell’ and adding character’s actions, feelings and body language to make dialogue more active and interesting. We used examples from Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Teacher Taming.

Last session of the day was working with the final group of Year 8 students on story beginnings with tips on where and how to start their stories. Students came up with some compelling starts to their stories, and I can’t wait to read more.

Loved spending time with these inspiring students and working with them on their stories.

Dee

Thanks to Creative Victoria and Creative Learning Partnerships for making this program possible.

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