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

Developing Setting and Making it Active in Your Story – a free online resource for teachers

The Your Story is Our Story project continues!

As I wasn’t able to be in the classroom because of the Covid-19 lockdown in Victoria, staff at Yarrawonga College thought it might be helpful to have a video on setting for their online classes for Years 4-8.

They wanted me to talk about the benefits of choosing a setting you are familiar with, so you can authentically describe it, how I use setting in my books, and how to make characters active in the setting and not just create an information dump of setting details.

I wanted to use images of the local area in my video because I wanted them to be familiar and relatable to students.

On my exercise walk, I took out my phone and snapped a few photos. The sun was shining as I wandered around Yarrawonga, but the streets and parks were eerily silent.

I hope they will have fun making the amazing characters they have created active in their settings.

FREE CLASSROOM AND WRITER RESOURCE

I know there are lots of schools and writers being impacted by COVID and lockdowns so I’ve uploaded the SETTING video to Youtube and my website as a free resource for anyone wanting to teach or develop their own settings.

The video is available from my website at http://www.deescribe.com.au or via Youtube https://youtu.be/k1Qm8F-BWPs

Dee


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

Author in residence Day 4 – Your Story is Our Story

A day of ups and downs!

I worked with the last groups of Year 8 students to develop their characters and once again, they had the most amazing ideas.

Such an inspiration to see how creative and focussed they were.

We also had our first meeting with the editorial committee of students interested in helping put the anthologies together. We had a great group of enthusiastic writers and illustrators and talked about the roles they might like to take on; designing covers, writing and editing. There will also be opportunities for students to write about the residency for the school newsletter and local paper, and I’d love to publish some of their works on this blog.

A great day until we heard the news that Victoria was going into lockdown for a week. This meant I wouldn’t have the opportunity to work face-to-face with students for another seven days.

It was so disappointing for all of us.

Things picked up again at the end of the day with the book signing event where I got to speak with enthusiastic readers and writers about writing and my books.

I’m really hoping to be back in the classroom at the end of the week.

In the meantime I’m developing resources that I hope staff and students will find helpful and inspiring in their online lessons. My first video will be about how to create an active and evocative setting.

Dee

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

The Final Stop

I’m very happy to be back home with my family and friends, but I have to confess that I miss Paris already. 
The original plan was to head straight back to Australia, but seeing as I was flying Qatar Airways, it seemed too good an opportunity not to stay a night in Doha, and have a look around.

Doha offered an opportunity to enjoy a completely different cultural experience in a Muslim country with some similarities in lifestyle to what my characters would have experienced at the Grand Mosque of Paris.  

In contrast to the bustle and noise of Paris, Doha was a calm and disciplined place … and very hot. 

Instead of the blue skies of a European spring, there was heat haze and afternoon siestas. Not for me though. I only had a day in Doha so I had to make the most of it. I intended to visit the traditional Arab market at Souq Waquif, but it was closed between 12.00 noon and 4.00pm which made sense because it was the hottest part of the day. 

So instead, I spent the afternoon in the Museum of Islamic Art, a truly beautiful and fascinating place. 

The sculptures, paintings and artifacts dated back many hundreds of years. It was amazing to see how intricate and perfect they were in spite of the primitive tools the artisans would have had at their disposal.

It made me realise how lucky I am to be a writer … how simple it is to just pick up a pen and write … whenever and wherever you are. 

The people of Qatar were warm and friendly, and wandering, through the market at Souq Waquif (after 4.00pm) made me feel like I was going back in time. 

It was a symbolic end to this writing journey, a slight detour that took me into an unfamiliar world that was definitely worth visiting, and the experience will add colour and depth to my story.

Thank you for sharing this amazing adventure with me, and for your encouragement and support along the way.

I am so lucky to have been given this opportunity and I know that my book, Beyond Belief will be all the better for it.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

A Different Perspective

Sometimes, instead of looking at things in the cold light of day, it can be good to look at them in the darkness of night. 

My characters in my book will be travelling up the Seine in the thick of night, in freezing cold waters with soldiers looking for them.

My characters will be in waters like these

I know being on a cruise boat isn’t quite the same thing, but I decided to take a cruise to experience the sights sounds and smells of the river at night.

I sat up front in the open so I could breathe in the atmosphere.

The humming of the boat’s motor, the smell of the water, the swish of waves against the hull, the shouts of voices from the river bank.

A place takes on a whole different personna at night.

Seasons and time of day really make a difference to pace and mood of a story so I’d certainly recommend standing (or sitting) in your story world at different times to experience how the setting changes.

Hope you enjoy my Paris at night pics. 

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria 

A Writer Must Always Be Open to Possibilities

People are inherently good and kind, and if you are interested and open to knowledge and the experiences they are willing to share, you can learn so much about them, about humanity and about the world.

So many times on this trip, people have reached out to help me with my research for Beyond Belief. The people of Paris wherever we have been have been truly welcoming and wonderful.

Today, we were walking through the Marais district when a very kind Jewish man stopped us, and asked if I was Jewish.

I explained that my Jewish grandparents fled Austria in WW2 with my father (who was a teenager) and came to Australia where I was born. But as I told him, I was not raised as a Jew although I have cousins who were.

He had been in Paris for five years and was very happy to talk to me about his world.

I explained that I had been having trouble finding my way into a synagogue, but I was very interested to see inside one, and learn about it. Although I had been in a newer, much grander synagogue with my lovely guide Laetitia, it was only a very short visit and I wasn’t able to take photos or ask questions.

“Come, I will show you my synagogue,” he said proudly. 

He led us into ‘the 17’, a building up several flights of narrow stairs and the oldest synagogue in Paris.

Located at number 17 Rue de Rossiers (Rosebushes Street), the synagogue dates back to the 17th century when Jews were not allowed, if they could ever afford it, to build a monumental place of worship. 

Even during the black period of WW2 this synagogue remained open, and those of the congregation who survived the death camps, sought comfort there upon their return. 

It was such an honour to be invited inside this historic place … and to witness this man’s love for his people, his God and for humanity.

Another wonderful experience that I know will add richness to my story.

I’m going to miss Paris and its people and all the wonderful culture and experiences it has to offer.

But I will definitely be back … and I already have ideas for a new story … set in Paris 🙂

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria 

 

Full Circle

As my research trip to Paris enters its last week *sob*, I’ve been reflecting on what an amazing experience this has been.

I also have to pinch myself. I wanted to be a writer since I was seven years-old, and here I am in Paris researching for a book I’m writing. The kind of book I always wanted to write about truth and history and humanity.

I have met so many wonderful people here, heard stories that are ‘beyond belief’ and enjoyed blue Parisian skies almost every day. 

I’ve been into a mosque, a synagogue and a church. I’ve been humbled by the kindness of people and their willingness to help me with my story.

My new Parisian friend, Laetitia

I emailed the sewer tour people at des égouts de Paris to let them know I would be in Paris doing research for a book. And they have been truly amazing. They organised an English speaking guide, Laetitia who was so kind and so interested in my story.

After my tour of the sewers, she gave me a day of her time to help with my research, acting as a personal interpreter and guide. She speaks French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Arabic and her assistance was invaluable. I could never have uncovered the information and stories that I did without her.

I will be leaving Paris having made a true friend.

Being in Paris, researching a book I’m passionate about has been a dream come true. I’ve been so lucky with the people who have supported me in this … my long-suffering husband, research assistant, translator and all round wonderful guy, Michael.

And it was serendipitous to catch up with my Year 10 English teacher, Jenny Cosh, who just happened to be in Paris at the same time.

She was the one who believed in me and encouraged my writing career from when I was in high school, when becoming a writer was being actively discouraged at home because  ‘writing wasn’t a real job’.

Here I am living the writer’s dream … and I have been able to share it with the English teacher who encouraged me to have that dream. How lucky am I? How great are English teachers? For me, catching up with Jenny felt like things had come full circle.

It’s funny how important people in your life can turn up in the most unexpected places.

Has this ever happened to you on your writing journey?

Another big research day today, but more about that later.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria 

Paris Secrets

I’m sad about what has happened in this beautiful city over recent days.

Paris is such an amazing place and there are so many picture postcard views and sights, wonderful people and opportunities to experience the diverse culture.

But it’s still a city like any other. There are well told tales and events in history, but you can walk past places and not even realise there are stories buried deep beneath the stonework, events that are now just a remnant in the ground.

Exploring history takes you to many distant and dark places, but it also reveals great tales of courage and hope.

Vélodrome d’Hiver

On 16 and 17 July 1942, 4,115 children, 2,916 women and 1,129 men were arrested and kept at Vélodrome d’Hiver in inhumane conditions by the Vichy government police, on the orders of the Nazi occupiers. They were later deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered.

Apartment building on the old site of the Vélodrome d’Hiver

Vélodrome d’Hiver, july 1942
source photo : Yad Vashem Photo Archive
crédit photo : D.R

The Grand Mosque of Paris

Behind these walls, in the sanctuary of this tranquil place, many Jewish lives were saved. The Jews who came or were brought here were given food and shelter. They were provided with fake documents marked ‘Muslim’ so they would not be harmed by the Vichy government police.

This was a spontaneous act of humanity by the Muslims who lived at the mosque, and the Muslims of France. People who acted simply because they cared about other human beings regardless of race or religion.

… if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.” – Quran 5:32

The Vel D’Hiv Roundup

Behind this door, the lists were produced of Jews – men, women and children to be arrested and deported.

The Resistance

This peaceful marketplace was once the scene of torture for members of the Resistance.

Three doctors at this hospital risked their lives to provide members of the Resistance with medical supplies and treatment.

The Synagogue

Behind these doors is a beautiful temple of worship for people of the Jewish faith.

According the smiling lady who kindly allowed us to see inside, people slept at this synagogue during WW11 to protect it from harm.

Paris is a city throbbing with people and life. A city with so much history, beauty and sadness.

It’s a city rich with layers and inspiration for writers and other artists.

It’s a city well worth exploring beyond The Louvre, The Eiffel Tower and other popular places.

Being here is certainly enriching my understanding and adding layers of meaning to my story.

Happy writing and researching 🙂

Dee

This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria 

 

 

Back to the Mosque – Story Flavour

One of the fabulous things about being in the location you are writing and researching about, you can always go back again.

The first time I went to the Grand Mosque of Paris I was quite frankly overawed by its beauty.

I was so busy looking and writing and taking photos that I kind of forgot to stop and smell the incense.

So yesterday I went back there to just sit and enjoy the ambience. To invite all my senses to participate in the experience.

I savoured the fragrance of the flowering wisteria. I saw the kind man feeding the pigeons.

I looked for the finer detail. I visited the library, and stopped to enjoy the moment of being surrounded by amazing books and history. 

I sipped mint tea and ate delicious pastries.

I discovered that it’s this kind of detail that turns your story location into a unique setting.

For me, being in the world of my story has added a whole new layer.

Have you ever had this experience? I’d love to hear about it.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria 

On the Nose – The Paris Sewer Tour

Beneath Paris is an amazing network of tunnels and channels that supports a whole life of its own. It was featured in Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables and H L Humes novel, The Underground City, so I acknowledge that I’m not the first author to  include the Paris sewers as a story device.

But finding out about it has been fascinating.

The underground sewer system is an incredible feat of engineering which goes under the Seine in no less than 9 places … perfect for a story where characters have to get from one side of the river to the other without detection.

The first system was constructed under Montmartre in 1370. As the country’s population continued to grow, so did the sewer network … now there’s foresight for you. Shame today’s governments aren’t thinking so far ahead. (At least in Australia where I come from).

My French language skills are quite frankly as ‘on the nose’ as the Paris sewers so I wrote in advance to the Sewer tour operators to tell them I was coming in the hope they might be able to assist me. (You can find out more about the tours here.)

They have been amazing. Lionel answered my every email question and I was met on the day by Laetitia who gave me the royal treatment, personally introducing me to all the experts, and answering all my additional questions.

I’m told that I visited on a good day, but let’s be honest, the first thing you notice when you step into that tunnel is the smell … although strangely enough, after a while I got used to it.I highly recommend exploring the world of your story no matter where it takes you … although my tip for this experience … sometimes it pays not to eat first.

Have you ever done strange things for the sake of research?

I’d love to hear from you if you feel like sharing.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria