A Gripping and Unique Holocaust Story

review – HEROES OF THE SECRET UNDERGROUND

Louie lives with her brothers, Bert and Teddy, in a hotel run by their grandparents. It is one of Sydney’s grand old buildings, rich in history … and in secrets.

When a rose-gold locket, once thought lost, is uncovered, it sends Louie and her brothers spinning back in time. Back to a world at war: Budapest in the winter of 1944, where their grandparents are hiding secrets of their own

Heroes of the Secret Underground was inspired by bestselling author Susanne Gervay’s family and their flight from Budapest, Hungary during the Holocaust.

When Louie and her brothers find themselves back in Budapest in 1944 we are given deep insights into what life was like for the Jews of Hungary at the hands of the Nazis, and how terrifying it must have been for the children torn from their homes and families and trying to survive on the streets in the best way they could.

Susanne Gervay takes us inside the world of the secret underground where children were heroes, risking their lives to save their families and others.

When we enter the streets of Budapest, this gripping time slip is impossible to put down, especially when Louie’s little brother, Teddy goes missing.

I loved the relatable characters and the authenticity of this story. It’s clear from the writing that this is deeply personal for the author as she brings us into Louie, Bert and Teddy’s minds and hearts.

We are taken deep into the world of their grandparents Zoltan and Varushka who were children back in 1944 doing their part to not only survive, but to save the lives of others.

The beautiful writing in this book helps the reader picture the setting and empathise with the fear that the Jews of Budapest must have felt.

Like venomous spiders, the soldiers with their crossed-arrow armbands attack. People are running. Hiding in alleyways. Jumping into underground drains.

In spite of the hardship depicted in Heroes of the Secret Underground, there is also hope.

Verushka whispers, ‘Shush, Mamma. They may take away the candelabra, but they can’t take the light. That is always ours.’

The authentic descriptions transport the reader back to the world of Budapest 1944.

Louie and Bert look down from the stairs at the rabbit warren of makeshift alcoves. Families have set up tiny houses with their shoes tucked into the corners and brown suitcases in the other. Kids have made nooks and crannies and small places to hide. Some young people are studying with their books on the floor.

Author, Susanne Gervay signing her new book

Susanne Gervay takes us deep into the lives of her characters so that we follow their journey every step of the way.

Arrows of sun push away the night. Louie opens her eyes in fright. Panic makes her urgently scan their hiding place.

Heroes of the Secret Underground is an important work of historical fiction told in a unique and compelling way with modern day characters taken back to 1944 to personally experience those harrowing times for themselves.

Culture, resilience, courage and the importance of family are strong themes in this book and provide great starting points for discussions in the family or classroom.

Heroes of the Secret Underground is for readers aged 9+. A detailed glossary at the back provides historical context for the story, and a teacher’s guide is available from the publisher’s website.

WRITING HEROES OF THE SECRET UNDERGROUND

We’re so lucky to have the amazing Susanne Gervay visiting today. Susanne shares her secrets on how she wrote her new book.

  • How long ago did the idea for this story come to you?
Susanne’s parents were refugees from Hungary

This is a story I have been formulating forever. The first book I wrote was ‘Next Stop the Moon’ (HarperCollins) more than 20 years ago. It was about growing up with the complexities of the past impacting on the present, as the child of refugees in Australia. You can’t get it now, but this reviewer sums it up:-

 ‘I read this book years ago and it was one of those first books that recognised immigrants coming to Australia and making it their home. It was a really breakthrough and important book and totally loved Rosie who was 12 and set in the sixties with the first man on the moon.’

It was too early for our consciousness and identity. Hard to believe that, given the current climate of inclusiveness and diversity.

The story I wanted to write wasn’t there yet so I wrote a picture book published, ‘Ships in the Field’ (Ford Street Publishing). Again it was the story of war, escape, migration and finding home. That was published 2021.  It received two Children’s Book Council Notable Awards:-

Ships in the Field by Susanne Gervay & Anna Pignataro
Ford Street Publishing ISBN: 9781921665233

With issues of immigration featuring heavily in news headlines over the past year, the release of this title couldn’t be more timely. Ships in the Field concerns one family’s experience of migration as seen through the eyes of a child. Forced from their homeland by war, the unnamed child and her parents embrace a new life in Australia. Once a farmer, Papa now works in a factory, while Ma, a teacher, takes in sewing. Despite the horror of the past and the unknown future ahead, this family is a joyful one—though something is still missing for our child narrator ….

This is a book that needs to be read more than once. Many of the layers weren’t immediately evident on my first read-through. The shadow of war haunting the family is only mentioned in two lines of dialogue between the child and her toy, Brownie, yet its positioning after scenes of family frivolity is stark. This added to Ma’s crying behind closed doors and the narrator’s fear of night delivers an impact that more graphic depiction could not. It is obvious that author and illustrator have worked hard to get the balance between darkness and light just right. While at first glance this is a deceptively simple story, it soon becomes apparent this balancing act was no easy feat. Hope is very much the prominent theme, but it is only visible because of the darkness behind it. Too much darkness and the light would be snuffed out.
Ships in the Field is a book that will never date. It’s a story that will be every bit as relevant fifty years from now as it was fifty years ago.

Reviewer: Jenny Mounfield ***** 5 stars

The experience of war and migration weaves into so much of my writing. My adult short stories published in literary journals and anthologies are filled with it. I am particularly proud of my story ‘Days of Thailand’ in the India Australian anthology ‘Fear Factor: Terror Incognito’ (Picador) that sits alongside stories by Tom Keneally, David Malouf, Rosie Scott, Sir Salman Rushdie. 

Budapest Opera House

However my true driver has always been to write this story for young people, so they can meet challenges  with resilience and know they can be heroes of justice.  Finally it led to my four year journey to write ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’.

So the answer to your question. Writing ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ took a lifetime.

  • What inspired Heroes of the Secret Underground?

Everything I write is influenced by what I see around me, feel, am passionate about. My new novel ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ is deeply personal. Part autobiography, history, philosophy and fantasy, when you read it, you know me. No secrets. Ursula Dubosarsky the Children’s Laureate wrote. 

This is a personal story that has huge meaning to all of us, beginning in a beautiful safe world which turns suddenly to chaos and terror. A child discovers for herself that there is history that can’t be hidden – it cries out in the darkness of secrets. But it’s also a story of light and love and exceptional courage.’

  • This is your first foray into fantasy and time slip. What were the challenges? What did you enjoy the most?
Susanne’s daughter, Tory in a traditional outfit made by her grandmother.

I now have total admiration for writers in this genre. Time slip is so hard to get right.  Creating and maintaining two worlds that interconnect is challenging. Everything has to be balanced. In ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’, the bats from Centennial Park Sydney have their parallel in the bats on Margaret Island in the Danube, Budapest. The summer roses of Australia are paralleled by the winter roses of Hungary. The candelabra in Australia transported to World War 2 is worked and reworked so it is authentic in both times. There is nothing that is not thought about, assessed, connected, as time slip requires you  to be true in both worlds. 

Fantasy is another form I have never written. Like time slips, it is creatively challenging to intertwine fantasy and reality to make both believable and hold the themes of ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’. For example the mermaids of the Danube River which are folklore have multiple roles in ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’. They are part of the time-slip technique to travel from the past to the present. They contain the theme of their power to save and destroy, as what happened in The Danube in 1944. The mermaids are in the lyrics of  ‘The Blue Danube’ by Johann Strauss that plays throughout the whole story reflecting culture, folklore and the power of music.

Did I enjoy it? I don’t know. It felt like a huge puzzle that challenged my mind and heart and gave me sleepless nights, as I tried to solve what at times seemed unsolvable storylines. In the end, I guess I was satisfied and that had to be enough.

  • How important do you think it is for writers to step outside of our comfort zones? Why?

As writers we have to continue to push boundaries, so we can create works that reach further into ideas. I often write before my time. When I wrote ‘I Am Jack’ school bullying was not on the agenda. When I wrote ‘Butterflies’ disability did not have the focus it has today. When I wrote ‘The Cave’ challenging sexual consent, Australia was not ready. However pushing the barriers, enables us to be thinkers and our readers to be thinkers too. 

  • What’s next for you creatively?

I feel strongly that there is inadequate representation of people from the sub continent. They are part of my life and community here. As always I present kids with courage meeting the challenges of life. As always I present the importance of family and friendship. This new series is about the quirky and wonderful ways three young kids from different families as they relate and make a difference. I asked a sensitivity reader to check my very early draft for authenticity of the sub continent culture. She wrote:-

Dear Susanne, 

I absolutely loved the story — the fun, the friendships and the issues that you tackle. I love how you’ve combined whimsy with topical and important issues, all done in a very sensitive and inclusive way. 

The serious subject of racism, how we should all be accountable for our actions and the need to stand up for those who are marginalised and whose voices are often silent. I identified with Hari so much – when I lived in the US as a child, there were kids and the occasional adult who bullied me and said that a ”chocolate” kid who wasn’t a Christian didn’t belong in that school. Back in Sri Lanka, I was bullied and thrown against walls because I was too quiet. As an adult, I’ve been the butt of racist jokes and comments (like a guy in a suit once calling me ”ethnic garbage” and when it happened, I was often just too shocked to question or to stand up for myself. So…a child would be dumbfounded, especially when the mean words come from an adult. When Hari said, ‘You are the best friends ever,’ I actually shed a tear…  

Samantha Sirimanne Hyde

WHERE TO FIND SUSANNE IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD

Website: https://sgervay.com

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/sgervay

Twitter-   https://twitter.com/sgervay

Instagram – https://instagram.com/susanne_gervay/

Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/user/sgervay

Linked in –  https://www.linkedin.com/in/susanne-gervay

Elephants Have Wings

Elephants Have Wings is a stunning picture book written by Susanne Gervay and illustrated by Anna Pignataro representing the search for peace.

ELEPHANTS-HAVE-WINGS-COVER-jPG-1170x520It’s the story of two children who embark on an extraordinary journey on the wings of a mystical white elephant, as they search for the humanity in all of us.

This story is inspired by the parable of the blind man and the elephant found in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sufism and modern philosophy.

pic-elephant-800-x-3801Each page in this book is an exquisite work of art – a true harmony of text and illustration.

The parts of the elephant are the parts of the truth and the tree of life is beautifully depicted in Anna’s detailed illustrations..

I love the colour and vibrance of this book, the movement and the melding of all elements.

“The air dances with elephant wings, flying with tails whirling, legs outstretched, ivory shining.

Ears swaying in a towering wall as we soar
over snowy mountain peaks.

There are so many layers in this book that I can see it having appeal to readers of any age.

Elephants are revered in religion and respected for their prowess in war. Ever since the stone age, there have been images of elephants in art and mythology surrounding them. For many cultures they symbolise courage, hope, endurance, wisdom.

Elephants-children-with-elephant-partsElephants Have Wings crosses all borders, and has relevance anywhere in the world today.

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 5.22.25 pmIt’s no wonder this book has been endorsed by the Blake Prize for art and poetry.

The Blake Prize is named after the legendary British artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827). Established by Jesuit priest, Michael Scott and a Jewish artist, Richard Morley to create significant works of spiritual art in 1951 in the search for understanding and peace. The Blake Poetry Prize was added in 2008.

Full of motifs, symbols, pictures and texts that represent diversity and our universe, Elephants Have Wings provides so much to think and talk about in the classroom.

Elephants Have Wings is published by Ford Street Publishing. Find out more about this ‘peace book for our time’ at author Susanne Gervay’s website.

Comprehensive teacher’s notes are available here.

 

ALWAYS JACK – TUESDAY WRITING TIPS WITH SUSANNE GERVAY

Most people have been toucbed by cancer in one way or another. Today author, Susanne Gervay is here to give us tips on how she wrote her incredible brave and powerful new novel, Always Jack.

When  Jack’s  mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, he realises that the things that bothered him about being part of a blended family aren’t so important after all.

Always Jack is an extraordinary story about ordinary people going through a difficult time in their lives – about an illness that puts their family unit to the test.

Author Susanne Gervay, draws on her own experiences of surviving cancer and Always Jack is a story told from the heart.

Susanne is on the board of the NSW Writers Centre holding the youth portfolio, Chair of The Sydney Children’s Writers & Illustrators Network at The Hughenden, co-head of Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Australia & New Zealand,  and has been awarded The Lady Cutler Award for Distinguished Services to Children’s Literature and aProfessional Achievement Award for Literature from University of Technology Sydney

HERE ARE SUSANNE’S WRITING TIPS

1. Know your characters:-

Writing Always Jack, I began with the wonderful characters from I AM JACK & SUPER JACK.  I know them so well and love them. They jump onto the page with all their particular characteristics.

2. Write about what you know and feel:-

I assessed my own experiences going through breast cancer and they drove Always Jack.

3. Research:-

Research is important to give credibility to what you are writing. The Cancer Council and the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre contributed their medical advice and this was essential for the integrity of Always Jack.

4. The theme needs to mean something to you:-

Always Jack is about giving kids and community a voice when a parent faces cancer, to support, celebrate and commemorate.

5. I let the story surprise me:-

Life intervenes and slots into Always Jack. I just came back from speaking at the World Burn Congress and was on the faculty with Kim Phoc – the 9 year old Vietnamese girl running from napalm in Nick ut;s 1972 photo. Kim Phoc and the Vietnamese War experience slipped into Always Jack with Christopher the Vientamese boy becoming Jack’s great friend..

6. Laugh and Cry:-

I laughed and cried as I wrote Always Jack, exposing the emotional ride of life and myself.

Thanks so much Susanne for visiting DeeScribe writing with your fabulous tips. I know that so many people’s hearts and lives will be touched by your wonderful new book, Always Jack, just as i was.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has other tips to share about writing from real life experiences. Please feel free to leave your tips, questions and responses in the comments section of this post.

Dee:-)