How does your writing affect your Jewish identity?
Each one of my books, whether fiction or non-fiction, explores some aspect of Jewish history and Jewish experience. With my memoir Mosaic, a sprawling family saga, I described Jewish life in an orthodox family in Krakow before the Second World War. I then traced the survivors’ experiences during and after the Holocaust. Although I set out to document the experiences of my remarkable relatives, Mosaic ended up being my story as well, because in the course of my research, I unexpectedly and miraculously encountered the priest who protected my parents and me in a small Polish village.
The Voyage of their Life, the true account of the voyage of the ship on which my parents and I sailed to Australia in 1948, tells the inspiring survival stories of many of the Holocaust orphans who were our fellow passengers. I didn’t set out to preach or educate, but one of the greatest rewards of writing it has been receiving feedback from non-Jewish readers, many of whom have written that this book has opened their eyes to what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. One even wrote to say that for the first time she now understands why Israel is necessary.
Nocturne, A Second World War saga set in Poland and England, is partly based in the Warsaw Ghetto. Determined to find a different angle to tell this story led me to create a young heroine who is brought up to believe she is Catholic, but discovers, in shocking circumstances, that she and her family are Jewish. Although she is a fictional character, I did base some of her experiences on those of a woman I interviewed while researching the novel.
My recent novel, Empire Day, tells the story of some European refugees, mostly Jews, who move into a suburban street in Sydney in 1948, to the indignation of their Australian neighbours. This was the year I arrived in Australia, and in describing some of the characters and the conflict with their neighbours, I have drawn partly on my own recollections of that time when, like today, immigration was a burning issue.
Has there been a seminal even in your Jewish life that has shaped the person you are today?
Surviving the Holocaust has been the defining event of my life. As an author, I feel compelled to explore the unfathomable complexity of human behaviour, and the Holocaust has provided me with inexhaustible material to try and comprehend, and hopefully also to illuminate, the power of the human spirit, with its capacity to endure and survive.
Ma nishtanah? (aka Why is your book different from any other book?)
I’m primarily a storyteller, so the books I write, whether fiction or fact, engage readers through the characters and the narrative. Even with my family memoir Mosaic, I made sure it read like a novel rather than just a succession of facts. Also, because history is one of my passions, the books I write are all based on historical fact. Research is one of my strengths. My background in journalism trained me to research thoroughly, so even when I writing novels, the research often tales as long as the writing. When I decided to write Winter Journey, a novel based on an atrocity which took place in a Polish village in 1941, and was covered up for 60 years, I made my heroine a forensic dentist. The research this involved amounted to a virtual crash course in forensic dentistry! I must add that research is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the entire writing process. It enables me to discover fascinating facts and meet interesting people, and it delays the terrifying moment when I have to sit down and start writing!
Diane Armstrong will be presenting at Sydney Jewish Writers' Festival in three separate sessions.
Seeking refuge, finding home: Sunday 26 August, 2.30-3.30pm
Stolen childhoods: Monday 27 August, 5.00-6.00pm
Behind the pages - remarkable journeys: Tuesday 28 August, 9.00-10.00pm