Monday, 24 August 2015

Why I wrote about the Holocaust

by Alice Nelson
Alice Nelson 

After This: Survivors of the Holocaust Speak was not a book I ever imagined writing. I am a novelist. My work is the translation of fragments of life into fiction, the crafting of beautiful sentences, the careful weaving together of imagined strands of narrative.  But sometimes in the life of a writer a project simply presents itself to you and cannot be turned away from. They had come upon me from time to time in my fiction, these unexpected obsessions and pressing imperatives to tell a particular story. In my first novel, The Last Sky, my research into war-time China led me on a literary detour into the lives and experiences of Jewish refugees in Shanghai. In my short fiction, I have written about pearl divers in Broome, cockle pickers in England and the rural poor of France, among other things. But I did not envisage that I would become engrossed in listening to and recording the stories of Australian Holocaust survivors for a non-fiction collection.

Alice Nelson with Holocaust survivor Isaac Piller at the launch of After This: Survivors of the Holocaust Speak
All writers believe in the power of witnessing, in the preservation of slices of life, in the tremendous power of telling. It’s the work we do in our fiction, no matter how varied. Two years ago, immersed in my doctoral research on the narrativisation of traumatic experience, I met with a local Holocaust survivor. Over morning tea in the sunny kitchen of his Perth home, he shyly pushed a pile of handwritten pages towards me. Scribbled in pencil on airmail paper, these were his memories of the abyss. He knew that I was a writer. Perhaps I could help him with his story.

Rosa Levy, whose story is included in the anthology, with her parents in Poland just before the war broke out

He was not the only one. All over the city were frail, elderly survivors whose stories had never been recorded in written form. They served me cups of tea and apple cake and told me their stories of extravagant cruelty, of humiliations and betrayals, of brutal mockery and grotesque torture. The unspeakable, incomprehensible past worked its way into their light-filled sitting rooms and pleasant homes. All the survivors I met with were aware of their own mortality, of the scarce handful of years or months left to them. 
Rosa at the book launch

Despite what it cost them to go over the details, they wanted all of their experiences to be recorded; the world that was destroyed, their war-time terror and, just as importantly, the life that came after. I also want you to write about what happened after this, one of the survivors implored me, tapping his finger on the sheaf of notes about the war years I had taken during the interview. All the survivors wanted the horror chronicled, but equally important was the tale of the new beginning – the long, full lives that came after.

And so the book came about; long, painful interviews, meetings with the children and grandchildren of survivors, painstaking research, searches for documents and photographs, a sustained limning of the kind of losses from which it is not always possible to recover. Fourteen narratives were ultimately included and the book was published by Fremantle Press in July 2015.

The postcard tossed from the window of a cattle train to Auschwitz
In 1943, The father of a Dutch survivor, Betty Niesten, whose story is included in the anthology, scrawled a few words on a postcard and tossed it from the window of the cattle train that was transporting his family across the country towards Auschwitz. Dear Family, he wrote. We are on transport. Tell it to others. We hope to come back.

Dear family, we are on transport. Tell it to others. We hope to come back. Levie, Floor and Jet
The stories in this collection are, in their own way, a series of letters scrawled from the haunting traces of memory. Letters tossed from the window of a sealed train to an unknowing and neglectful world where people kept on sowing their fields and mending their fences as the cattle cars lumbered by full of their desperate human cargo. These are letters written with terror, with desperation and, ultimately, with the hope that they might be read and understood.

Tell it to others, a doomed man wrote. With their precise details of human lives bent out of shape by a horrifying history, these narratives are at once a bulwark against forgetting, a warning and an inheritance. I am here. I endured, they whisper to us

As the Holocaust recedes in time, as the last living witnesses to its terrible memory pass from the world, it becomes ever more important to listen to the stories of survivors. To listen and attend and remember.

Alice Nelson will speak with Israeli Professor Zehavit Gross and Dr Avril Alba on Sunday August 30 from 3:15pm - 4:15pm on After the Survivors - Holocaust Memorialisation at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.

To see the full program and to buy tickets: www.


  1. It's nice to see you venture out of your own comfort zone! I think that the people who read your book will definitely tell you thank you for taking that jump to write about something like this too.

  2. It is nice to see you venture out of your own comfort zone! I think that the people who read your book will definitely tell you thank you for taking that jump to write about something like this too.