This book is the remarkable story of your parents, Fela and Felix, and their experience as young Jews in German-occupied Poland during WWII. Having grown up with these stories and this painful legacy as part of your history, how did you feel about making your parents’ words available to the reading public?
I was diffident about it for a long time, for reasons that I explain below. When I came to copy-edit it, I found my mother’s testimony particularly hard to take. She went through such horrific experiences, and her rendering of them is so powerful and vivid, that it overwhelmed me at times. Her memoir is quite short, but it is piercing.
Dealing with Dad’s memoir was different. He was much more of a social and political observer, and I felt fascinated to see his world, during and after the war, through his eyes. Dad—like Mum is still—was very intelligent and very honest, and these qualities came through to me on every page.
If I were religious, which I’m not, I would describe the publication of this book as a sacred project.
Whilst the pain and trauma of the Jewish experience of WWII is a major theme throughout this book, it is also a story of triumph, strength, and survival. In editing the book, did you think a lot about ensuring there was a balance of light and dark throughout the story?
I didn’t edit the book structurally, as I felt I had no right to. I was more concerned to smooth out any infelicities of expression and, with my brother’s help, to correct any inadvertent factual errors that my parents made when they wrote it.
As it happens, there is a natural combination of light and dark moments in the text—especially in my father’s memoir, which is often entertaining and sometimes humorous.
How did the book come about? And how has your mother found the process of having her history put into print?
It was originally conceived of and produced by my father as a self-published book for family and friends—there was no thought then, more than 20 years ago, of making it available to general readers. My brother was also concerned that it was too intimate a tale, in some respects, to share with the public, and I didn’t want to upset him. Beyond all that, it was inconceivable that my mother could cope with the book becoming a public object. But I always yearned to publish it properly, and the impediments to that fell away a couple of years ago when my mother urged me to publish it—on the grounds that the wider community still needed to know what happened during the Holocaust—and my brother accepted this.
My mother is pleased that it’s happened, but it’s not easy for her. She’s in her nineties, and when she read an advance copy of the book, it re-traumatised her. I think it would be very hard for her to hear me talk about it in public.
You founded Scribe in 1976 and said then—and now—that you wanted to print books that matter. How has your family history influenced your decisions as a publisher, generally?
I was a serious-minded boy from an early age, and my father encouraged my interest in politics and history. In fact, he helped me enormously in year 12, when I was studying Modern History at home. (I’d walked out of our history class because I was unhappy with the teacher.) One of the topics was the various historic partitions of Poland, and Dad’s knowledge of this subject was immense. I’m sure this was a major contributor to an astonishing result—I came top of the state in the subject.
My mother encouraged my father to start his own business in the late 1950s, and this independent spirit rubbed off on me. I automatically assumed that I would make my own way in the world, and have as much control as possible over my destiny. Later, after I'd worked in the Whitlam government, I had my father to thank for allowing me to learn how to run a business at an early age (a commercial printing business, called Globe Press), which I converted into a book-printing company. It gave me the opportunity to acquire management skills, the confidence to back my judgement, and ultimately the means to start Scribe.
Looking back, I think I had to grow up fast—we moved to Australia when I was very young, my parents were very busy establishing themselves, and I was an only child for eight years. More pointedly, as I learned about the Holocaust, it became a wound that never healed. When I decided to try my hand as a publisher, I instinctively wanted to publish what I called ‘serious non-fiction’. Inevitably, I gravitated to genres such as politics, history, biography, and memoir. I remember my basic motivation as almost fiercely wanting to make readers pay attention to what was going on in the world around them. In fact, I still feel like that. It doesn’t take much imagination to see a connection between that and being a child of Holocaust survivors.
And finally, what do you think is the most important message readers might take from this book? What makes it a ‘book that matters’?
A trite thing to say would be, ‘Never again.’ I’m afraid that’s a forlorn hope—there have been many ‘agains’. The book matters because it’s a first-person record of experiencing and surviving deep trauma, especially in the context of continuing Holocaust denial, and it’s also evidence that miracles do happen.