I got to have a chat with children’s author Tom Palmer about his latest book After the War.
He’s written 37 books for children, about sport and history, his latest book ‘After the War’ brings the story of the Windermere children to a younger audience. It’s about three boys who survived the Holocaust and were brought to the Lake District in the summer of 1945 to begin their recovery.
It’s a little-known story, that’s rightly getting attention 75 years later. I wanted to know how challenging it is to write about one of history’s darkest chapters for children and what prompted him to tell this story….
For those who don’t know, what is After the War about?
It’s about a group of children who survived the Holocaust, it’s based on a true story of 300 children who’d survived the holocaust and most of them had seen their families murdered by the Nazi’s and they’d miraculously survived and were brought over to England, 300 of them where brought to the Lake District where they started to begin their recovery on the banks of Windermere.
The story focuses on three of them and their composite characters based on the three hundred children, so all the events in the book are based on the stories of those children who came from the worst possible situation to the Lake District, which, although they were still very deeply troubled, they saw it as a very positive place, like paradise and they called it Wondermere.
What made you decide to write this story?
My wife heard a programme on the radio and she said ‘You’ve got to listen to this’, she knows that I love the Lake District so, we listened to it and we both agreed that it was a really good idea for a book to tell this story to children.
It’s not only about children who have suffered the holocaust, it’s also about what their lives were like before in areas of Europe where there were large Jewish communities and what their lives were like afterwards. It’s a way of sharing that even though they’d suffered such terrible things, they came to this country and went onto live fruitful lives with families and had a positive ending.
It reflects what can happen to refugees, if refugees are treated properly.
It seems to be a story that isn’t well-known, even in Windermere, does that surprise you?
Yes, but that seems to be changing. About 15 years ago, the Lake District Holocaust project set up their website and an exhibition in Windermere library about it, so more people came to know about it and also a film about it was released in January and more people know about it now. I think gradually it’s filtering through, but it is strange because it such a remarkable story that I suppose everybody ought to know about it.
You carried out a lot of research and spent a lot of time in the Lake District, how important was that?
Trevor and Rosemary at the Lake District Holocaust Project have been amazing, they’ve shared with me lots of stories and artefacts in their exhibition but also introduced me to some of the survivors who are still alive and I’ve been able to speak to them and hear them do talks but also the main source for me was the interviews on the Lake District Holocaust Project website because you can hear many of the boys and some of the British people who were here when they arrived talking about what happened.
Every scene is based on something that I’ve heard in those archives, it gave me the story and I knew I was writing about the right things but also I knew that every scene that I wrote was based on a primary source testimony.
Listening to the recordings, they’ve all suffered terrible loss and trauma and they’ve come to this country and they know or knew very quickly that most or all of their families had been murdered, they had nobody left and they came to this country as refugees and the story and what I tried to put across is that they formed new families. By forming friendships, they created their own families, I do that with the three main characters in the story but that’s what happened. Any of their weddings and children’s and grandchildren’s weddings and any other ceremonies, they’re all there at each other’s because their extended family is themselves and that’s what gave them the strength to carry on.
What did you take away from those meetings and interviews?
For me it was how positive they were coming out of it, many of them went on to have big families in this country, they ran businesses, they have a charity that they use to support refugees all over the world – the 45-aid society – and they put so much back in.
The way they talk about this country and how they were brought here and nurtured in this country, largely by the British Jewish community, and how they came here, and they felt British and they were proud to British after what had happened to them and that really struck me. It’s about what happened to them then and what could and should happen to refugees that are coming from very difficult places in the world and that really struck me as how they see themselves as part of the British community and I want this country to carry on being like that in future.
Do you think that the lessons learnt can be applied to today?
You look at things in the news that are happening often and it’s all very well studying first and the second world war and feeling desperate about it and thinking ‘oh, it’s terrible’ and it absolutely was but if don’t apply that to today, if we don’t apply that to how we deal with situations today then there’s no point in studying it and thinking about and learning about it.
There is a moment where one of the boys has to accept that his father is probably dead but there is still that hope for the future between the three boys, was it a difficult decision to stay away from the happy ending?
I could have gone for the happy ending where Yossi’s father miraculously turns up because he doesn’t really know what happened to his father, although he’s pretty sure he’s not alive. I could have had Yossi’s dad come wondering down the street and what a wonderful ending but unfortunately it’s not realistic.
You look at people like Arek Hersh who’s one of the guys that I based the story on, he lost 80 plus members of his family and saw many of them meet their end, so to come up with a happy ending when it was so unusual seemed like it’s not telling the true story. Instead I found another way of having a reunion with another family, who are not members of the boys living estate to create a semi happy ending and then did something to create hope amongst the friends.
I just didn’t want to go down that route because it makes you think ‘they’re alright and they’re alright in the end’ but they weren’t, and they needed each other to have any chance of being alright in the end.
How difficult was it to write about the Holocaust for children?
I wasn’t quite sure when I was writing it and I was very nervous about how to write it. When I was writing it I took it in a draft form into Grassmere Primary School, which is very close to Lake Windermere and they read the story, they said they liked it and enjoyed it, but they wanted to know more about what happened, what was the Holocaust? Why did it happen? Who did it? How could it happen? What was a Ghetto? What was a death march? All these things they wanted to know, and this was Year 5, this was ten-year-olds who were asking me these questions, so I did change the book and made it clear, what happened. At the beginning I thought I’ll just shy away from it, I do skim the surface but I think it does tell the story to children about what happened, I hope I’ve done it in a way that tells the story but isn’t too troubling for them but makes them understand what happened
What would you like young audiences to take away from the book?
If you can see what it was like to be a refugee 75 years ago and understand the context of it all then maybe you can think about refugees now and what they go through now and look at it from their point view and the unpleasant points of view the way some people look at refugees these days. If we can have empathy for people in the past, it might help us have empathy for people now.
What has the response been like?
I’ve never had a book like it, the reviews it’s had and just the nice things people have said, how much it meant to them. Normally my books come out and I build them by going into schools talking about them and after a year it becomes more well-known but this one seems to have taken off without me needing to force it.
The best response from two of the second generation, two of the nephews of some of the original boys have read it and they said ‘this is a good way of telling the story of the Windermere boys to children today’ and that’s better than all the reviews and all the book sales in the world just to know you’ve done something like that.
You can read my review of After the War here https://sarahcollinsbookworm.wordpress.com/2020/08/21/book-review-after-the-war-by-tom-palmer/
If you want to find out more about After the War visit his website https://tompalmer.co.uk/about-tom/
Alongside the Lake District Holocaust Museum. http://ldhp.org.uk
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm