Book Club Notes
1. What are some of the themes that are presented in the book?
There are so many themes in the book.
- good versus evil
- appearance versus reality
- man versus himself
Good versus evil is really central to this story. On one hand, you have a woman and her daughter who knowingly risk their lives to save others. On the other hand, you have German and Russian soldiers who execute unimaginable atrocities. Good values life, while evil treats it with scorn.
Appearance versus reality is interesting because we all know that things are not always as they appear.
For example, Franciszka is portrayed as a simple woman with limited education, yet she out smarts the German commander.
Also, in character development, people who appear to be strong, like Helmut, succumb to despair under pressure. Someone like Felicia, who you think is light, is actually emotionally strong under stress and is the glue for the family.
Man versus himself is interesting because sometimes even when we know what the right thing to so is, we struggle with doing it. Helena agrees to hide the Jews, but there are moments when she finds herself resenting them because she is afraid that they will be caught. Hiding these people also means that she has to sacrifice being with Casmir whom she loves, so the struggle continues.
2. In the actions of many of your characters, the law of reciprocity is brought up. Can you explain where it is used and why you think it’s effective in explaining behavior?
I believe the law of reciprocity is something that we innately believe to be just. That is if someone gives you something, you need to give something back.
I use this with the commander, having been saved by the doctor, he provides him with the information that will save their lives.
I also bring up how Bronek accepted carrots from Franciszka for the wagon rides and how he later feels badly about not being able to offer Franciszka anything for helping them.
Bronek also remembers back to the night that the German soldier did not shoot him, so he feels somewhat obligated to help Vilheim leave Poland.
3. Through the moral decisions made in the book, do you think you have made a statement about whether or not it is acceptable behavior to put self preservation ahead of helping someone else?
I wouldn’t be brave enough to say that I know the answer to that question so I write the story in a way that leaves the decision up to the reader.
I show both sides with Bronek turning down Eli’s request for help, even though he is a fellow Jew. Bronek puts the needs of his family first.
This is highlighted because later on, Bronek asks Franciszka to help him and his family even though he knows he is putting her at risk for helping him.
Franciszka and Helena stand out in history because they do not put self-preservation ahead of helping others.
Felicia says that if their roles were reversed, she would help Franciszka, but her son Mikolaj ponders whether or not she would really risk his life to do so.
4. Why did you make it so that Franciszka provided refuge to both Jews and Germans?
Actually, the real Franciszka did provide refuge to both Jews and a German soldier and I wanted to stay true to the story. The thing is that I think the story is more powerful this way because it shows that she helped people as individuals and not because of the race that they represented.
5. What symbolic value did the apple tree provide and why do you use it throughout the story?
The apple tree was present on the property in the true story. It became symbolic inadvertently as I began writing. If you have ever seen an apple tree in blossom, you will know that there are few things more innocent and beautiful. I felt that this imagery was in stark contrast to the ugly, horrific events of the time. From there, it just became more and more useful as a symbol to convey love, resilience and the renewal of life.
6. Why did you put love into the story when the main focus was about surviving the Holocaust, a serious topic?
What are often the last words that people say before they die? Is it not, please tell so and so that I loved them? Love is what makes us strong when there is nothing left. Love is what compels us to save that last piece of bread for someone else when our own stomachs are crying out for it.
I beleive that love is what makes us greater that our fragile, mortal self.
Love makes sacrifice an easy decision. It elevates us.
There are many kinds of love, which are explored in this story. With Helena and Casmir, it is romantic love. They long to be together. There is also parental love, shown with Bronek making sacrifices to secure a piece of cake for his son Walter. There is the love between siblings with Bronek protecting David as much as he can.
Finally, there is the love that we have for our fellow man, which is what is demonstrated by the actions of Franciszka and Helena. This love is our humanity in action.
7. Some people have criticized the book for it’s short length. Why didn’t you make it longer?
I say things directly and without a lot of description so the book is shorter than it could be for that reason. Also, I try to make every word important to the story somehow, whether it is character development or plot advancement. I am not a believer in filler.
I want to make the story a worthwhile use of the time of the reader so only critical words are written.
8. What is true and what did you fictionalize in the story?
Franciszka and her daughter Helena did save 15 Jews by hiding them in her pigsty as well as in a cellar that was dug underneath her kitchen table. They also hid a German soldier in the attic. The Jews and the German soldier did not know until the end of the war that she had hidden all of them.
Franciszka did accept wagon rides from the Jews that she subsequently hid.
There was a highly regarded doctor that was hidden and he did save the life of the wife of the delivery man who suspected Franciszka of hiding Jews. It was the reason that this man did not report her.
Helena’s nickname was Hela and she did pick apples from their apple tree by the house.
The doctor and the other Jews saved by Franciszka do send her money and packages after the war and never forget what she and her daughter did for them.
9. What about Casmir? Where does he come from?
Casmir was inspired by my great fascination and admiration for Raoul Wallenberg. I pictured him to be handsome, charismatic and clever. Although Casmir does not save Jewish lives himself, like Raoul does, he is aware of what Helena is doing and assists her by giving her money to buy food for everyone without wanting any acknowledgement for it.
10. Why are Helena’s last words, I am grateful and it is a peaceful feeling.
I believe that being grateful is the ultimate source of our happiness and peace with ourselves.
It is how I try to live my life every day.
11. In the story, you make observations of human behaviour which are reflected by the thoughts and actions of your characters. Can you point out some of these?
I am intrigued by how and why people say and do what they do, and will highlight some of my thoughts here.
Helena says that sometimes it is good to hear what you already know. This conveys my belief that when people are unsure of themselves, they like to hear reassuring comments even if there is nothing new that is being said. It explains why we like to hear that everything will be ok, even when the person telling us doesn’t know any more than we do.
I also add through Helena’s observation of Casmir, that everyone (successful or not) needs and appreciates encouraging comments. I go one step further to say that it doesn’t really matter whether the source of the reassurance is credible or not, such is the hunger for reassurance.
I talk about how people gravitate towards confidence and show that Bronek has figured this out so we see him acting confident even when he is not. His self assuredness is what helps him gain leadership positions at work. Although people act out of pity, my point is that it is not a sustainable situation. The best job security is always based on your own merits and that is why I work that into Bronek’s character.I also use Bronek to convey that we have this animal instinct that makes us feel uncomfortable when people sound desperate or when they are trying too hard to impress us.
I believe that hope is an important ingredient to survival. During times of despair, having something to look forward to is particularly critical. Bronek knows this and that is why he rotates their turns by the window. Francizska recognizes the power of hope as well and she uses it to motivate Vilheim when he has given up his will to live. I am a big believer in the power of optimism and try to live my own life that way every day.
Being a mother, I know that if someone is kind to my child, they will likely have won me over as well. That is why Mikola says the path to my mother’s heart passes through me. It’s pretty universal.
I first learned of the term Bashert many years ago and it really resonated with me. What a beautiful word and concept. I guess being a romantic, I just had to find a way to share this. So, it is illustrated by how Felicia lovingly looks after husband who is feeling lost and helpless in this new world where he is no longer the important and respected doctor. She understands what he is going through and provides hope, comfort and love. We see how Helmut clings to her and acknowledges that she is his soul mate with this word Bashert.
I have often been intrigued by how the same person can be kind or cruel under different circumstances. Mikolaj observes that in Francizska’s house, the soldiers seem friendly and jovial in the environment of a dinner party. From the perspective of a Jewish person, these same soldiers would be life threatening and scary on the street or in the ghetto.
I also examine whether our moral code of behavior should change under different circumstances. For example, teaching your child to share is usually a good character trait, but is it what you want to teach your child when you are suffering from intense scarcity as they were in the Ghetto? I don’t provide the answer, but I choose to think that we try to preserve our dignity and values for as long as we can with Mikolaj saving the piece of cake to share with his friend and his father not stopping him.
I bring love into the story because I believe that it is love that elevates us. Years ago, I heard an interview with Sofia Loren, who in her day was considered one of the most beautiful woman in the world. She was asked, ” When is a woman most beautiful? ” Her answer was, ” When she is loved ” and I never forgot that, because I think it is true too. That is why I included this idea in the conversation between Franciszka and Helena.
Finally, there is no reason that we are given for why Franciszka and her daughter risk their lives to save others so I try to provide insights into their character. I use a childhood incident with Helena and her rescue of a cat to hypothesize that there are three kinds of people in the world. There are those who don’t notice and don’t care about anyone else. Then there are those who care, but not enough to be inconvenienced. Thankfully, there is a group of people who care and are willing to roll up their sleeves to help. I try to remember this myself when I am at a decision fork. I want to make sure that I choose to behave in a way that is consistent with the person I want to be.
I speak about how being exceptional is perhaps a by-product of having a different standard of behavior. The standard defines the exception says it all here.
There are other nuances in the story about human behaviour. If you find them, maybe you could share them with me in the comment section.
12. Why do you end the story with the quote from Sydney Harris?
I guess it comes down to a realization that I didn’t want to miss out on things that I have always wanted to do. Writing was one of them. Can you believe that my grade thirteen English teacher told me that writing was the career that I should pursue? I tell myself that it took so long because I just didn’t have anything compelling enough to say until now. In many ways, writing this story is a dream come true.