Stories about the Holocaust tend to be dark and depressing, but Jenny Lynn Witterick’s debut novel, My Mother’s Secret, breaks that well-worn template.
“I thought it would be great to write a story with a happy ending,” she said last week in an interview.
My Mother’s Secret, which was scheduled to be published on March 25, by iUniverse Inc., is based on real events and is a profile of compassion and courage. It unfolds in Nazi-occupied Poland as Franciszka Halamajowa, a Polish woman, and her daughter, Helena, risk their lives to save Jews and a pacifist German soldier in the town of Sokol.
Before World War II, 6,000 Jews lived in Sokol. Only 30 survived, of whom 15 were rescued by Fransciszka and her daughter.
At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, a plaque honours them as well as the more than 6,000 Polish Christians who have been recognized as Righteous Gentiles.
Witterick, 52, stumbled on the pair in the course of watching a film, Number 4 Street of Our Lady, during Holocaust Education Week in Toronto in 2011.
“It mesmerized and inspired me,” she said. “It was so powerful and uplifting. There is good, even amid unspeakable evil. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This was a story worth telling, and I decided to write it. Inspiration is to the mind what food is to the body.”
The message that her book conveys is compelling. “We all have a choice of how we live and who we want to become. We can choose compassion and kindness just by deciding so. You don’t have to be exceptional to make a difference. You can become exceptional by making a difference.”
Solely on the face of it, Witterick did not seem to be a person who would compose a novel set during the Holocaust.
First, she is a financial analyst and investor, president of Sky Investment Counsel, Inc., rather than a professional writer or historian.
And second, she is of Chinese origin, an immigrant from the island of Taiwan who settled in Canada with her family in 1968 and who could not be more physically removed from the wartime killing fields of Poland. But as the old aphorism goes, appearances can be deceiving.
When Witterick started Grade 2 in Toronto, she could not speak English. By Grade 4, she was a star student, having surpassed most of her classmates.
“My English teacher advised me to pursue a literary career,” she recalled. But her parents’ financial situation was such that she could not afford to take “a long shot” on a career in writing.
So she gravitated toward finance. “I couldn’t believe people would actually pay you to analyze and figure out companies,” she said.
Witterick thinks she is drawn to the Holocaust, in part, because mainland Chinese civilians were subjected to mass atrocities by the Japanese army in the 1930s.
And there are two additional things to consider, said Witterick, whose husband, Ian, directs the ear, nose and throat department at Mount Sinai Hospital.
She has many Jewish friends, including Brian Goldstein, a business partner she has worked with, on and off, since 1986.
Witterick’s mother, Shu-Haw Kwok, worked in a women’s clothing factory after her arrival in Toronto, and the people who were the kindest to her were Jewish. “Maybe my mother’s experience had an influence on me,” she said. (Her father, Ten Char Kwok, was an aircraft mechanic at Air Canada).
Canada, too, had an impact on Witterick. “We live in a multicultural society, and where else but in Canada would a Chinese girl learn about the Holocaust?”
When all these factors are taken into consideration, Witterick could not exactly be viewed as a neophyte when she began doing the research for My Mother’s Secret. As she said, “I don’t remember when I wasn’t interested in the Holocaust. I’m drawn to stories of true courage where people somehow survive and beat the odds.”
Witterick, a resident of Forest Hill, had amassed a fount of knowledge on the Holocaust when she sat down to write her novel. “Over the last 20 years, I’d read many survivors’ memoirs and collected a lot of detailed information you can’t get from regular research,” she explained.
Basically, she created characters around the facts, writing My Mother’s Secret in simple yet affecting language in the hope of appealing to a wide age group.
She wrote whenever she had a spare moment. She could not travel to Poland because her demanding schedule ruled out such a trip.
Several publishers rejected her manuscript, saying the Holocaust has been retold ad infinitum. But Witterick was not crushed by the rejection slips, being confident that her relatively upbeat tale of goodness and survival was comparatively unique in the annals of Holocaust literature.
My Mother’s Secret has changed her life. “I always wanted to write, and never did until now,” explained Witterick, who’s currently composing another novel. “Franciszka’s story ignited a dormant passion and charged me up.”
Although Witterick is appalled by Holocaust deniers, she usually ignores them. “There will always be people who don’t want to believe the truth,” she said. “You can’t change their minds. They wear blinkers. You dismiss them.”
All proceeds from My Mother’s Secret sold at Chapters/Indigo will be donated to the Love of Reading Foundation, which buys books for poor communities. “I remember buying books for five and 10 cents from the Salvation Army, across from the factory where my mother worked,” she said. “It just feels so right.”