WWII Refugee Memoir: One Family, Many Voices

It’s never too late to write your family stories, and don’t be dismayed if it takes many years to finish. My mother’s memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, about her childhood in Japan during WWII, took about ten years, with the final few months a drop-everything-and-finish. My dad’s family history took about that long, too, with me sitting on recorded interviews for an embarrassingly long time. Julia Goldstein has a similar story for her well-written and fascinating family history. Below is Julia’s story of writing and publishing Four Voices, Four Continents: How We Eluded Hitler, Survived Stalin, Made a Life in Africa, and Eventually Arrived in America.


My mother always hated the question, “Where are you from?” She didn’t want to delve into the story of her childhood in Tanzania and the horrific conditions her family navigated in the early years of her life. But as she approached her 80th birthday in 2017, she was eager to share the whole story with her children and grandchildren and get it published.

The original impetus for the book came back in 2001, when Mom and her sister (my Aunt Dunia) rediscovered audio tapes their father had recorded in Polish in the mid-1970s. They translated the tapes and began writing their own childhood memories. At some point my cousin Vicki (Dunia’s daughter) and I read our moms’ manuscripts, but nothing much happened until the summer of 2015. My parents were by then living in Seattle, and I came over when Aunt Dunia and Vicki were visiting from CA. I’ve been a professional writer and editor since 2000, and Vicki is a high school English teacher, so it seemed natural for the two of us to edit our mothers’ stories. We started on it, but life got in the way.

In July 2017, I spent a weekend with Vicki in San Jose and we decided to revive the book project. We considered how much research time we could devote to putting our family’s four-continent journey into historical context. Given our other responsibilities, we decided to just add footnotes where necessary to explain the text. I flew back to Seattle, and Vicki and I continued our co-editing online.

As August came to a close and Vicki headed back to teaching, the book was far from finished. The project might have dragged on for another few years, but Mom pointed out that she and her 87-year-old sister weren’t going to live forever. My father-in-law’s death in late August compelled me to make the book a priority. Throughout September, I devoted as much time as I could to editing and formatting. I wanted to have a ready-to-publish version in time for Mom’s birthday in October.

In my professional life, I’m a ruthless editor. My clients usually appreciate my thoroughness. For this project, I edited with a lighter touch. I was sometimes afraid to change the wording too much. Not offending my relatives was more important than producing a perfect book. Still, I wanted to create a professional-looking book that would appeal to readers beyond our immediate family.

Since I was in the midst of writing my own nonfiction book, which I plan to self-publish this fall, I knew a bit about the world of self-publishing. Publishing my family’s book through CreateSpace and Amazon KDP would be a way for me to test-run the process. Because of my considerable experience in Word, I decided to download a template from CreateSpace and do my own interior formatting. Overall, I found the template easy to use and modify. The hardest part was managing the headers, which change for each chapter. To help the reader remember who is speaking, each chapter specifies the voices on the odd page headers. Moving sections around and adding page breaks would sometimes mess up the headers.

We struggled with the title. I thought that Mom and Dunia’s original idea was too vague and generic. Mom rejected many of my suggestions, saying they didn’t accurately describe the family’s journey. Vicki weighed in with her own opinions. Finally, we reached agreement. I hired a professional cover designer, which was a wise move, given my limited graphic design skills. We all had our say about which aspects of the proposed cover ideas we liked best, and I managed the back-and-forth process with the designer.

Because Vicki was busy teaching and I was the one with publishing knowledge, the bulk of the work and decisions fell to me. I continued to communicate with both Mom and Vicki regularly, through both email and phone calls (Dunia still doesn’t use a computer or email). On Vicki’s frequent weekend visits to Dunia, she would share the latest updates. Vicki was the one who scanned in photos from old family albums. I wrote the back-page copy and book description and sent them to Vicki for editing.

Four_Voices_Four_Co_Cover_for_KindleEditing the book took much longer than I expected. With each readthrough, we found more things to change. Details to add, errors to correct, awkward page breaks to fix. After I uploaded the book for CreateSpace to compile, I discovered that some of the photos weren’t high enough resolution. When I thought we were done editing, other family members wanted their chance to read it. My sister and Vicki’s both made helpful suggestions. Eventually, everything looked good enough for me to select “approve” and let it go live on Amazon.

Vicki and I worked well together. We didn’t always agree on every editorial or formatting choice, but we were able to disagree respectfully and discuss the matter until we reached consensus. Sometimes my idea held forth, sometimes hers did, and there were no hard feelings. We both shared the same goal—create a book that would preserve our family’s history and that we would be proud to send into the world.


Four Voices, Four Continents is different from other Holocaust memoirs I’ve read in that young sisters Ada and Sofia, their parents, and Catholic nanny Jozia had quite a roundabout journey from being rounded up in Poland and ending up in the United States. I did not know there were Polish refugee camps in Pakistan/India, Iran, and Africa! Julia and Vicki had quite a job merging four peoples’ stories together, but they managed this beautifully. I loved this book and highly recommend it for the hidden history come to light.

Thank you to Julia for sharing her writing and publishing journey here. I hope this helps and inspires others to write their stories—and keep with it until finished!

Julia Goldstein, owner of Julia L F Goldstein Communications, is a professional writer and editor specializing in technical marketing. She creates blog posts, articles, white papers, and reports for corporate clients. Julia is the author of Get the Lead Out, a book on materials and sustainability coming out in fall 2018. She is co-editor of Four Voices, Four Continents by Ada Moszkowski Harrison and Sofia Moszkowski Freer. Julia also manages BEBO Press, the imprint for Four Voices, Four Continents.

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Writing Your Family History Book

Last weekend I delivered my dad’s side family history book to the relatives. All that work was so worthwhile to feel the glow of my dad and his brother’s awe and gratitude. Worth the trip to Chicago where I got to shovel a lot of snow!


How did I write this book? Actually, I didn’t have to write much. The book was more of an editorial gathering and sifting of information. Amazingly, my dad back in the 1970s thought to interview some of his Dutch immigrant relatives and his first-generation mother, and wow did they have stories of growing up the late 1800s in Dutch villages and making a living in early 1900s Chicago. I also had two years of my grandmother’s diaries. The time-consuming part was researching genealogy, but I was shocked to find a lot of Dutch genealogies online, and with a little help from Google Translate was able to figure out meanings of text outside of the names. We have a lot of distant relatives in The Netherlands!

So how did I put all this together?


I put this at the front of the book. Using only the major ancestor names, I created simple charts using MS Publishing, a free program with my laptop, but using PowerPoint is another option. I also typed out detailed genealogies to go along with the charts, and these included whatever I discovered about the ancestor, their parents and siblings, their children. For the recent ancestors, I included their Chicago area residences. The free FamilySearch.org was a big help, along with FindaGrave.com and census records, the latter two being not always accurate though.



I kept the interviews intact, because all the stories were incredible and historic, but I did move parts around to keep with a timeline (because people ramble) and I added bits of historical information using brackets for bigger understanding. At the end of each interview is a photo of the person and brief bio explaining some details of that person’s life—birth, death, siblings, spouse, any other interesting tidbits. I did remove my dad’s questions and comments, so the interviews became each person alone telling the story of his or her life. Their voices come through loud and clear so we get a sense of their personalities, and it’s as though they are talking directly to us from the past. I also had a video of my dad and his brother talking about their childhood, and I transcribed it and used almost all of it as is, to enjoy the back and forth banter between them. I used brackets to add in historical commentary for better understanding.


Old diaries mention the weather a lot and can be tedious to read since most days are not interesting. They also tend to be written factually, with not that much introspective thinking included. I do not recommend including a diary in its entirety. They are valuable sources for historical and cultural details, though.

I wrote a couple paragraphs of introduction to mention how we found these diaries, how old my grandmother was and what her situation was during those years (young mother, age of kids, where they lived, what they did for a living, what was going on historically—Great Depression). Then I wrote brief summaries of basic things I learned from the diary and followed with bits of entries to back up those summaries. For example, I wrote how the winter was severe, but the relatives still went visiting, followed by clips from four diary entries. Diary entries are in italics to set them apart. I used ellipses (…) to indicate where I had left out parts unrelated to my summary statements. Here’s a bit from how work could be difficult to get:

Tuesday, March 26:  … Pete is around the house every day yet, no work.


I had a lot of old black and white glossy photos where the lighting and focus was not always so good. My printer could only scan them onto a full-size page and then I would have to crop them out, resulting in low resolution photos that would not print so clearly. I ended up taking photos of the photos with my cell phone or nice Nikon, resulting in high resolution .jpg files that could be altered using simple (and free) photo editing programs. I used Picasa (now unavailable) to easily fix lighting and crop for better asthetics, but my new laptop has Paint 3D, which crops and will somewhat fix lighting using the Effects option. With regular Windows Paint you can delete white or discolored spots on your photo and fill in with background color. My Windows Paint is found under Windows Accessories.

Photos are important to add life to the stories. I sprinkled them throughout the book but included a section at the end that is just photos with captions to identify the people and mention anything interesting about what the photo captures.

Other Items:

Two of my cousins contributed. One wrote her memories of our grandmother and the other wrote about his trip to the homeland where he discovered the church our ancestors attended. My nephew brought back a postcard from his recent visit to Amsterdam and it made an impressive book cover. My aunt, who married into the family, was a big help in remembering stories she had heard and adding context, so she is on the Acknowledgements page. I loved having family members add to this book as that made it feel like a family creation, not just my private project. After all, these are the stories of OUR heritage.


This time I used a local printing company known for doing family history books, and so I had a representative on call, avoided shipping costs, and was able to drop by to see the cover mockup and the proof copy – and then go home and fix it! I have used Lulu.com before and they are inexpensive, considering, but this book was to be hard cover, and I did not like how thin the paper was for Lulu’s hardcover books, especially for books with photos. I ordered 30 copies of the b&w, 100-page hardcover book, 8.5×11 on 60# white paper, at a cost of near $20 each plus the cover design from this printing company, which starts at $50. They have templates they use or you can work with them to design your own. Of course, I had everyone pay for their own book copy, except for my dad and uncle.

Most printing companies will not take a pdf file made from MSWord, but Lulu.com and the St. Louis, Missouri, company I used, No Waste Publishing/Access Solutions, will. You can pay Lulu to format your Word doc properly, but otherwise they and many of your local printing companies will just print what you give them, so I had to know how to format nicely and how to format so the Word doc would convert correctly to pdf. No Waste Publishing, however, did convert my b&w jpg photograph images to true b&w (at no extra cost) so they would print out nicer, and I was impressed by how well even the bad ones turned out.

This was a wonderful experience for me to produce this family treasure with input and help from family members. My dad just loves, loves, loves his book and is so proud of it. Brings tears to my eyes to see how appreciative he is. My uncle marveled at how wonderful it was. I hope you are able to give such a gift to your family.


See my Resource page and these previous blog posts about family memoirs:

What to do with old diaries (and letters)
Editing old photos with beloved Picasa (check out the comments, too)
Using LuLu.com for Family Memoirs

Also, When and How to Use Journals and Letters by Amber Lea Starfire, recent guest post on Kathy Pooler’s Memoir Writer’s Journey website.

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Poetry as Memoir

Since February is Black History Month, I chose from my stack of waiting books Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson to read on our trip to visit family four hours away. This is a NYT bestseller and multi-award-winning book of free-verse poems that tell stories of a brown girl’s childhood in both the North and the South during the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights movement was churning. Poetry as memoir is something I have embraced since writing Poems That Come to Mind, documenting in haiku and other short poems life with my mother and others at her care home who suffered from Alzheimers. I was curious to see how this worked out with Ms. Woodson’s book.

UntitledI can see why this book has won awards. Brown Girl Dreaming, with the lovely title and pretty cover, beautifully captures the innocence of a girl discovering the sweetness and complexity of life. I felt the loving care of grandparents, heard the cricket lullaby and felt the child’s yearning to stay in the slow embrace of their South Carolina home, then the hardness of their first apartment in New York City and the grey sidewalk rain versus wet grass. A sick brother, bullies, why they will never go into Woolworths, visiting an uncle in jail, Angela Davis and raised fists. There are the worries, the losing, the questioning why, all the thoughts and feelings that elevate any memoir past just what happened and lift it into the heart and mind.

Yes, poetry can definitely be memoir! Read this book and see.

“Down south already feels like a long time ago
but the stories in my head
take me back there, set me down in Daddy’s garden
where the sun is always shining.”


Posted in book reviews, book talk, memoir writing, multicultural, poems, storytelling | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments