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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About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
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