Read Michael’s answers to learn about his recent book, The Missing, the stories of his relatives who “went missing” during the Second World War and the way they have inspired his own life and writing. This is a wonderful book and a powerful tool for talking to children about the Holocaust.
Your book The Missing, the story of what happened to your great uncles during the Holocaust, is out at the end of January. As we are nearing the end of the decade and the beginning of a new one, can you tell us a little about the ways your book looks at some of the lessons of history?
The book tells of how totalitarian power impacts on individuals. Totalitarian power (and those who collaborate with it) has nothing to check it or control it or modify it. Attitudes that are against ordinary civilian people, attitudes that make ordinary civilian people into the enemy or the scapegoat can become inflated, unchecked and armed. That’s how genocide happens and it plays out in the book directly affecting individuals who of course have done absolutely nothing wrong. I think we can learn a lot from this. When we see governments or people with power beginning to treat people in ways that dehumanise them, moving them about in arbitrary ways, making lists of who are or are not full citizens and the like, I feel uneasy with what’s going on.
How much of the story of your great uncles were you already aware of?
Before I did any of the research I knew what my father and his cousin told me: there ‘were in France at the beginning of the war, and not there at the end’, that they had probably died ‘in the camps’, that they were called Oscar and Martin, lived on the east side of France, possibly Metz or Nancy, and that one was a clock mender and the other was a dentist.
In January we have been reminded of the atrocities of war on Holocaust Memorial Day, in researching and writing this book was it an act of remembering for you?
It was an act of ‘recovery’: finding and memorialising people whose identities had been wiped out. I didn’t want the Nazis to have succeeded in that, even if they had succeeded with wiping them out.
This story is at once so personal and of course the messages and lessons are in many ways universal.
Once you knew you wanted to write this book how did you decide how to tell the story to a young audience?
I had told the story several times to young audiences before I sat down to write it. I had done presentations and workshops with sixth formers and with years 7,8, and 9 in schools in Cambridge as part of Professor Helen Weinstein’s work with HistoryWorks. This meant that I had put into words what I had discovered, put them into a shape and an order that young people had understood and responded to. This was in my head when I sat down to write.
Do you think there are new ways for children to learn about what happened in this part of history?
Yes, there are always new ways. One of my children read The Diary of Anne Frank and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Later when she was about 14 she ‘did’ the Holocaust as part of her Modern History course at school. My book can’t do what either of those great, great books do. Mine is more about how generations after the events of the Holocaust can and should dig about in the documents to find out how it was possible for such a horrific thing to have happened.