What made you choose a YA story?
I hadn’t intended it as a YA story originally! I’ve always pursued picture books, but in grad school I began writing this as an adult story. It was my agent’s idea to make Gerta a teenager, and when I took that chance, the story practically wrote itself. When the character’s right, she tells you her own story!
Can you say in a few words what it was like to visit the concentration camps and the impact they had on your story?
It was difficult, of course, but necessary. It’s one thing to read about a place, or listen to someone tell you about it, but when I was in the physical places (Bergen Belsen, Terezin, Auschwitz), it felt like I’d been entrusted with something tangible to bring back to my readers—like a trunk of a loved one’s belongings, each with a story attached. These are places that change you. They’re terrible to go to, but anyone who can go, should.
Music is the foundation of Gerta’s life. How important is art and the creative process to identity?
For Gerta, as for most people, music is a soul-language. It goes straight to the unspoken places that we can’t even name. Music is only one way of being creative—as a practitioner, I mean—but it’s something universal, no matter the genre.
I believe that each human being is made in the image of God, who is the Creator; therefore, each human being is inherently creative in some way. That doesn’t mean artistic necessarily, but a teacher might have a creative way of lesson planning; a student might have a unique way of studying and organizing. So, for people to realize the area in which their creativity dwells, that’s a great gift, and it bypasses almost everything else we conceive about ourselves.
There is a real movement that exists to never forget the memory of the Holocaust and the loss of so many. From the characters’ point of view, it is too much to comprehend. Your book gives a history of the last few years of the war and how it ended. Many survivors do not talk about their experiences. How important is it for people to share their stories with others?
The experience for many survivors after the war was that they wanted to tell their stories, but were met with resistance from others—either outright hostility or downplaying their suffering. Many decided it was safer to keep silent. As the last generation of survivors is passing on, many of them feel a new urgency to speak, and that is a blessing for us, because it’s up to this generation to carry their stories forward.
It’s also important for each person to realize that they are a unique individual. We find commonality when we tell our stories, and listen to others’. The best thing we can do for each other is listen, but also have the courage to speak.
Gerta is wonderful character. She is a young girl growing up in a loving but protected environment. Nothing could prepare her for what she endures. She saw herself as German; that was her identity, and when she discovers that she is Jewish, she does not respond in a negative or positive way, but more in disbelief. She copes with the events like the loss of her beloved Papa, the loss of her home, the loss of her security. Do you think that many young people today would be able to handle things the way she did? Do young people respond to tragedy and loss differently?
There’s a saying: “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” I think that true adversity brings things out of people that they never guessed were in there—and that can be either bravery or brutality. Both were present in the camps, which is an uncomfortable truth. But by and large, it’s resilience that won out—through minuscule decisions that meant life or death.
I think that how someone handles trauma and loss depends on the person and the situation. However, I will say that our understandable desire to keep kids “safe” can often rob them of the tools they need to be resilient. Ironically, when society had put less of a premium on safety than we do today, kids tended to show greater and earlier autonomy. I’m not saying we don’t keep kids out of real harm! But it’s important that mentors allow kids to fail and struggle, because that’s how we grow.
Gerta is a girl that was not raised up with religion and when she realizes there is this whole world that she is part of, that she belongs to, she is a stranger in a strange land and has to learn about being Jewish. It was a nice juxtaposition to have her neutral and unaware of her culture and how she begins to learn, slowly, her history. How much of your own background went into creating Gerta’s world?
Great question! My mother was a convert, so I grew up in a Jewish home, though I am not Jewish by birth. There was a lot of brokenness in my home that eclipsed any sense of Jewish identity, per se. My love for it only came about later, when I realized how important that foundation was to who I am today. One of the great privileges of writing What the Night Sings was a very warm re-welcome into the Jewish community. It’s been very healing. So in a sense, I was learning alongside Gerta. I was able to connect to that sense of alienation, disorientation, pain—and ultimately welcome—very closely.
You create such a sense of loss in this story. Loss of place, loss of family, loss of culture and connection yet, Gerta has her music and Lev has his words. It seems that having a passion is a key part of what kept them alive and hopeful. In your researching this book, did you find this was true of youthful survivors? Of people in general?
One of the worst things that can happen to a person is to lose meaning. One of the cruelest tortures in the camps was to make prisoners do meaningless work meant to break them down both physically and mentally—like schlepping heavy burdens back and forth for no reason, for example. Meaningful work is a huge source of hope, as is human connection.
I remember one survivor who told me that after the war, she and her mother found an apartment, and there were a lot of other young survivors there, so they used to get together and dance to records, and I believe she told me a lot of those kids got together and eventually got married. That really struck me, how at the end of the day, kids were still kids and needed to have fun. I also know about many stories in which people continued to celebrate holidays in the camps, for example, making menorahs out of stolen scrap metal. It’s hard-wired within us to seek hope.
Your book covers so much in terms of the development of the characters, figuring out who they are, how they have changed and what their place in the world is. Using the background of World War II and the concentration camps as the environment for these young people grow up in, do you think that character development is universal to all youth no matter what, when, where and who they are? Is there something about adversity that develops character?
I believe that due to certain developments in the last twenty years, we’ve seriously altered the meaning of “adversity.” We now take it to mean “feeling uncomfortable.” As adults, we do kids a great disservice to coddle them and over focus on “safety.” It’s precisely adversity that develops character. I think the best thing we can do for students who are overly safe is to provide them with seemingly impossible challenges.
I was so surprised that Gerta ends up with Lev. Did you do that as a way of showing Gerta having her connection to the past and to faith while at the same time embracing a hopeful and joyful future? I loved Lev and his steadfastness and stability and ultimate genuine belief in humanity.
There’s a misperception out there that people of faith are somehow “living in the past,” living in nostalgia, like medieval know-nothings or dinosaurs. Gerta’s upbringing has taught her that to be a modern woman looks a certain way, but Lev shows her a different way to connect with the deeper parts of who she is. I didn’t see Lev being nostalgic when he reclaimed his orthodoxy. Rather, I think he was in tune with the great “story,” let’s say—one that really does undergird all of us, but that we’ve been slowly replacing, perhaps to our peril. When you realize that you’re part of a story that’s bigger than you are, it can free you to be able to live joyfully.
At one point in the book you state, “Some things you do out of brokenness.” What does that mean to you?
I suppose it gets at what we were saying before about adversity and resilience. We don’t need to look for adversity—it will find us, no doubt. In my own life, there was so much brokenness early on, and difficulty at later points in my life, but certain things not only brought me through those times, but deepened what I cared about. For instance, the car accident which damaged my working arm forced me to face how important art was to me, and how hard I was willing to fight to get it back. The result is that I’m much more connected to my art, not just my career. Because I’m pushing through a disability to make art, it’s richer and more alive to me.
Having her papa’s violin. Finding an aunt in Palestine. Lev visiting his town. Your story sings with the importance of family, connection and tradition. Has anything changed in our world today?
Definitely. As small as our world has gotten, as much access as we have to each other virtually, we are so disconnected. Loneliness is a defining characteristic of this generation of young people. We can’t assume that the human connection we so fundamentally need will just come to us, because those structures have been eliminated. People are desperate and seek it in addiction, or politics, or social media, etc. So we need to fight for connection. There’s no substitute for having people in your house, around your table, looking them in the eye, holding them in your arms. There’s no substitute for a faith community that calls us simultaneously higher and closer. To survive now, we can’t survive without a plan to deliberately cultivate that connection. Without actual human contact, we shrivel and die—but we can get it, and give it.