"Mosaic" - How the pieces of "Mosaic" came together.
Author: Diane Armstrong
On Sunday 6 June, together with the Child Survivors of the Holocaust, we were very privileged to have Diane Armstrong as our guest speaker. Diane is the author of the recently published "Mosaic", the story of five generations of her family.
Floris Kalman, Chairperson of the Child Survivors of the Holocaust, introduced Diane, describing her book as "moving, totally absorbing, a book you can't put down". Diane came to Australia from Poland, with her parents in 1948. After graduating from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Arts, she became a freelance journalist, travelling widely. She has been published in newspapers and magazines in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Hong Kong, Hungary, Poland and South Africa. Diane received a grant to write "Mosaic" which took eight years to research and two years to write.
Diane spoke to us about how the pieces of her mosaic came together and are still coming together. She is still receiving calls and letters from people who have read her book, and knew people in her family. These calls and letters are adding more stories which are not in the book.
"Mosaic is a book I had to write" Diane said. She was fascinated by her grandfather, Daniel, whom her father spoke about with awe. She wanted to discover more about him, why all of his children worshipped him, and why a lot of what she had heard about him was so contradictory. Diane decided to start researching her family. Her father had written his memoirs about his life in Krakow and their years in hiding during the Holocaust. Her Uncle Avner, the eldest of Daniel's children, had a legendary memory. Unfortunately both brothers had died before she started her research. But some of Daniel's other nine children were still alive.
The final catalyst to write a book was from a stranger she met on a plane. Diane started to tell this person some of her family's stories. Through tears he told her that she had to write a book about her family, that it will interest and move other people as it had moved him.
Diane travelled to Israel, the United States and Poland to speak to all her relatives. They all had fascinating stories which she feverishly scribbled down. It never occurred to her that her relatives would not share her enthusiasm for this endeavour. They were in their late 80s and early 90s and didn't understand why she wanted to write about them and thought no one would be interested. She understood how they felt, but she was determined to do her research. She knew she could not get them to talk if they didn't want to. But she was very aware that they were the last witnesses of a vanishing world. And while witnesses were vanishing, deniers were increasing, which made her task all the more urgent.
Diane described her book as a family saga, containing irony, tragedy, sibling rivalry, parental dreams that were shattered. It sounds like a novel, but it is all true. Her relatives were amazing people, their minds as sharp as ever and their memories of details were incredible. Their foibles made her laugh, their tragedies made her cry. How did Diane come to call her book "mosaic"? She said that when she stood back from the tapestry of other people's lives, designs began to research. She returned to Poland with her daughter Justine. She walked around the streets to see if something would jumpstart her imagination. She found the house where her maternal grandparents lived and had an overwhelming feeling to go inside. This was where her mother grew up. Then on her last day in Poland she visited the village where she hid with her parents for three years. They had false papers and lived as Catholics; they were befriended by the priest who played chess with her father. They were terrified every day of those three years. The Gestapo was close by and they lived in fear of being denounced. Almost by accident she met up with the priest, now in his 80s. He recognised her instantly and called her "my little Danusia", her Polish name. At this moment, Diane was overwhelmed by grief and wept openly. The priest said "cry, my child. Let it all out". This was the priest who helped her family survive. This meeting restored a lost part of her childhood, it was as if that little girl living in that village was always someone else and now she had reclaimed her.
This meeting gave Diane a new perspective on those years in hiding. She had always been angry at the villagers and their rumours. Now she understood that everyone had suspected they were Jewish, but no one had denounced them. The village, under the guidance of the priest, had protected them. Her anger now turned into wonder and gratitude.
This experience changed the direction of "Mosaic". Diane had found what was missing; what was missing from her story was herself. She now became a character in her own book and had to lose her journalist's detachment.. This helped Diane to now see herself as a child survivor. Previously she had always thought of herself as a child of survivors, as if she had not been there at all. Now "Mosaic" became her story as well.
We want to thank the Child Survivors of the Holocaust for arranging for Diane to come from Sydney to be our guest speaker. It was truly a wonderful evening and anyone who hasn't read the book will certainly want to after hearing from the author first-hand.