What do you write?
whatever bubbles up. I’ve written a lot
about my late parents, because they were fascinating, larger-than-life
characters. Also, writing about them has
been a way of continuing to be with them.
What got you started writing?
teachers got me started writing. They also
spooked me into stopping. From the time
I penned my first compositions my mother kept getting called in, because my
teachers didn’t believe I was producing my own work. They refused to believe that what I handed in
was the work of a child. They would be
embarrassed when my mother showed up. In
their eyes, Mum appeared to be little more than a shabby immigrant woman with
an accent. They assumed she could not
have done my homework, either. Finally
my mother suggested, “Why don’t you keep Sharon in after school, give her an
assignment and watch her while she writes.
Then you’ll see what she can do.” My teachers followed my mother’s advice. It put an end to the suspicion of plagiarism,
but it did not put an end to the pressure.
When I was barely twelve, I read an
article in the Saturday supplement of the now defunct Montreal Star. It was called The Art of the Warsaw Ghetto. Among other horrors, the author of this piece claimed that people would
slice the skin off corpses and use it as
parchment, in order to have something to write on.
As you know, my parents were
Holocaust survivors, though the media had yet to coin this term. At the time, Holocaust education did not
exist. Meaning to protect me and my
brother, our parents did not speak about the war, though inadvertently
information was transmitted through our mother’s sometimes confusing and
erratic behavior. Our dad called the
predominantly Jewish neighbourhood we had recently moved to (after the Six Day
War, and in response to it) “a golden ghetto,” and I knew that Mum came from
the city of Warsaw, which was the capital of Poland. I had picked up the term “In Ghetto” in
reference to Warsaw. When I asked about
the Warsaw Ghetto, I was told it was “the Jewish district in Warsaw.” So I pictured the Warsaw Ghetto as a
middle-class suburban neighbourhood.
Until I read this article. I was
shocked. I also realized that my parents
were hiding something hideous. I didn’t
feel I could confront them with this article, so I turned to my English
teacher. This woman was a frustrated
writer who, after retirement, carved out a second career as a minor poet. But that lay in the future.
When I showed Mrs. Yelin the bit
about the skin of the dead being used as writing paper, she rolled her emerald eyes
and exclaimed, “You see, my child! You
see what it means to be a writer! A true
artist will resort to any means in order to be able to write!” Now I was not only shocked; I was
traumatized. If this is what it means to
be a writer, I thought, I don’t want it.
At the time I said nothing, neither to my mother nor to my teacher, but
I stopped writing. For years. It was only after leaving school that I once
more took up a pen.
Years later, when Mum and I could
speak freely about her past, I told her about the article and my teacher’s
response to it. “Nonsense.” She put my childhood fears to rest. “It never happened.”
Do you have a particular routine?
No, but I
work best after sleep. Either first
thing in the morning, or after a nap. I
consider the sub-conscious a helpful writing partner. Writing problems tend to get solved during
sleep. I trust the phrases which
manifest behind my eyes before I open them.
Do you have a dedicated work space?
Yes. I work at a desktop, in front of a
large-enough monitor. I don’t sit on a
chair. I sit on a fitness ball. It keeps me lifted. As I write, I bounce and rotate and work my
When did you decide to call yourself a writer? Do you in fact, do that?
I decided I
was a legitimate writer after being published three times. For years I have called myself a writer. In the past year, with the traditional
publication of two books (I self-published a book ten years ago), I stopped
calling myself a writer, and now define myself as an author.
How supportive are your friends and family? Do they understand what you’re doing?
was my greatest ally. She was my best
friend and first phone call. When I was
eight years old she said to me, “Everybody has biiiiiig feelings!” Mum illustrated the immensity and intensity
of such feelings by opening her arms wide and seeming to lift the air. “But few people are able to express their
feelings in writing, the way you can. By
the way you write, in the way you write, you can show us our feelings and help
us to understand them.” At the moment I
write this I can hear my mother saying it. I can see the light of hope and encouragement
in her eyes. At the time I thought, “I
can do this? What a responsibility. I’m not even sure what it means.”
Other allies turned up along the
way. When I was twenty, the man to whom
I Want You To Be Free is dedicated said to me, “Your talent is mature, but you
are not. You’ll have to grow into your
talent.” They are all dead now. The last to be taken was an historian and
history professor. He managed to avoid
the pandemic by dying in December of 2019.
He considered me a serious,
albeit unrecognized talent. Lately I’ve
been thinking of him. I recall when he
compared my work to that of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Of course it was a great compliment, but it
took a while to realize what he meant.
Williams and O’Neill were outsiders who exposed the dark side of Family.
They aired dirty laundry, transforming
it into art. In their work, they were uncompromising. When I feel uncomfortable with what is
clamoring to be expressed, I try to remember that.
A friend who read I Want You To Be
Free called it “a work of maturity.” The
man, so long gone, to whom the book is dedicated, would’ve been pleased to hear
What are you most proud of in your writing?
I am most
proud of the memoir I Want You To Be Free.
It is a labour of love and a tribute not only to my courageous mother,
but also to those she loved. I have
succeeded in honouring them in a way which would be most meaningful to my
mother—in the form of a book. With this
work, I believe I have fulfilled the potential foreseen for me, and in me. It is a great relief to have finally done
so. Though it doesn’t mean that I will
How do you get on with editing and research?
I just do
it. When I feel stumped on research, I
turn to the reference department at my wonderful local library. This library has become my second home. No question is too large or bizarre for its
dedicated staff. The head of the
department has said to me, “I live for questions like yours.” They were immensely helpful with the
historical research needed for I Want You To Be Free, and I officially thanked
them in the Acknowledgements page.
Do you have any goals for the future?
I have completed work on another memoir. This one is of my dad. I wrote it not only to celebrate the life of
a beautiful human being, but also to challenge the public perception of
Holocaust survivors and offer a different perspective. As I Want You To Be Free is about Memory,
Daddy’s Remains is about Legacy. The
title was inspired by the fact that my father was buried twice. As I wrote, the narrative developed and
evolved into an exploration of my father’s legacy through the lives he touched,
through the children he left behind and what happened to them. I consider it a companion piece to I Want You
To Be Free. It may not be marketable,
but it was satisfying to have written it.
There is also a comic novel sitting on your intimidatingly long waiting
list. I look forward to working on it
Which writers have inspired you?
When I was
young and for a long time, I claimed Shaw as my favourite writer. I began my professional life in the theatre,
and Shaw wrote terrific roles for actresses.
I was also enchanted by his satiric wit.
Shaw’s halo slipped when my historian friend informed me that the jester
of Ayot St. Lawrence kept a portrait of Stalin in his home. Since then I have turned to women writers for
inspiration—Alice Munro showed me that a Canadian woman can create a literary
landscape as legitimate as any other, and Anita Brookner’s novels modelled the
dignity of a woman on her own. But
ultimately it is Mark Twain who strides like a colossus above the rest, not
only as a writer, but also as a human being.
Born into pre-Civil War America Twain, who came from a slave-owning family,
evolved into an abolitionist. Unlike
Dickens or even Shakespeare, there is nothing to apologize for, in the works of
Mark Twain. He took on all the important
issues of his time. He was prescient and
humane. His message was serious, yet
delivered with wit. He sustained
personal tragedy which would’ve destroyed a lesser man. He outlived his wife and two of his three
daughters. He lost a son at the age of
eighteen months, and out of his grief Tom Sawyer was born. It is Mark Twain’s example which taught me
what can be redeemed from bereavement and grief.
Tell me about your book.
I WANT YOU
TO BE FREE is a memoir of my late mother, the pioneering Holocaust educator and
activist Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman. In
2011, terminally ill, my mother was awarded the Polish government’s Order of
Merit, which was a singular honour not only for a Canadian citizen, but
especially for a Jew. I Want You To Be
Free is more than my mother’s story; it is her wish for posterity and her
message to the world.
Tell us about your research for the book.
left a wealth of documentation in the form of several filmed testimonies,
myriad recordings, speeches and documents, and a private memoir which she
intended to be used as a reference for her children and grandchildren. All were helpful, especially the memoir. I have woven passages from this work through
my own. In the book, the blending of my
mother’s words with mine becomes a form of posthumous dialogue. The recordings I relied on most were the
last, which we made together during day-long infusions in hospital. Mum knew her time was running out and she
finally revealed all to the daughter she trusted and loved. In her final days, at home on morphine, she
was still making notes for me. What
additional information I could no longer get from Mum, I got from the library.
What inspired you to write this?
Grief. Soul-searing anguish, torment and grief.
As I said
earlier, I’ve completed a memoir of my dad, as well as a novel. After this, I just don’t know. I don’t know if I have another book in me. But I do and will keep writing. My mother knew that after she was gone,
writing would sustain me. She was right.
How can we get a copy of the book?
In the UK,
it is possible to buy the book in physical book shops, as well as on
Amazon.uk. Google has a listing. Outside the UK there are various outlets, but
the best bet would be Amazon.
Do you have any events planned?
December of 2022 an international virtual launch was held under the sponsorship
of Montreal’s Holocaust Museum, in partnership with my local library and a
hook-up to the publisher in the UK. The
program was recorded and can be accessed through YouTube. At the time of this writing (January, 2023)
there are no further plans.