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Using Family Stories to Write Historical Fiction

 Helen Maryles Shankman's mother's family taken after the war in the Foehrenwald DP camp in Germany. Photo property of the author, all rights reserved.
Helen Maryles Shankman’s mother’s family taken after the war in the Foehrenwald DP camp in Germany. Photo property of the author, all rights reserved.

Our guest today is Helen Maryles Shankman [1] whose stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Story Contest and earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition. Her stories have appeared in The Kenyon ReviewGargoyleCream City Review2 Bridges ReviewGrift, Jewishfiction.net [2], and other publications. She is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Color of Light and the linked story collection They Were Like Family to Me [3]. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

I wanted to pay tribute to my parents’ war experiences—and the experiences of the people who risked their lives to save them. As a writer, I was concerned that people might be tiring of World War II. My challenge was to make people feel the Holocaust—for the first time—all over again.

Find Helen on Facebook [4], Twitter [5], Goodreads [6], Pinterest [7], and on her Amazon author page [8].

Using Family Stories to Write Historical Fiction

“So I jumped out of a tree, and I killed him with my knife.”

Anyone saying those words would have gotten my attention. The fact that they were being uttered by my mom’s friend, tiny, round, elderly Mr. Tenenbaum, sitting at my parents’ Passover Seder table, was what made them so extraordinary.

“What’s he talking about, Mom?” I asked her in the kitchen.

“Oh, just one of his stories. He was a partizan during the war,” she answered matter-of-factly.

For many years, whenever anyone asked me about myself, I would begin with, “My parents are Holocaust survivors.” My identity might have been forged by Dick and Jane, by “Bewitched” and “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” by the Viet Nam war on the news every night and the glorious Technicolor Sixties and Seventies, but it was also forged by my parents’ war traumas.

World War II took a terrible, invisible toll on my mother and father. For years, police, politicians, and neighbors persecuted them for their race and religion. Soldiers rounded up their friends and family and killed them. Half of their childhoods, they lived in various holes in the ground, praying that a passing hunter wouldn’t find their tracks and turn them in. The only constants were violence and upheaval. Long after the war was over, what took a terrible toll on them would take a terrible toll on us.

As a dreamy little girl, I wasn’t interested in my parents’ histories. I lost myself in books set in different times, in other places—1920s New York, Victorian England—running away inside my own mind. Mom and Dad’s childhood memories were so ruinously laced with evil that I wanted to shake them off, to forget them completely. World War II had been a long time ago. It was too grim, too gray, like old newspaper photographs.

But I couldn’t run away from my parents’ stories. As I grew up, I began to understand that they weren’t just memories that could be dismissed and forgotten; they were the origin stories for our own scarred and imperfect lives.

By then I was married, with children, and living in New York. I’d lived enough of my own American dream so that I could begin to look at my parents’ experiences with a storyteller’s eye.

51legneqlcl-_sx326_bo1204203200_My mother answered my questions with pitiless accuracy, like she was reading from witness testimony printed inside her eyelids. Her accounts were astounding, full of miraculous twists, last minute escapes, and her parents’ amazing ability to keep their wits in the abyss of chaos, brave Poles and Germans, fearless partizans. Frustratingly, when I tried writing it all down, her thrilling accounts flattened and dried up on the page. I wasn’t a historian. I was reluctant to use real names. I was afraid to write about things that would hurt people who were still living. I simply wasn’t a nonfiction writer.

So I wrote something else, something that flirted with my love of magical realism. My first novel, The Color of Light, was about a student in an art school run by a vampire. (I was deeply inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Thank you, Joss Whedon.)

And here, among the vampires, my family history began to poke through the seams. I made my art student the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and my vampire, still grieving over a lover he’d lost in Auschwitz. Over the course of a long World War II flashback, I sent him to my Mom’s hometown of Wlodawa. I gave my vampire’s Jewish girlfriend a story line that had actually happened to a cousin. I used an anecdote my mother told me about hiding in a root cellar.

That was how it began. Fictionalizing my family’s stories—and adding magical realism—set me free. And set my imagination on fire.

Here are some techniques you can use to weave your family stories into your fiction:

Online Research can open doors. I began by investigating my mother’s stories. Finding the Yizkor Memorial Book for the Town of Wlodawa, Poland online was invaluable, confirming Mom’s versions of events and rounding out the personalities of people she spoke about. I Googled pictures of Wlodawa’s grand Baroque synagogue, and the market square, and the palace where she hid. I found inspiration in photos of paths through snowy forests, rolling wheat fields, and the mighty Bug River just outside of town…as well as period photos of German tanks churning along rutted roads toward Wlodawa.

Contact museums and other organizations. When I wrote to the United States Holocaust Museum to ask the historians about a German who’d protected her family, they told me they didn’t locate lost Nazis, only lost Jews. They directed me to the National Socialist War Crimes Archives in Germany, which sent me 58 pages of typewritten testimony, in German. (Thank you, Google Translate.) I began to keep a blog about my findings, and was overwhelmed when the stepson of one of the Germans who’d sheltered my family found me online and began writing to me about his own surreal war experiences.

Use your family stories as jumping-off points. Even when I was writing a tale about a group of shapeshifting partizans who turned into beasts to attack a band of Nazis, I used my family’s experiences for historical accuracy. When I came up against a place in the story where I needed period detail, I called my mother. “What was the name of your street? How many rooms were in your house? What did you eat when you were in hiding? Where did you sleep? What kind of animals did you watch over when you were hidden as a shepherd girl? How did you know that Selinger, the German officer who was your father’s boss, liked him? How could the Germans tell who was Polish and who was Jewish?” I was still telling my mother’s war stories, but folded into tales that featured a vengeful river and a family of spectral deer.

Talk to other family members. Ask questions about stuff that doesn’t seem important. I peppered my Uncle Philip with questions, too. As my Mom’s older brother, he had a different view of the war, and of my grandparents, than my mother did. Because I was weaving my family’s history through the filter of fiction, I wanted the stories to have as much realistic detail as possible: “What did the Commandant wear if he didn’t wear a uniform? How did you know he was a good German? How did your father know it was time to escape into the forest? What was the weather like that day? What was the layout of the family’s harness and saddle shop? How do you make a saddle, anyway?”

I asked my father: “What games did you play when you were a boy? How was it between the Polish kids and the Jewish kids in your school before the war? What did the underground bunker you hid in look like? Where did you go to the bathroom? What was it like when the Russians came?”

Talk to friends and other people with similar experiences. For me, this meant seeking out as many survivors as I could, mostly friends and family. When I interviewed them, I found it helpful to know the general timeline of the war in their area of Poland. Somehow, it loosened them up, hearing a part of the story they were already familiar with. They could correct me, and add sharp personal details to the general information I had already researched online. Often, they contributed colorful bits and pieces that I would not have thought to ask about. It was like reconstructing a vanished world—one that would vanish completely when they passed.

I didn’t have it in me to write a family memoir. It’s not who I am as a writer. For me, the stories didn’t spring to life unless I added a talking dog, a possible golem, a reluctant Messiah, a monster made of painting rags, folklore and fairy tale. But I could write historical fiction—and weave my family’s history in, around, and through it.

What are some ways you’ve used your family history in your writing?