Interviewed by Michelle Freckleton
About the Author:
Sue is an award-winning writer/journalist who has worked in the media for over twenty years. Her most recent book, The Freedom Circus, tells the harrowing story of her husband’s grandparents and the journey from war-torn Poland to Australia. It is due for release on the 3rd of November.
Blurb of The Freedom Circus:
When Sue Smethurst first sat down with her grandmother-in-law and asked how she survived the Holocaust, she was shooed away. By that time Mindla was in a Melbourne Jewish nursing home with other survivors, her body ageing but mind still razor sharp.
‘Why do you want to know?’ she’d ask. ‘My story is nothing special.’
As death began approaching Sue became a little more pushy. She knew Mindla’s life had to be recorded and they were running out of time. Each week she’d bring cake from her favourite shop in St Kilda, a bottle of the brightest nail polish she could find, a handful of old pictures and her tape recorder. They’d chat and paint Mindla’s nails, and with each ‘chat’ her story unfolded. It was beyond anything Sue could have imagined.
The tale of how Mindla and her husband Michael Horowitz, a circus performer for the famous Staniewski Brothers, escaped from Poland with their young son and embarked on a terrifying journey through the USSR and Middle East to Africa and ultimately to safety in Australia, is nothing short of extraordinary.
Michelle: Firstly, I loved the book. It is a story that will stay with me for a long time.
Sue: That makes my heart sing, so thank you, that’s so kind.
M: What were some of the challenges you faced while writing it?
S: The whole thing was a challenge… I had a skeleton version of the story from interviews I did with Nana before she died. But what she gave me—led me down a whole lot of research paths. The real challenges came from trying to get documents out of Poland; during the war so many of the documents were destroyed, birth and marriage certificates, etc. Trying to speak the language and read the language documents, I ended up using a translator and historian that dealt specifically with Jewish history. She had wonderful connections in Poland who helped me literally go into places, retrieve documents and translate them for me. Without her help, I don’t think I would have ever gotten the story off the ground. She helped us paint the whole story and along the way, she helped us find a family we didn’t even know existed.
M: Did you feel more pressure because it involved your family?
S: Absolutely. It was very emotional and personal. What I know now—what I would give to be able to have those conversations with Nana all over again. Having done all the research now I have a thousand more questions than I had when I first began.
It was only once I started pulling it apart, that I realised how much there was. I literally had a wall in my office—like the forensics room at a police station— with bits and pieces, sticky notes here, string going in every direction. Slowly I was adding bits and pieces to this wall that became the foundation of the research.
M: I think we all get that sense that we wish we had asked our grandparents more and found out what they went through.
S: That’s how the whole book began. To just know, for our children’s sake. I knew bits of the story and essentially what it was. But I didn’t really know it. Nana was getting older, and time was potentially running out, it really was a decision of it has to be done now. There was this reluctance of not asking her about it because it would upset her. It was only when I sat down with her and put pictures in front of her, she was like ‘Why do you even want to know? Why do want to know all of this?’ It wasn’t that she was re-traumatised by it all, it was just she didn’t think her story was anything particularly special because everyone around her had a similar story. That was quite an eye-opener and all I could think was why didn’t we do this sooner.
M: Did you find it difficult writing some of the scenes, her time in prison and having her son taken away from her, because you knew her?
S: Yes, in a sense it was. The really emotional moments in her life she remembered with great clarity. There was a greater burden to make sure I really conveyed how she felt at that time. Those were the things that stayed with her for the rest of her life. I felt there was this weight, that these were the moments integral to her and these were the moments that lived with her. And parts of it were very emotional to write and were a little bit tricky but I just kept in the back of my mind that it was about doing their story justice.
M: They were quite emotional to read. As a mother…well, I can’t even imagine!
S: We had moments where we went to Poland last year after I had done the research. We went there and followed in her footsteps. We were standing outside the prison in Bialystok which is a long way from nowhere. There was this moment, standing in front of the prison—which is still a functioning prison today— my husband said: ‘How on earth did she survive this and how did they get from here to Australia?’
I think we all felt the weight of that journey, and I tried to put myself in her shoes as much as possible, she was very young, had a baby and was literally carrying a toddler on her hip the whole way. Those sorts of moments, you thought how on earth did this happen?
M: The fact they had to go through so many countries first—it astounds me!
S: It’s an epic journey. The hardest part was what was I going to have to leave out? I could have written 300,000 words, but I don’t think the publishers would have liked that. The hard part was editing, there were times where Sophie—my editor—came back to me and was like I want to know more about this moment. Adding more detail was a real luxury as a writer…
M: I want to talk about how the food was such an integral part of the story. The food, for me – the gathering at the table, I could smell the rosemary on the table! I really resonated with that and when she was in prison, she would imagine eating an orange, which would help get her through.
S: A lot of this is really interesting and I’ve only thought about this recently in hindsight, the food for her was quite important, it was something she always spoke about. Whenever you were sitting around the table with her, we often joked that it was a Jewish Nana thing ‘You must eat! You must eat!’ But in hindsight, I think it was far more than that. I still think there’s a carry-over from that time that if food is in front of you—you ate it. She spoke about food too; sitting around the table, she was like ‘Oh. This is beautiful!’ I don’t think she ever lost the appreciation of having food around her, and I don’t think that sense of not having food ever left her. I felt that the food was such an important part of the story, she used those recollections and flavours to get herself through what were essentially the worst of times.
M: I think that’s the wonderful thing about the Jewish culture. Food is far more than a meal, it is a celebration of the family, it brings everyone together.
S: Yes, it was really important to her. Even in the nursing home, there was a little fridge in her room with an abundance of food. There was always something saved just in case.
M: I think we Australians are very spoiled with the amount of food available to us.
S: Very much so.
M: We don’t really know what it’s like to not have it.
S: I agree.
M: What do you hope for readers to get out of the story? I know I got a lot out of it!
S: That’s a very subjective question. I hope—and I didn’t set out with the intention of this—but, I hope people have a greater understanding of the holocaust. I thought prior to writing the book that I had a pretty good knowledge of it, but it quickly became apparent that I didn’t. It was quite overwhelming to think about what happened and realise we’re only scraping the surface of what we know about it. I hope it gives people a greater understanding of what an extraordinary country Australia is and the opportunities we have here. They never left Australia. They called it the lucky country, why would you ever want to go anywhere else. The opportunity that was given to us and the privilege we have of living in freedom. I don’t think we should be taking it for granted.
S: They had a great life once they got here. They worked really hard. They had a beautiful family. They had a life for themselves. So, I hope that people feel that sense of triumph at the end of it. And I hope that people feel the humour that they lived their life with.
M: I’m fascinated by the Mondays that you spent with Mindla. It must have been so rewarding for you to spend so much time with her.
S: It was lovely, we had so much fun. She was hilarious, the life of the party. You knew when Nana was in the room. Everyone gravitated around her. She adored her grandchildren; and her children. She really was quite a presence, so I enjoyed my time with her enormously. I learned a lot from her and now in hindsight knowing what I know, have so many more questions, and I’ll never get the opportunity to ask them.
M: Did you always want to be a writer and journalist? I know you’ve had a long career.
S: Uh…no is the short answer. I stumbled into it by accident. I call myself a Uni drop-out—I left university in the third year of my degree. I dropped out six months before I was due to graduate—much to my parents’ horror. I was offered a job at what was then Southdown press working on a sports magazine. I started as an editorial assistant on the floor making the cups of coffee for the editors and journalists; it wasn’t long after I started working there – watching the journalists at work, I decided that this is what I want to do. I was very fortunate that I had journalists who mentored me and gave me the opportunity to do that. I just fell in love with it. I can’t imagine not writing, I’m endlessly intrigued by the stories of the people I get to meet and write about, I think I’m the luckiest person in the world.
M: I know that you write non-fiction. Even though this book to me—I had to keep reminding myself that this is not a fictional story.
S: Well, I take that as a compliment because I want people to read it that way. I want it to be a story. I wanted to make sure people knew—I wanted it to be a story that people read.
M: What draws you to writing non-fiction?
S: I think I’m endlessly curious about people. I definitely will write a fiction book at some point, I’m sure of that. But, there’s something really extraordinary about being allowed into someone’s life to tell their story. I think that’s a great privilege. And it’s a great privilege when people share their stories with you. I enjoy that enormously, and there’s no end of extraordinary stories that need to be told. I find people endlessly fascinating, and I find the sense of humanity fascinating too.
M: What do you like to read when you’re not working?
S: Everything. I do like non-fiction, but I also love historical fiction. I love crime, and I think we’re so blessed by some fantastic Australian crime writers. I’m a huge fan of Michael Robotham and Jane Harper. I can devour those books day after day. I’ll read anything, except finance books they’re a bit boring, aren’t they? I just love the escapism that comes from—it doesn’t matter the genre—I just love being able to escape into pages in front of me.
M: I like to think of it as escaping into someone else’s brain.
S: Yes absolutely!
M: Any advice? For an aspiring writer or students like me?
S: Keep writing. Your first is never your best. I genuinely believe that you do feel it in your heart, my fingers burn when I’m not writing, I feel like I’m not myself if I’m not writing something. There’s a physical thing about it with me. I would say to people: Keep going, never say no, and never take no for an answer. That’s how I got my start. I was extremely fortunate that my first editor told me that there was no place for me in that magazine as a writer, my role was to always be an editorial assistant. But I kept going and I literally wrote stories on my weekends assisted by some of the journalists. I went out and wrote stories, and I would come back and submit them until I drove them nuts. So never give up and write what you’re passionate about.
M: Yes absolutely.
S. If you’re passionate about a story or a particular subject, it brings you joy to be able to write about it. But never give up and never give up on the first rejection letter that might come, or the second or the third. Maybe it’s not the right time for that particular book or that particular piece of writing but at some point, there will be a time for it. Another piece of advice I think is ask for help, ask for someone to mentor you, ask for someone to introduce you to an agent or a publisher. Never be shy to put your hand up and say could you help me meet ‘Joe Blogs.’
M: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today, and I hope the book does really well.
S: Thank you so much it was good to be here.
The Freedom Circus is available now.
Read a review of The Freedom Circus here: