A single journey: Holocaust survivor’s daughter keeps family memories alive with debut novel – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on May 11, 2024

Everyone has a book in them and that, in most cases, is where it should stay, grumbled the influential British-American author, journalist, and educator Christopher Hitchens. Helen Joyce, however, is not like most cases.

With an extraordinary story to tell and an exceptional gift for storytelling, her debut novel, Good for a Single Journey, provides a rare glimpse into the lives of her ancestors, starting with her great-grandparents in early 20th-century Poland. It then takes us through two world wars and the Holocaust, where many of her relatives were murdered, and ultimately to modern-day Israel, where Joyce now lives.

I recently met with Joyce for an interview about her book. I was particularly interested to find out why at an age when most people are enjoying their retirement she took on the daunting task of penning her first novel.

Born in 1953 in post-war London to a Viennese mother and a German father, Joyce had an upbringing that was not a happy one. Her mother having been violently separated from her parents in Prague, where she was fortunate enough to get the Good for Single Journey visa to Britain, which undoubtedly saved her life suffered from severe depression, sometimes resulting in suicidal thoughts. After the separation, Joyces grandparents were trapped and first sent to Theresienstadt, and then to Auschwitz, where they perished.

Because of this, Joyce spent her own childhood isolated from the outside world with a mother who overshared every detail of her childhood: the good stuff and the dark stuff. With no friends and very little idea of what the real world was like, she unwittingly absorbed all of her mothers stories, which later formed the basis of her book. I stored everything in my brain, and it came out in the book.

Vicariously carrying her mothers burden for all those years is ultimately what led Joyce to write the novel. I wanted to write the book because my mother was a beautiful, intelligent woman, but she had such an unhappy life, she began. As a child, I always wanted to make her happy, and now I want to give her life some meaning her story should count.

WHEN IT came to putting pen to paper, Joyce was able to rely on the information she had gleaned from her mother, as far as it went. In order to give the book deeper meaning and proper historical context, she had to delve further into her past. When I [looked into] my family history, I realized I had to go back two steps, to my great-grandparents, she said.

This, as you would imagine, wasnt so straightforward, as they lived in a remote Polish village in the early years of the 20th century. She knew from her mother that they had five children two girls, and three boys. But apart from their names and what happened to the girls (her grandmother and aunt perished in the Holocaust), the information she had on her great-uncles was sketchy, at best. Consequently, she had to rely on her cousins memoirs to fill in the gaps about how they came to live in Palestine, as it was known.

A significant portion of Joyces research for this part of the novel which spanned the years after World War I was carried out on the Internet, as it was important to her to include accurate historical details surrounding Jews moving to the Land of Israel around this time. It is crucial that Jews are recognized as indigenous people of this land, she stressed.

While she was keen to set out the history of the time, including details of the San Remo conference, which spawned the British Mandate for Palestine, Joyce was determined that her book should be written along the lines of a novel. I wanted to tell the history, but I also wanted a novel.

With that, she hit on a format whereby each chapter began with a historical introduction, after which she let the characters tell the story.

Joyce also made a point of weaving her ancestors who, as time went on, moved from Poland, across Europe, and to the Middle East in and out of the story, to circle around events happening at the same time in different regions.

Joyce, whose background is in psychology and education, described the writing of her first book as a visual process that required proper organization. Writing the book was the easy part, she confirmed: I spewed it out. Her mornings were set aside for writing, with a re-read after lunch.

And it didnt stop there. After going to bed, she described entering a twilight zone when the characters, came and visited me.

Although it felt strange, she said, to have the characters her ancestors guiding her, this helped her to connect with them in a way that wouldnt have been possible otherwise.

WHILE JOYCE enjoyed writing the book, she was relieved when it was finished, despite the fact that she then had the daunting task of finding a publisher.

As luck would have it, she was put in touch with Liesbeth Heenk, the owner of Amsterdam Publishers, the largest publisher of Holocaust memoirs in Europe. Unlike other publishers who showed little interest in her book, despite not even bothering to read the manuscript, Heenk was captivated by it from the start, and a book deal between the two women was signed in 2022.

Joyces debut novel, Good for a Single Journey, came out the following year on Holocaust Remembrance Day and earned significant acclaim and success in its first year of publication.

Before we wound up the interview, the author reflected on how her mother would have reacted to the current situation, particularly in light of the antisemitism that has flared up since Oct. 7. You think youre safe, she would often tell her daughter, but it can happen again.

With the horrors of the Holocaust never far from Joyces mind, she is reminded of her mothers words: This is our turn; we needed to know it, she said, regretfully. She was keen to stress, however, that she believes our survival is assured, as our history teaches us to be resilient.

Keeping that history alive is something that Joyce believes is incumbent on her and, indeed all of us.

My mothers generation has entirely died out, she said. Thats why we write books so their stories live on.

The writer is a former lawyer from the UK who now lives and works in Israel as a freelance writer for The Jerusalem Post.


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A single journey: Holocaust survivor's daughter keeps family memories alive with debut novel - The Jerusalem Post

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