Thursday, January 7, 2021

Elisabeth Gifford Interview - The Good Doctor of Warsaw

Photo Content from Elisabeth Gifford

Elisabeth Gifford studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She worked as a dyslexia specialist for several years while raising a family. After studying for a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway College she was asked to write The House of Hope, a biography of Dr Joyce Hill who opened a rescue centre for abandoned babies in China, published by Monarch Press. She was taken on by literary agent Jenny Hewson and three historical novels followed, published by Corvus. Secrets of the Sea House is set in the Hebrides and is a dark mystery that explores at the very real events behind the frequent mermaid sightings reported in Scotland a century ago. Return to Fourwinds is a sweeping family saga set between England and Spain between the wars. 

The Good Doctor of Warsaw is the shocking and ultimately inspiring true story of some of the rare survivors of the Warsaw ghetto during WW2, and features the inspiring story of Dr Janusz Korczak who defied the Nazi brutality by creating an oasis of kindness and happiness for children. A sort of Polish-Jewish Dr Barnardo, Dr Korczak helped draft the first international children's bill of rights and his teaching on how to raise children with love and respect is still widely followed today, and where it is, it makes children's lives happier.


Where were you born and where do you call home? 
I grew up in the English midlands, an area that is both very industrial and also near beautiful countryside. Dad was a vicar so we were always immersed in the local community and mixed with people from all backgrounds. 

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published. 
I’ve had the opportunity to travel to China and Africa to work on some child welfare projects, writing books for children and adults. 

What inspired you to pen your first novel? 
I wanted to try and preserve something of the wonderful Scottish Gaelic culture of the remote Western Isles of Scotland. I also wanted to give a voice to women who needed to say the unsayable. 

Tell us your latest news. 
My last book was long listed for the Highland book prize! 

Can you tell us when you started THE GOOD DOCTOR OF WARSAW, how that came about? 
It began when I was at a teaching seminar and heard quotes from The Good Doctor, Janusz Korczak, for the first time. They revolutionized how I saw motherhood and teaching. It took another 15 years to write the book. 

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel? 
Each novel is really a conversation about something I’m discovering, and I’d love people to discover the way the Good Doctor saw childhood and parenting and teaching. It is life changing. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating characters? 
They do what they want to do and don’t always follow your plot. 

What chapter was the most memorable to write and why? 
The scene going to the trains to Treblinka was very difficult. I cried each time. Also I had to be willing make changes to make sure it was accurate. 

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why? 
I’d love Moira from Secrets of the Sea House to meet Chrissie from The Lost Lights of St Kilda. 

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book? 
It is a responsibility to write about real events in the holocaust and The Good Doctor of Warsaw took longer than most books due to research and corrections suggested by experts. But I was happy when a US holocaust professor said it was the most accurate portrayal of the Warsaw ghetto that she had read. 

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives? 
Hope for something and forgive. 

Best date you've ever had? 
First date with my husband to see Lady and the Tramp. 

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go? 
We visited Venice last September while travel corridors were still open. It was magical. 

Have you ever stood up for someone you hardly knew? 
I had the chance to write about a wonderful couple who rescued babies abandoned on the streets in China. They championed the rights of children considered too sick to live but who had very treatable conditions. 

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today? 
The many challenging and insightful talks listening to my children. When you stop changing, you stop growing. 

What is one unique thing are you afraid of? 

What was the best memory you ever had as a writer? 
The first time I was published. Going to the local garage early to pick up the newspaper with an article I’d written on dyslexia. 

  • To experience pre- war Warsaw, the Paris of Eastern Europe, and its warm and varied lost Jewish community. 
  • To follow Misha and Sophia’s true story and the love that inspired them to keep going through the most extreme circumstances. 
  • To understand the rich and varied history of Poland, the tragic history of the Polish people and their bravery under waves of occupation and oppression. 
  • To experience Dr Korczak’s approach to children and childhood, not as regime or method for raising a child, but a lifelong conversation between child and carer that gives a basis for real love and respect. 
  • To know more about Korczak’s quotes – such as a child is not a person tomorrow but is a person today, worthy of our respect and tender care. 
  • To feel that failing as a parent is a step towards being real and asking the question, what does this child need, how can I meet that? Feeling lost as a parent is part of a journey of discovery as you get to know your child’s needs. 
  • To know more about the Ukraine in World War Two – a real eye opener for me around issues that continue to this day.. 
  • Society should not crush children with its expectations but help them grow into the people they are meant to be. 
  • To experience the life of the Jewish Community in the Warsaw ghetto and understand how it came about - so that it can never happen again. 
  • To know that the care all children, whatever their faith or race ,is the moral ground we all share, and that no dark regime can ever conquer love and faith. 
Journey to Writing the Good Doctor of Warsaw. 
I’m going to take this very literally and say that one of the amazing things about writing is travelling for research. It’s really important to visit locations as much as you can so that you can take your reader to the location with confidence. Visiting beautiful Warsaw was such a highlight of writing The Good Doctor of Warsaw, though very challenging. Misha’s son, Roman, who grew up in Warsaw before fleeing to Sweden, told me the places I needed to visit. Walking through the remains of the Ghetto sites and following the map to places where the children had lived and walked was overwhelming at times, and it was surreal to place past events over the day to day life going on around us as we traced the walls of the ghetto. 

Of course, the beautiful historic centre of Warsaw is all a reconstruction built after the war ended. Warsaw was obliterated as the Germans retreated and it was reconstructed stone by stone from old plans and photographs by the returning Warsaw inhabitants, even as they were reoccupied by Russia. In a way, Warsaw is a kind of metaphor for writing a historical novel, recreating the past from records and photos and from visits to a place. This was especially true of the Warsaw ghetto, which was entirely razed to the ground by the Nazis after the people were taken away to be murdered at Treblinka. As a writer I had to use first hand accounts, documents, photographs and diaries to reconstruct the ghetto so that readers could in some way travel through time to understand what it must have felt like to be inside the ghetto walls. My one rule was to never alter the facts, only to fill in what was no longer visible by using research. That way the reader can have their own relationship with the past. 

I also wanted readers to travel back in time to get to know Dr Janusz Korczak. He was a beacon in the ghetto, as he battled against all odds to give children a childhood of love and respect even inside the darkness of the ghetto. His original orphanage is still standing in Warsaw and still takes in children. He has a huge following even today across the world and I was thrilled to attend the International Korczak Association conference in Seattle in 2018 when The Good Doctor of Warsaw was given an award for services to the world’s children. 

Set in the ghettos of wartime Warsaw, this is a sweeping, poignant and heartbreaking tale, based on the true story of one of World War II's quiet heroes - Dr Janusz Korczak.

'You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.'

Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha's mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.

As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day...

Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.

Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland's greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.

You can purchase The Good Doctor of Warsaw at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you ELISABETH GIFFORD for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford.