When children’s author Morris Gleitzman read the biography of Janusz Korczak, he was so inspired by the doctor’s selfless acts that it became “one of the catalysts” for his writing a series of books about the Holocaust.
He began with Once (2006) and continues in Then. “I had wanted to write a story about love and friendship — two examples of the best we’re capable of — and place them within the context of our very worst behaviour.” Korczak’s experience helped him to focus on this as a writing goal.
Then picks up the story of Felix, a 10-year-old Jewish boy, and Zelda, a Polish girl, as they continue their struggle to survive the Nazis. In his softly spoken Australian lilt, Gleitzman explains that he had been aware of a distant connection to this period in history — one of his grandfathers had lived in Cracow and left in the early 20th century. Those relatives who remained perished in the Holocaust. However, his interest grew once he started extensive research and therefore “it did become a personal journey”.
Gleitzman acknowledges that writing Then elicited a strong response in him; in fact, both books proved to be the most emotional writing experience he has had. He believes that any author writing a story for younger readers that is set in the Holocaust “has got some very important questions to answer in terms of just how much of that time do you try to represent”.
He chose to provide author’s notes to make it clear that the story is a work of fiction; his “imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable”. He also lists source material on his website to enable readers to try and acquaint themselves with some of the testimonies available. His strong wish is that the series serves as a starting point to “encountering the voices and words of real people”.
In fact, the book has been used in classrooms in Australia both as an introduction to the Holocaust and as an additional text for students who have already read primary sources.
The question of when it is appropriate for children to read material which exposes “the very worst of human behaviour” has been the subject of a few negative responses Gleitzman has received. But his perception is that “in this media-drenched world” children can access the material in any event.
Gleitzman’s aim is that readers will “connect emotionally with Felix and Zelda and form their own friendship with them”. Above all, Gleitzman wants the reader to understand that “our capacity for love and friendship is as powerful as our capacity for evil and destruction”.