When Colette Waddell (pictured above, right, with Nina Morecki) was studying Navajo culture in Utah as part of her UCSB undergraduate honors thesis, she acquired a Navajo name that translates to “woman who asks many questions.” She’s not sure if it was meant as a compliment or as a warning to anyone who might try to engage her in casual conversation, but one thing is certain: The Navajo family that named her knew her well. A few years after her graduation, Waddell’s fascination with history in general, and the Holocaust in particular, led her to write an account of the period, Through the Eyes of a Survivor. Between 2002 and 2005, during the writing process, she conducted a series of interviews with Nina Morecki, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. Morecki’s answers to Waddell’s many questions form the fabric of this carefully researched and ultimately gripping narrative.
Waddell and Morecki met at UCSB when the former was an undergraduate, and Morecki visited one of Waddell’s history classes as a guest speaker to discuss her experience in the war. Waddell’s interest in history and Morecki’s desire for a biographer brought them together to begin discussions, with a book in mind. Their friendship blossomed, and the vivid imagery and remarkable detail that emerged from their conversations suggested to Waddell a different type of book than the usual history. “I didn’t want it to be that kind of work,” she said. “Once I created the atmosphere, I wanted the reader to continue that journey, and not get distracted by footnotes. And I have my own voice in there, not only as an author but also as an interviewer. It gives the reader a safe place from which to view the more disturbing elements of [Morecki’s] life. It brings together the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Because of this stylistic approach, Through the Eyes of a Survivor reads more like a paperback thriller suitable for summer beach reading than like a textbook one might be assigned in a classroom. The book may have a fast pace and edge-of-your-seat suspense, but it’s also historically accurate; Waddell did exhaustive research for the background material. Her main challenge, she said, was her habit of getting “so involved in the history I’m looking at that I don’t just grab what I need and apply it to my work.” That same habit is likely what made Waddell’s process of working on Morecki’s story simultaneously exciting, because of the compelling true history, and heart-wrenching, because of the story’s tragedy and terror.
Morecki was born Nina Gr¼tz in Lvov, Poland, on Christmas Eve, 1920. She had a loving family and a happy home. By the time she had reached the modern United States’ legal drinking age, she had seen her mother brutally murdered before her eyes. Instead of gossiping about the next hot new club or worrying about what her major in college should be, she was running for her life, with her family dead and her homeland gripped by the bloody turmoil of the Holocaust and World War II.
This contrast may not be what drove Morecki, who recently moved to Pomona, to share her experiences with young people in Santa Barbara schools and colleges, but it certainly illustrates the importance of her doing so. In fact, this book ought to be required reading for high school students who don’t have a care in the world. Like them, Morecki began her life not having imagined what the darker side of life could be. Her childhood was filled with love and hope, which only makes what came next that much more harrowing.
And harrowing it was. Not that Morecki is asking for sympathy. When she went to Waddell’s class that day, as when she spoke in any classroom, she was showing the world that she had won. The Nazis were crushed and defeated, and she, against all odds, has gone on.
Her lesson, ultimately, is one of endurance. “If [Morecki] hadn’t started speaking,” Waddell said, “she would never have felt like she got some sort of victory over the Germans.” But she has, by living well, sharing her story, and never, ever admitting defeat.
Both Colette Waddell and Nina Morecki will appear for a book-signing and discussion at Chaucer’s Books on July 10, from 7 p.m. onward. Waddell will also hold a signing at Tecolote Book Shop on July 11, from 5-7 p.m. Through the Eyes of a Survivor is now available for purchase at both bookstores.