Anna Ray-Jones is the author of Sustainable Architecture in Japan. She has also written several screenplays including The Haunting of Rachel Gottlieb, a semi-finalist in the Nicholl’s Screenwriting Fellowships of 2005, and There Might be Angels, a finalist for the Kairos Screenwriting Prize of 2009. Her short story, Him Woolly, was a winner of the new fiction prize of 2009 awarded by the Journal of Arts and the Environment. Her next book, a work in progress, is called Loom Song, a novel about Irish linen weavers shipped out as felons to Australia in 1828. She is currently a Senior Vice-President at the PR agency of Donley Communications in New York City.
“Despite a story set in, and surrounded by, horrific events, ‘Journey of Ashes: A Boyhood in the Holocaust’ does not allow those events to dominate or to become ‘the story.’ Instead, it captures the human perseverance for normalcy during even the most abnormal and abhorrent of circumstances.” – Sherrie Dulworth
Welcome to my blog, Anna. Please tell us about Journey of Ashes.
Journey of Ashes presents a literary interpretation of a child’s recollections of growing up in Krakow surrounded by the Holocaust. In this uplifting story we are introduced to Roman Ferber, a boy whose humor, courage and sturdy sense of self outshines the sun, even in the darkest days of the Nazi era in Poland. His biography displays a delicate balance between humor and tragedy and explores the striving for normalcy in the face of the unimaginable.
Journey of Ashes offers up humor and grace, cunning, spirituality, friendship and betrayal as among the well honed tools of endurance. The transition to the death camps is shocking, yet the book exalts the sustaining power of a child’s belief. Despite facing unimaginable cruelties, Roman held fast to the pledge made to his lost father that he would survive at any cost. This book confirms that shining promise.
Roman Ferber is a holocaust survivor. He was born in Poland in 1933 and spent his childhood confined by the Nazis in several prison camps including Auschwitz. You are the co-author of Roman’s story. How did this come about?
We found each other on Craig’s list after a friend of mine saw his post looking for a writer to tell his story. We met and got along well. Initially, we had planned on a non-fiction book derived from interviews but after nine months of discussion, I had a very dull manuscript that was not satisfying to either of us. Also, Roman didn’t want to do any writing himself--he felt it all should come from the interviews that regrettably weren’t good. I think he never realized that to write the book he wanted, he would have to lay open his soul for all the world to see. But Roman was reluctant and fearful (and understandably so) to dig deep into personal recollections about his wartime experience, so no emotional investigations at all seemed possible. I certainly did not have the heart to quit on the project but needed a completely different approach to take it forward. It was then I had the idea to reinterpret Roman’s story as a semi-fictionalized memoir.
Thankfully, I could draw on my accumulated knowledge of the Shoah and my Polish travel notes and use that knowledge to expand his story into a kind of “theater of experience,” whereby not only would the story be centered on him but would integrate characters around him that were real, that he knew or may have encountered, and also I could compose composite characters who would have been archetypes of the period. Two examples are: the Catholic Pharmacist in the Krakow Ghetto named Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who helped Jews in a hundred different ways, and who interacted with Roman’s brother, Manek. The Pharmacist’s role and many of his brave acts are highlighted in my book, as are those of his opposite, a German officer named Walter Mueller, who went insane after a day of killing in the Ghetto and shot himself. While Pankiewicz was a real person, Mueller is a composite soldier based on real-life case histories I researched of Nazi officers who lost their minds from the atrocities they agreed to commit.
What happened to Roman after he was liberated from the prison camp?
After the liberation, he was rehabilitated in what had become the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen Belsen in northwestern Gemany. In 1949, at the age of 16, he immigrated with his mother to the USA and settled in New Jersey. For over three decades, he served under several mayors and held key positions in the city government of New York including: Special Assistant to the Deputy Mayor for Business & Community Development, Director of Manufacturing & Wholesaling, Director of Business Development, and Director of Job Development & Treasurer of the NYC Job Development Loan Program.