Wendy Holden – Author Guest Post
I am delighted to welcome back to my blog an author I have had the pleasure of working with for my not only my blog but also as part of Meet the Author interviews and also a radio interview on Somerset Cool back in 2019.
Wendy Holden has written a Guest Post: Light in the Darkness which is about two of best-selling books Born Survivors and One Hundred Miracles. A new and updated version of the internationally best-selling of Born Survivors (Sphere) was released on April 30th to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII and the paperback edition of One Hundred Miracles (Bloomsbury) is released tomorrow 14th May.
One Hundred Miracles
The remarkable memoir of Zuzana Ružicková, Holocaust survivor and world-famous harpsichordist.
Zuzana Ružicková grew up in 1930s Czechoslovakia dreaming of two things: Johann Sebastian Bach and the piano. But her peaceful, melodic childhood was torn apart when, in 1939, the Nazis invaded. Uprooted from her home, transported from Auschwitz to Hamburg to Bergen-Belsen, bereaved, starved, and afflicted with crippling injuries to her musician’s hands, the teenage Zuzana faced a series of devastating losses. Yet with every truck and train ride, a small slip of paper printed with her favourite piece of Bach’s music became her talisman.
Armed with this ‘proof that beauty still existed’, Zuzana’s fierce bravery and passion ensured her survival of the greatest human atrocities of all time, and would continue to sustain her through the brutalities of post-war Communist rule. Harnessing her talent and dedication, and fortified by the love of her husband, the Czech composer Viktor Kalabis, Zuzana went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most renowned musicians and the first harpsichordist to record the entirety of Bach’s keyboard works.
Zuzana’s story, told here in her own words before her death in 2017, is a profound and powerful testimony of the horrors of the Holocaust, and a testament in itself to the importance of amplifying the voices of its survivors today. It is also a joyful celebration of art and resistance that defined the life of the ‘first lady of the harpsichord’– a woman who spent her life being ceaselessly reborn through her music. Like the music of her beloved Bach, Zuzana’s life is the story of the tragic transmuted through art into the state of the sublime.
Among millions of Holocaust victims sent to Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1944, Priska, Rachel, and Anka each passed through its infamous gates with a secret. Strangers to each other, they were newly pregnant, and facing an uncertain fate without their husbands. Alone, scared, and with so many loved ones already lost to the Nazis, these young women were privately determined to hold on to all they had left: their lives, and those of their unborn babies.
That the gas chambers ran out of Zyklon-B just after the babies were born, before they and their mothers could be exterminated, is just one of several miracles that allowed them all to survive and rebuild their lives after World War II. Born Survivors follows the mothers’ incredible journey – first to Auschwitz, where they each came under the murderous scrutiny of Dr. Josef Mengele; then to a German slave labour camp where, half-starved and almost worked to death, they struggled to conceal their condition; and finally, as the Allies closed in, their hellish 17-day train journey with thousands of other prisoners to the Mauthausen death camp in Austria. Hundreds died along the way but the courage and kindness of strangers, including guards and civilians, helped save these women and their children.
Sixty-five years later, the three ‘miracle babies’ met for the first time at Mauthausen for the anniversary of the liberation that ultimately saved them. United by their remarkable experiences of survival against all odds, they now consider each other “siblings of the heart.”
A heart-stopping account of how three mothers and their newborns fought to survive the Holocaust, Born Survivors is also a life-affirming celebration of our capacity to care and to love amid inconceivable cruelty.
LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
by Wendy Holden
THIS week (May 14) sees the paperback release of a book that almost didn’t happen. One Hundred Miracles tells the incredible true story of Zuzana Rüžičková, a young Czech piano prodigy who survived three concentration camps and slave labour to become one of the world’s foremost musicians.
The resilience and courage of this tiny woman was inspirational to me from the beginning. When I first met her in Prague in September 2017, she was a 90-year-old widow in poor health and yet she worked tirelessly with me to answer all my questions. Her family told me later that she was determined to bear witness to history. I left her on Friday and she died the following Tuesday. This book, compiled from those interviews and others that she gave along with the testimonies of many who were with her on the same journey from the ghetto to Auschwitz to slavery to Bergen-Belsen is her legacy, along with her remarkable canon of music.
Zuzana’s story begins in the city of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, where she had an idyllic childhood with devoted parents, marred only by a weak chest. At the age of nine when she was suffering from yet another bout of pneumonia, her mother begged her to get better and promised her anything she wanted. Zuzana’s eyes flicked open from her sickbed and she replied hoarsely, “Piano lessons.” Her wish was granted and her new tutor immediately saw her ability. It was ‘Madame’ who introduced her to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach which, Zuzana said later was, “Love at first hearing.” When she discovered that Bach would have composed most of his works on the harpsichord, she begged to study the antiquated instrument and was promised an apprenticeship in Paris with a famous player once she reached the age of fifteen.
The arrival of the Nazis in Czechoslovakia in 1939 changed all that and Zuzana and her family, being Jewish, were dispatched to the ghetto of Terezin, where they remained for nearly two years. During that time she lost both her grandparents and her beloved father. Her mother – broken by the losses – was almost catatonic by the time the pair were sent to Auschwitz in December 1943. In her pocket, Zuzana carried a small scrap of paper with the opening Sarabande of Bache’s English Suite No 5. She told me, “As long as I had this talisman, I had proof that beauty still existed.”
Incredibly, and because of what she said were ‘one hundred miracles,’ she and her mother not only survived Auschwitz and then slave labour that ruined her pianist hands, but also the “worst part of Hell’ – Bergen-Belsen. By the time they were liberated on April 15, 1945, they each weighed just four stone. The tragedies that befell them after the war – with the loss of their home, their business and all of their family – still didn’t defeat them and Zuzana went back to basic piano classes to retrain herself and restore her damaged hands. In 1947, she was accepted into the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and – despite ongoing anti-Semitism and years of persecution by the Communist regime that took over her beloved country – Zuzana became a world renowned musician and helped spark a global revival in baroque music. With the love and support of her mother and her husband, she became the first person ever to record the entire keyboard works of Bach.
Zuzana’s story, told movingly in her own words, is a profound and powerful testimony of the horrors of the Holocaust and a testament in itself to the importance of amplifying the voices of its survivors today. It is also a joyful celebration of art and resistance that defined the life of the ‘First lady of the harpsichord’ – a woman who spent her life being ceaselessly reborn through her music. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to chronicle her testimony and I am so proud of One Hundred Miracles. I only wish she was still alive to see it published in seven countries, especially in this important commemorative year in which we mark 75 years since the end of WWII.
And, unusually for any author, it is in this time of memories that I have another Holocaust memoir out in paperback, with the release of a special 75 years commemorative edition of my international bestseller Born Survivors, now published in 22 countries and translated into sixteen languages. This tells the true story of three young mothers who hid their pregnancies from the Nazis and gave birth in the camps. Both books have powerful messages of hope in times of despair and in this strange and surreal period of lockdown I cannot help but draw on the spirit of Zuzana and the three mothers I have written so immersively about and take comfort from the fact that light can always be found in the darkness.
Wendy with Zuzana, one week before she died
- One Hundred Miracles: Music, Auschwitz, Survival and Love by Zuzana Ružičková with Wendy Holden. Bloomsbury £9.99
- “An extraordinary memoir … A moving record of a life well lived in the face of appalling obstacles” – Sunday Times
- “A compelling story of terrible suffering surmounted by incredible bravery” – Daily Telegraph
- “Zuzana’s humanity shines through all the inhumanity …Vivid and moving” – The Jewish Chronicle
- “Through Auschwitz and the brutalities of the early Soviet era, the music of Bach shines like a beacon of hope” – Financial Times, Books of the Year
- Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance and Survival by Wendy Holden, Sphere £8.99 (special WWII 75th anniversary edition with a conversation with miracle ‘baby’ Eva Clarke added to the audiobook)
- “An exceptionally fresh history, a work of prodigious original research, written with zealous empathy.” New York Times
- “A work of quite extraordinary investigative dedication. Born Survivors is a moving testament of faith.” Sir Harold Evans
- “A sensitive, brave, disturbing book that everyone should read.” Rabbi Baroness Neuberger DBE
- “Packed with harrowing detail and impressively well researched…. intense, powerful and moving… a worthy testament to these three women and the miraculous survival of the children.” Jewish Chronicle
Because of the lockdown, Wendy Holden has moved her creative writing courses online and the next one is June 9. See www.wendyholden.com or strangemediagroup/courses for more information
Wendy Holden can be found on Twitter: @wendholden
and Instagram: @wendyholdenbestsellingauthor
Both One Hundred Miracles and Born Survivors are available to order through Waterstones, Amazon and also through your local independant bookshops. During the pandemic lockdown your local independent bookshops need our support during these difficult times and many are offering deals on delivery. Please contact your local bookshop for stock and also delivery.