This edition of the ‘Five Questions for…’ features QWF member Tommy Schnurmacher. Schnurmacher worked as a journalist and award-winning broadcaster and radio talk-show host. His new memoir is entitled Makeup Tips from Auschwitz: How Vanity Saved My Mother’s Life. He is currently working on a one-man show based on the memoir.
1. What made you decide to write the story of your mother’s experience?
When I was growing up on Clark Street in Montreal, I knew from the start that my Mom was unlike the other moms. She stood out and she was different. Very different. My mom was more glamorous, I was thoroughly convinced that she was far better looking than the other moms in the neighbourhood and I told her as much. My mother had a thick Hungarian accent, she was more mischievous and much more fun. Also, she was a Holocaust survivor. I was only a child when she first told me why she had faint blue numbers tattooed on her arm. There were tears in her eyes as she explained that I had no grandparents because all four had been killed by the Nazis in the gas chambers of Auschwitz within hours of their arrival.
My mother was not one of the silent ones. She talked about the Shoah. As I heard her tell the stories of what happened, I desperately longed to fix it somehow. I wanted to undo the Holocaust. As a child of survivors, I had always known my family was different. Other children were protected by their parents, but I felt a strong tug of duty to protect my parents from further harm. When I worked at CJAD as a radio talk-show host, I would often chat with Gord Sinclair, who was the news director at the time, and tell him stories about growing up in a Hungarian refugee household. He found my anecdotes offbeat and vastly entertaining. He insisted that one of these days I was going to have to write a book. I always jotted down notes on random topics, but as my ageless Mom started to age, I started taking more notes and writing in journals in case – just in case – I decided one day to write that memoir. I kept those notes. When I looked them over every few years, I would notice that even though my volatile relationship with my Mom was everchanging, I was always worried something bad might happen to her.
Over the years, I have attended countless seminars for children of Holocaust survivors. Known as the Second Generation, we were said to be a special breed. At first, I felt that just because my mom was in Auschwitz and someone else’s mom was in Auschwitz, that would not necessarily mean that we had anything else in common. I was wrong. I had plenty in common with others of the Second Generation. The trauma was in our DNA. As my mother started to develop early stages of dementia, I also realized how much I had in common with other caregivers. That is when I knew I had to write this book. Not only to make sure that my mother’s legacy was not forgotten but also to ease the anxiety of other people whose parents had suffered trauma. I hope the book demonstrates that they are not alone. I hope it shows other caregivers that they are not alone.
2. You wrote your memoir one page at a time through Facebook posts, receiving real-time feedback and comments. Would you recommend this method to other writers? If so, why or why not?
Realizing that I had to write this book was one thing. Sitting down and doing it? That was another story. I had been thinking about doing it for years and when I retired, I felt I finally had the time to write my memoir.
That’s not exactly true. I have been talking about this memoir not for years but for decades. After a few post-retirement escapes to San Diego and Venice, I certainly had the time to do it. I told everyone who asked – and many who didn’t ask – that the memoir was all going well. But it was not going well. I have always empathized with Dorothy Parker who once noted, “I hate writing. I love having written.”
No one was more adept at procrastination than I was. If there is an excuse, I have used it. If there was a writer’s workshop or conference to attend, I was there. Books on how to write and how to land an agent? I have more books on these topics on my shelves than do Barnes and Noble and Indigo combined. Even the algorithms at Amazon do not know what to suggest to me anymore.
One afternoon, while munching on stale cookies in the tiny lounge of the Argo bookstore on Saint Catherine Street West, I had a sudden epiphany. When I worked at the Gazette and in radio, I had always had a specific deadline. And now that I was retired, there was no deadline. That was the problem. Now all I needed was a solution.
I glanced at my iPhone and there it was. Facebook was the answer! That is how I would create a deadline. I would make a solemn promise on Facebook. It was a simple promise. I vowed I would write a minimum of two pages (400 to 500 words) a day and post it every single weekday by noon at the latest. The first piece of my memoir, Makeup Tips from Auschwitz: How Vanity Saved My Mother’s Life, appeared on Facebook at around 11:30 a.m. on June 4, 2018.
There was no price tag. No charge. No admission fee. Readers were welcome to comment and I invited them to hound me if I so much as missed a single day. I swore publicly that any weekday you checked my Facebook page, you would have something new to read. This went on for several weeks. Costco gives away samples, but they do not give away the whole roast. Neither did I. I wrote “If you enjoy what you read, share it with someone you like. If you do not enjoy it, share it with someone you dislike.”
Reaction from readers surpassed my wildest expectations. They wrote they wanted more. They said the pieces I had written were addictive. They posted comments saying they wished my mom were their mom.
Would I recommend this method to other authors? Yes and no. On one hand, you are making yourself wide open and vulnerable to criticism which can serve to feed your imposter syndrome. But remember, you have no obligation to keep the text you post as is. You have no obligation to keep it at all. You are the writer. You can make any changes you like. You are in control.
Giving away such samples of your work in such a way provides you with a test audience. You get a clear indication of what works well and what works less well. It is also an excellent way to build buzz around the book and create expectation. The people who comment that they simply cannot wait to read the next piece will be the people who most likely want to buy your book.
3. Why did you choose the self-publishing route?
I chose self-publishing because it has much less of a stigma today than it did even five years go. Finding the right agent could take years. The agent finding the right publisher? That could take another year and once you signed on any dotted line, it might still be a year or two before you were cheerfully signing copies at your crowded book launch. I am not a very patient person. I do not like to wait around. I had delayed the project long enough.
While some organizations may still sniff at self-publishing, there is no question it gives the author much more control. You make more of the decisions. You are not just one in a stable of many. You must do a great deal of marketing yourself no matter how you are published and fortunately I enjoy doing that.
When you self-publish, you cannot blame the publisher. It is true you take more of the risk, but royalties are much higher so you do reap more of the reward.
4. Vanity is rarely interpreted as strength. However, your mother reads very clearly as a fierce, strong person. Can you speak a bit more about the connection between vanity and survival?
My mother was one of eight siblings who lived a modest life in a small town in Hungary. When she found herself thrust into the hell of Auschwitz, her captors wanted to deny her and all the prisoners any degree of self-worth. They wanted to deny them their very humanity. My mother was not a very strong woman physically, but she had a deep inner strength.
The Nazis wanted her to feel insignificant, useless, and inferior. My mother survived because she did everything possible to prevent that from happening. With courage, resilience, and resolve, she used vanity to maintain her personal dignity. That is why she did everything in her power even in a death camp to look her best. She was not showing off. She was showing her ruthless captors that she was still human and that she mattered, no matter what they did to destroy her morale and self-respect.
5. What role do you think humour plays in the retelling of difficult stories?
Humour can be a coping strategy. It is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. When one is telling a story that contains trauma, humour is the mechanism that helps the storyteller soften the impact of the story on himself. It also helps to lessen the horror for the one listening or reading. For oppressed and powerless minorities, it is often one of the few weapons in their arsenal. Amazingly, one of the architects of the Holocaust described anti-Nazi humour as “an act against the will of the Fuehrer.”
It was never my wish to focus on the details of the horrors my mother endured. I wanted instead to shed light on the chutzpah and the sharp wit that helped her not only to survive but to thrive.
I imagine that’s why one reviewer who said the book was a celebration of redemption described it as “a sun-drenched memoir.”
Thank you, Tommy, for participating in this interview.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. If you would like to learn more: https://museeholocauste.ca/en/