6th Class are just completing a class novel called “Faraway Home” by Marilyn Taylor. It tells the story of two Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Austria called Karl and Rosa who are sent on a Kindertransport to Millisle Farm in Northern Ireland. We organised an interview with the author, Marilyn Taylor. We each came up with three questions about the novel on our class blog and compiled twelve of the best questions to ask her. It was very kind of her to respond so quickly and to put so much effort into answering our questions. Here are her replies:
Marilyn Taylor: I was born in England to a Jewish family during the Second World War, and although I was four when it ended, I have vivid memories of air raid warnings, rushing to the shelter, and especially the sound of the unmanned rockets (called V 2’s) launched from Nazi Occupied France at random, late in the war. I think these memories come into many moments in the book. But in addition, my Jewish heritage played a part. Obviously I was too young during, and for several years after the war, to comprehend fully what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust. Eventually it became widely known that about 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis in Europe, but it was only in my teens that I realised how lucky I had been, growing up in England as a ‘war baby’. There was heavy bombing, nightly air raids and the danger of invasion, and thousands were killed; however England, in contrast to almost all the countries of Europe, was not defeated and occupied. So by a lucky accident of geography, I was not one of the one and a half million Jewish children trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe, (just the other side of the English Channel) who, with their families, were rounded up for slaughter. I think this awareness made me sensitive to the horrors of the Holocaust, and I suppose that is why, much later, I chose it as a subject of two historical novels.
6th Class Ransboro: Did you think you accomplished what you set out to do with the book, or did you diverge into other areas you did not intend to at the beginning?
Marilyn Taylor: I suppose I set out to pass on a true story of the war and the Holocaust, which is rapidly becoming history now. In a few years all survivors who fought in that war, were involved, or were Holocaust survivors, will have died, there will be no live witnesses. And something so huge, so dreadful and so important should not be forgotten. I did diverge a bit, for example, with Peewee and his family, (though he was based on a real character), especially the Granny and her youth in the linen industry, and maybe the football match. But that did take place, with a girl playing! I suppose I diverged to try to show the characters as real and rounded, with different attitudes and feelings, rather than just actual events. Only you the readers, can judge if I accomplished what I set out to do!
6th Class Ransboro: Why did you decide to write a story set during the period of the Second World War?
Marilyn Taylor: See Q 1 for part of the answer (that is, my personal history). Also see Q 2 – to help keep the story alive for younger generations, as part of the much larger story of the war and of the Holocaust. I also wanted to make those two events, the war and especially the Holocaust, real, for today’s young people. I did a huge amount of research, and thought of writing it as a history book about Millisle Farm, but I wanted to show the feelings and emotions of the young people caught up in those events. So I decided to write it as a historical novel, though it’s very closely based on fact.
6th Class Ransboro: Out of all the characters in Faraway Home, whose personality is your favourite?
Marilyn Taylor: Yakobi – the only character whose real name I used (I heard that he had died not long after the war ended). He was mentioned by virtually all the former refugees to whom I had sent questionnaires, and with whom I corresponded. The other adults helping to run the Farm were refugees themselves, worried about their families, but Yakobi was apparently the only one to whom the children (with no parents or families to turn to) went with worries and anxieties – of which they had many- and who always had time for them. He was described to me as an emotional rock they could depend on, who cared about them. In fact, I discovered he came from a brilliant family, well-known in the Austrian medical profession, Because of this, he was appointed to deal with the ‘health & welfare’ of the children. But he had actually been the black sheep of that family – a saxophone player in a Viennese night-club! However, there is a saying “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. He rose to the occasion, and played a vital caring role at a difficult time in their lives.
6th Class Ransboro: What gave you the idea to send the refugees to Ireland instead of another country?
Marilyn Taylor: This was a true story – the Kindertransport children only got to Britain. The British government was lobbied by ordinary people – Jews, Christians, Quakers & others, who had travelled to Europe and seen something of the dreadful events wherever the Nazis ruled – young & old being rounded up, attacked in the streets while police looked on, sent to prison camps (later death camps). This was 1938-9, and Jews, young & old, were trapped, and were the prime target of the Nazis. Through the Kindertransports, Britain was the only country where children up to 16 (an estimated 10,000 were rescued) were allowed in on a block visa. When they got to London from Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia, they were sent all over Britain and that included Northern Ireland. When I realised this, I began to research this, as all my other books are set in Ireland, and I liked the idea of a Northern Ireland setting.
6th Class Ransboro: Were the characters of Rosa and Karl based on someone you know? Did you know somebody like them who lived through WWII?
Marilyn Taylor: I based most of the characters at Millisle Farm on the former refugees, as they came across to me in discussion and interviews, correspondence, and in the material they had sent me. For Karl, I chose the character of one the former refugees who I met in London, and who helped me with the book. He was Walter Hirsch, we corresponded a great deal. He wasn’t bitter in any way, as you might expect of somebody who had been uprooted, orphaned, his life turned upside down. I based Karl on how I thought Walter must have been as a boy – gentle, caring, trying to cope, doing his best. I was told the story of Rosa, and how she had been fostered but unhappy, and ended up at the Farm where her brother was.
I did know some people who lived through the war in Europe, but for years after the war ended in 1945 most survivors didn’t talk about what had happened to them. Many had physical or psychological damage, or else they were desperate to put the horrors behind them, and get on with life. Many married people they met in the Displaced Persons camps after the war – often fellow-survivors – and many of those never even told their children their full stories.
6th Class Ransboro: For you, what was the changing point in Judy’s character in the book? Different people in the class had different ideas about this.
Marilyn Taylor: The change in Judy had to be relatively gradual – no one changes overnight! Gradually, I suppose because she begins to identify a little with the refugee children, and that makes her less self-centred and hostile. The shared danger at the time of the Air Raid warning, and the quiet but growing affection Judy begins to feel towards Karl, Eva, and Peewee slowly change her whole attitude to other people. The turning point might be the scene between herself and Karl at the Ballycopeland Windmill, when she realises his distress, far beyond anything she herself has ever felt, and wants to comfort him, and Rosa. I suppose Judy’s experience is really part of the growing up process in your teenage years, beginning to see other peoples’ point of view and empathise with them.
6th Class Ransboro: Where did you get your information from for this novel?
Marilyn Taylor: As you probably know from the book, I did a great deal of research on the true story of Millisle Farm, contacting many of the former refugees who were children on the Farm. I got a great deal of help from them – letters, photos, stories, anecdotes, diaries and interviews. Especially useful were their answers to a questionnaire I had sent out, asking about their lives before the Nazis, their experiences when the Nazis marched in, how they spent their time on the Farm. By the time I was writing the book, many of these former refugees were of course parents & grandparents, a few living in Northern Ireland and England and others all over the world.
I also went to places where I could learn about Northern Ireland in World War 2- libraries, heritage centres, museums. Apart from the questionnaires etc which I have mentioned, I visited libraries and heritage centres in Dublin and Northern Ireland. To my surprise I found most people, even in Co Down, knew little or nothing about the story, except those in the Belfast Jewish community whose families had been involved in leasing the Farm and helping it along.
I was lucky to find an elderly local historian in Millisle village, Bobbie Hackworth, who had visited the farm, attended the local school with the refugee children, and was still in touch with them over 40 years later! He brought me to the Farm (in private hands since 1948), and gave me great assistance, as did other refugees still living in Northern Ireland. I also had to research what it was like on a farm in rural Northern Ireland in the 1940s; for example, as you read in the story, they still had work horses (a tractor was acquired years later), and had to milk and make butter by hand. Finally I tracked down eye-witness reports of the massive Belfast bombing which forms the climax of the story.
6th Class Ransboro: Why did you pick Millisle, near Belfast, as the main setting for this book?
Marilyn Taylor: It picked itself! I had heard about Millisle Farm from people in the Dublin Jewish community, some of whom used to go up to help on the Farm in the 1940s, like the group in the story. When I started to research the Kindertransports I found out that most Kindertransport children who came to Britain were fostered by individual families. However others were taken in by holidays camps, boarding schools, etc, but the only farm I heard of was Millisle, where the small Jewish community decided to raise funds and lease the Farm, as well as some families fostering. It was certainly the only farm in Northern Ireland that housed refugees in those numbers, so it seemed a good background for the book.
6th Class Ransboro: What was your favourite part of the book?
Marilyn Taylor: I have a few – the scene between Karl and Judy in the Ballycopeland Windmill (which I went to visit when I was visiting N.I. while researching the book). Also the “Ulster Tea” where Karl and Judy met Peewee’s family – and his fearsome Granny! And I was quite pleased with the part where Karl, Peewee and Judy first meet when she’s running away from the ‘bull’. As I had grown up myself mostly in a town, I had to do quite a bit to find out about life on a Farm, and especially in 1940 in rural Co Down!
6th Class Ransboro: How long did it take you to write the book?
Marilyn Taylor: The period before I put pen to paper (or rather paper in my computer!) was needed for research -nearly two years. I was working as a school librarian at the time, so I was working only part-time. It was a complicated book to write, as it was mainly set in two places. The Vienna section needed a good deal of research, & then I was worried the book would have too many characters, and readers might get confused. At a certain point it was clear the book was getting too long, so, assisted by my editor in O’Brien Press, I had to do a big editing job on it. So, altogether it took about 3 years on and off to write.
6th Class Ransboro: Even when you were younger did you always want to become an author?
Marilyn Taylor: I was a keen reader – and still am. All my reading was from the public library in London where I grew up. I liked writing stories and compositions, as essays were called then, but I never had the confidence to part-time, I might pick up ideas for a book while working in the school library.
And I did eventually – the first books I wrote were a teenage trilogy set in Dublin in the 1990s. Unfortunately all 3 books are now out of print, but if I could find a computer whiz who could help me, I’d love to bring them out in an e-book, as both Faraway Home and 17 Martin Street have been!
That’s really nice how she replied so quickly and gave nice long answers not just sentences! It’s also amazing how she found all about the war from her life, reading, writing letters and the Internet. That also tells us that it is possible to find an answer to something without the Internet. It’s also amazing how it took 3 years to write the book, she must be a very dedicated person to manage to write it. (By Kellie)
The episode with Peewee and the ‘bull’ was one of my favourite parts of the book as well, especially because it introduced a new character in a comedic way. There aren’t many books that do that, and it was nice that it had an Irish twist on it with the ‘bull’. (By Luke)
I think it is really interesting that Marilyn Taylor grew up during World War II and that she was Jewish because that means she must have experienced a bit of what Karl and Rosa experienced in the book. I can’t believe it took three years to write ‘Faraway Home’. That shows how much work you have to put into writing a book. (By Roscha)
I had no clue how long it takes to write a book. Three years is such a long time. I didn’t actually think that Millisle was a real place, I thought that it was made up! I think that it’s great that she took so much time to really learn about Vienna and Millisle, and that she had so much patience while learning everything. It is fantastic that she replied so quickly, (I expected her to take a bit longer), and her answers were so long and descriptive. (By Clodagh)
I think that Marilyn Taylor was very kind to reply so fast. It looks like she put a lot of time and effort into answering our questions. I found it all very interesting to read. (By Rory)
Thank you so much for answering all those questions. The “Ulster Tea” was one of my favourite parts of the story as well. I can’t believe it took you three years on and off to write the book, that was a mighty long time. Thank you again for all the information and hope your leg gets better very soon and enjoy your holiday! (By Eimear)
That’s really interesting! I really enjoyed reading some facts about her life when she was little. She is very clever and smart. I thought the answers were going to be a lot shorter than that! It was very inspiring to read! (By Kaela)
They are very long answers. It is very strange that Yakobi was the only real name that she used. It’s also interesting that she was born to a Jewish family and how she remembers the air raid warnings. I also liked the part when Judy was been chased by the bull which was really only a cow. (By Kevin)
That was very long .She must have taken all day doing it. But it was very interesting and she told a lot about how she got the idea from her own life. I think it’s nice how she related it to herself even though she didn’t see it for her self. (By Jake)
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