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From the viewpoints of teenagers
2009.12.05 / Aneta Grochowska
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Z Sarah Wallis i Svetlaną Palmer, autorkami książki We Were Young and at War, rozmawia Aneta Grochowska

Svetlana and Sarah, your new book We Were Young and at War is another publication on WWII. Could you please tell us how it is different from any other books published on the same subject?

Sarah: –What we wanted to do, in writing this book, was to create an account of the Second World War from the viewpoints of teenagers from different countries, on both sides of the front line. This, in itself, is new. We juxtapose their stories, written in their own words in private at the time, as they are forced to grow up under different circumstances, but all at war.

Svetlana: – There is a lot of interest in World War II in the UK and a lot is published about the British experience in the war. However, there is relatively little written about it from other points of view, few firsthand accounts from other countries that were involved in that war. We wanted to redress that balance and create something that would tell what many think is a familiar story, in a very different way and from different points of view. We’ve got one central character who is British, but other characters are Polish, French, German, Russian, Japanese and American. We follow them all the way through the war and discover about their very different experiences of growing up and of the war. It is very much both about the war – and the adolescence experienced often in extreme circumstances.

You gave 16 people a chance to be heard. You gave them a chance to tell their stories. Was ts difficult to choose these diaries and letters from many other written in the same time?

Svetlana:
– We have done a lot of research, read many diaries that were written in different countries. Some of them had been published in their original language before, but even they were not particularly well known, or had been completely forgotten. Everyone knows Anne Frank’s diary but we felt these astonishing teenage diaries deserved to be better known too. Most of them were never published in English, so that was what we wanted to do, to bring those accounts to light and make them known. What we were looking for were very personal stories of people who you could connect with and get to know them through their words. We read very intimate diaries which were very revealing. They told their story and the story of transformation from being a teenager and growing up in which ever country they were from and the effect of the war on them.

Sarah: – We obviously read many more diaries, which we did not include in this book but all the ones we chose stood out. They were all compelling and all the young writers revealed a lot of themselves in what they wrote. They were also honest. We wanted to limit the number of stories we included, to allow us to follow them in detail, so we had to be very selective. The diaries also needed to work together as a whole, with a balance from the different countries we included. All of this influenced our choices.

Your book contains some Polish diaries as well. How different were experiences of those young people in Poland to teenagers from other countries during the WWII?

Sarah:We’ve included four Polish diarists in the book, two of them Polish, two Polish Jewish. Each has a fascinating story to tell, and together they tell the dramatic and painful story of Poland’s swift occupation and the horrendous atrocities inflicted upon its population during the war. We follow the stories of 16 year old Polish scout Edward Niesobski who became one of the Home Army’s top couriers, the story of Wanda Przybylska who recorded witnessing the extermination of Jews outside the capital and described her experiences in the Warsaw Uprising. We also tell the stories of two Jewish teenagers incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto. One of them, Dawid Sierakowiak, kept an extraordinary diary, which begins in pre-war in 1939 and records his family’s fate under Nazi occupation.

Sarah: – Young people in Poland suffered greatly during WWII. We tried not to make direct comparisons between the experiences of the diarists we chose but clearly their experiences were dictated by where they lived. And growing up in Poland at that time was very different to growing up in Britain, America, or even France, depending on your family circumstances.

Many of these stories had to be translated from original language. Did the translation process affect the power of the message?

Sarah: – Not at all. We were very careful to make sure the translations replicated the tone of the original, though they are not necessarily completely literal translations. Once we had done our translations, a friend of ours, who adapts plays, went over them to make sure the tone was consistent and to tweak phrases where we had left in traces of the original languages. This second going over of the translations was invaluable in ensuring the language is as strong as it was in the original. We translated most of the diaries ourselves, with the exception of the Polish and the Japanese.

When you were researching for this book, reading all these diaries and letters, did you feel a special connection with some of those young people?

Svetlana: – I feel I had a very personal connection with the stories of two Russian characters: Yura Ryabinkin, the boy who lived and died during the siege of Leningrad and the young girl Ina Konstantinova, who ran away to join the partisans and ended up fighting on German-occupied territory just outside Leningrad. My Russian grandmother volunteered to join the Red Army as an interpreter during the war and went behind enemy lines outside Leningrad too. She told me very little about that time because even decades after the war she still felt she had to keep all the military secrets. My relatives told me, that she saved her young cousin who lived in Leningrad from starvation. A couple of times my grandmother managed to smuggle in frost-bitten potatoes she had dug out from under the snow in the countryside. She travelled in a military truck across the ice road, the only way into the city, under fire to give them to her. Eventually she got her cousin out of Leningrad and saved her life, otherwise she could have died, like thousands of others. That cousin, she ended up working in my grandmother’s division as a nurse, aged sixteen, and survived the war. So part of doing the book was about reconnecting with the past, and finding out more about it. When you grow up with all these stories, you do want to go back in time and find out more about them. Yet very often this was a painful process. As a parent of both a teenager and very young children, I found myself continuously imagining what it would be like to have to make the decisions, as Yura’s starving mother had to do in a city under siege, who should get that tiny bit more of the scant rations and survive - her sick 16 year old son or her 8 year old daughter. Some of the material we’ve been working with was painful, but also incredibly powerful.

Sarah: – I don’t have any special relationship with the diarists like Svieta does. But I do feel close to many of the diarists’ whose stories I carry around with me. I was very intrigued by Micheline, who grew up in occupied Paris. I met her sister and her husband, who helped me to understand her. I was intrigued by Micheline’s day-to-day experiences. She is a great storyteller and I found the inconsistencies and her position, neither particularly heroic, nor in any way collaborationist, fascinating. Her diary upsets preconceptions of what it was like to live in Paris at the time.

How long did it take you to do research for this book and put all these stories together?
Svetlana:
– We’ve been working on it for about three years on and off, selecting the very best accounts in all the different languages and making them work together, in order to create a compelling narrative and contrast the teenager’s thoughts and experiences on the opposite sides of the frontline, and on different continents, sometimes dramatically different, sometimes surprisingly similar.

Did you have to travel a lot during those three years, to find all the diaries and letters?
Sarah:
– Sadly not (laugh), we did most of our research in the British Library. While writing our previous book, ‘A War in Words, Diaries and Letters from the First World War’, we were working on a television series at the same time and were able to travel to other countries to work in other archives. With this book, we didn’t have to, as most of the material was available here. We did talk to the surviving diarists and relatives on the phone, even skype – I drank tea at the same time as the surviving sister of one of the diarist’s in Warsaw, while she spent over an hour answering my questions. Some relatives we were able to meet in person, one of the great pleasures of working on the book.

You organised a very good event at the British Library last month. Many people, including me, really enjoyed those stories read by young actors. Can we expect more events and talks like that one?
Svetlana:
– We are planning to do a lot more talks at schools and cultural institutes across the UK, including the Polish Cultural Institute.

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