Earlier this year, I was captivated by The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford. You can read my review here. I’ve had the chance to ask Elisabeth a few questions about her novel and the amazing true stories behind it.
Is it fair to say that this book has been a labour of love for you?
It has indeed. I came across some quotes by Korczak, a sort of Polish Dr Barnardo, at a teaching conference and they changed the way I parented and taught, concentrating less on doing everything correctly – as I perceived it – and spending more time trying to see things from a child’s point of view, getting to know who they were and what they needed. That never stops of course in any relationship. A more slow and mindful approach to childhood in the midst of all today’s pressure leads to happier children and parents. We agonise over things like to work or not to work as a mother, when to be honest the child isn’t going to mind either way so long as you know them and they feel listened to and safe and able to grow into who they are meant to be. Also the history of the people in the Warsaw ghetto was new to me and with a Polish Jewish great grandmother in the family, I felt it was important to share that history with the next generation.
What kind of research did you do?
I read everything I could about Korczak and then I came across Roman, the son of two teachers who worked in the Warsaw ghetto in Korczak’s orphanage. Misha and Sophia were among the 1% out of a million to survive the ghetto. Over about 10 years we worked on Roman’s stories of his parents and I haunted libraries such as the British Library for background research.
Although I knew that Dr Korczak was a real man, I didn’t realise initially that Misha and Sophia were real too. At that point, the emotional pull of this book went up several notches for me. With lots of factual elements to adhere to, how easy or difficult was it to write this book?
It was a responsibility to try and get things right. Roman was very strict and there was a lot of correcting and rewriting as needed. At times there were things we just didn’t know such as what people said or did on a certain day so I had to extrapolate from research – such as how they first met. The publisher and Roman gave their blessing for me to do this otherwise the bare lists of facts make the story difficult to read. So it is a true story but told as historical fiction. I did not change any facts however.
There must be a huge sense of responsibility when you write about the Holocaust. How did you cope with that?
It was quite a heavy thought but it wasn’t my story so the writing was always at the service of bringing the story of those who had lived through those years. Above all it seemed important to pass on their history and I realised that if I didn’t tell Sophia, Misha and Korczak’s story in that way then it would be lost – so I just did my very best.
And how did you cope with the traumatic nature of the story?
I concentrated on showing how such a shocking thing could come about so quickly and in such a civilized part of the world. In a decade the world changed. However I found I couldn’t describe some things such as what actually happened at Treblinka in any detail and I cut back on repeating some things. Also, the Nazi regime is history now, whereas Korczak’s message of empathy, justice and respect for others only gets stronger. Telling his story was part of the hope that remains in spite of such a terrible tragedy. Most of the children’s stories were lost at Treblinka and so this book was a way to bring their voices back. I still cry when a read an account of the day the ghetto was cleared of 4,000 children and how Korczak refused to leave them and take his chance of freedom.
What’s next for you?
I’m returning to the Scottish islands to write about St Kilda and then a book based around the whalers that came into early contact with Inuit peoples. We are planning to make a trip to St Kilda, the most remote island in the British Isles, 50 miles beyond the Hebrides. Can’t wait.
Thank you so much for answering my questions.
You can buy The Good Doctor of Warsaw here.
About the author
Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has written articles for The Times and the Independent and has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She is married with three children and lives in Kingston upon Thames.