Sunday, January 18, 2009
Interview with Aranka Siegal, Author of Memories of Babi
Memories of Babi has been recognized by the Association of Jewish Libraries as a 2009 Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category. As part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour, The Book of Life is proud to introduce you to author Aranka Siegal and to share a little of her "backstory."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please do NOT ask The Book of Life for Aranka Siegal's contact information. We do not have her current info.
Aranka, all of your books are autobiographical. What motivates you to share your life story with readers?
The reason for my writing autobiographically is because I attribute a great deal of my survival to my early years. I want to share lessons instilled in me by my resourceful mother, Rise. She had managed to put food on the table for her many children against all odds. She made it her mission to keep her family alive and together, sometimes risking her life to accomplish this. She used the black market to bring home a sack of flour to bake bread, potatoes, a basket of vegetables and some bones to make the daily pot of soup. My mother was raised on her family’s farm by her religious widowed mother, my grandmother, Babi. Babi lived by orthodox Jewish values of kindness, generosity, honesty, hard work and helping the less fortunate. I hope to pass on to today’s young people some of the life lessons that helped me survive the Holocaust in hopes of helping them survive their personal challenges.
Memories of Babi is based on your own experiences with your grandmother. Can you reveal which parts of the book are true, and which parts are fictional?
Memories of Babi is based on events that happened. All published stories we read have been composed, modified, and edited. The story of the Lekvar Fusesh is where I have most allowed myself to take advantage of poetic license. I wanted to show festivity, harmony and goodwill as an example for readers of the way things could have been without the mistrust, jealousy and hostility that was part of that reality.
Why do you call your main character "Piri" instead of "Aranka"?
The reason I use Piri, instead of Aranka (and my mother's maiden name, Rosner) is because I didn’t want to change the feelings of my friends and acquaintances in my town in New York by thinking of me as a Holocaust survivor. Piri is not a completely fictitious name because it derives from my Jewish name, Perele. By the 1960’s I had established a place for myself in America as a suburban wife, mother and participant in civic affairs and services. My dear husband of 52 years marriage had said at the time Upon The Head Of The Goat was being published, “I would be happy and proud if you would publish your book under my family name.” I decided to please him, though by then the galleys were out and the only part of the book that could be altered was the jacket.
It's remarkable how clearly you are able to recall Babi and your childhood. Why do you think these early memories live on so strongly for you?
All through my internment in concentration camps I held on to my memories. These were my only identity left after all other recognition was stripped away. I would revisit Babi, listen to her voice and remember her teaching me the laws she had lived by and the things we did together. I would go over them often until, in my moments of fantasy I was back in the countryside of Komyat and be myself, instead of the skeletal figure with head shaved in a dirty, shapeless gray sack, wooden shoes, starving with hunger pains in Auschwitz, a place devoid of nature, surrounded by death.
You end the book by saying you pray that Babi forgives you for not sharing her strong faith, yet you've written a book with very strong Jewish themes. What does it mean to you to have won the Sydney Taylor Honor Award, a Jewish book award? How would Babi feel if she knew you'd won this award?
I had always wanted to please Babi as a child and I still try to even now when I am older than she was then. I write and live with very strong Jewish feelings, but even as a little girl I questioned and tested God. After what I had seen and experienced in the Holocaust, my belief in God as an all knowing and compassionate being has been very deeply shaken. I heard multitudes of voices call to him, along with mine. No response, no help came.
Winning a Sydney Taylor Honor Award makes me feel that I have finally won Babi’s favor because it is given for the same values that Babi had lived by. I know that Babi, if she knew, and perhaps she does, would be deeply moved particularly because it is a Jewish award.
As for myself, I feel greatly honored to have been selected for this prestigious award.
If you could speak to Babi again, what would you say to her?
I would tell Babi that I had come full circle when I experienced the miracle of the birth of my two children, Rise and Joseph. My husband and I decided to join a temple so that we could hand down to our children our Jewish heritage and Babi's teaching.
The truth is I do speak to Babi all the time.
Why did you decide to include recipes at the back of the book? Which is your favorite recipe?
Including the recipes was suggested by Margaret Ferguson, my dear friend and editor of 25 years. Chicken soup is the one I make the most often because it is part of the traditional Sabbath meal. I also use it as the Jewish penicillin. My chicken soup is my daughter's favorite and I love making it for her whenever she comes to visit.
Aranka Siegal, thank you so much for sharing your memories in this interview and in your wonderful books!