Today I’m joined by the wonderful Melinda Szymanik, author of the powerful new book, A Winter’s Day in 1939. Based on her father’s experiences during World War II, A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds. Melinda has written a really interesting post for My Best Friends Are Books about why and how she wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939.
Why and How I wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939
When the Soviet soldiers come and order them out, Adam and his family have no idea where they are going or if they will ever come back. The Germans have attacked Poland and the world is at war. Boarding a cattle train Adam and his family embark on a journey that will cover thousands of miles and several years, and change all their lives forever. And mine too. Because Adam’s story, the story told in my new novel A Winter’s Day in 1939, is very much my Dad’s story.
I often heard fragments of this story from my dad when I was growing up. It was shocking, and sad, and amazing. My Dad’s family was forced out of their home and taken to a labour camp in Russia. It was freezing cold, and many people died from disease or starvation. Even when the Soviets finally let them go, they spent weeks travelling around the USSR , were made to work on Soviet farms and were still hungry and often sick, with no idea of where they might end up next. As a child growing up in a peaceful place like New Zealand it was hard to imagine the real dangers and terrible conditions my father experienced.
I didn’t get to know the full story until I was grown up with children of my own and was regularly writing stories for children. I wrote a short story, also called A Winter’s Day in 1939, based on a single event I knew fairly well from my Dad‘s childhood – when Soviet Soldiers first come to order them off their farm, the only home my father had known up till that point in his life. The story was published in The Australian School Magazine. I showed the short story to the publishers Scholastic who liked it too. They wondered if I could turn it in to a novel. This was a chance to tell my father’s story. By now I knew it was an important story that should be shared
Luckily my Dad had made notes about his life during World War Two; about twenty pages all typed up. However I know people’s real lives don’t always fit into the framework of a novel and I knew I would have to emphasize some things and maybe leave other things out.
I read and researched to add the right details to the story. And asked my parents lots of questions. How cold was it in Poland in January 1940? Who or what were the NKVD? What were the trains like? What are the symptoms of typhoid? How do you make your own skis? Some information was hard to find. Some of the places that existed in the 1940s aren’t there anymore. And people didn’t keep records about how many people were taken to the USSR from Poland or what happened to particular individuals. But what I wanted to give readers most of all was a sense of how it felt to live that life. So this then is the story of a twelve year old Polish boy in the USSR during World War 2 that all started on A Winter’s Day in 1939.