When I discovered Carol Browne, author of Being Krstyna, lives only three miles away from me and has written about an inhabitant in my nearest town, Peterborough, I had to invite her onto Linda’s Book Bag, especially as today is Holocaust Memorial Day and Being Krystyna is related to that very subject.
In 2012 when young Polish immigrant Agnieszka visits fellow countrywoman Krystyna in a Peterborough care home for the first time, she thinks it a simple act of kindness. However, the meeting proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience.
Krystyna’s stories about the past are not memories of the good old days but recollections of war-ravaged Europe: The Warsaw Ghetto, Pawiak Prison, Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, and a death march to freedom.
The losses and ordeals Krystyna suffered and what she had to do to survive are horrors Agnieszka must confront when she volunteers to be Krystyna’s biographer.
Will Agnieszka be able to keep her promise to tell her story, and, in this harrowing memoir of survival, what is the message for us today?
From Fiction to Fact
A Guest Post by Carol Browne
When I volunteered to write the life story of local woman, Krystyna Porsz, I had no idea how to approach it. I am a fiction writer. I make things up. Putting a true story down on paper was a daunting prospect and I wasn’t sure I would do it justice. Although I had the facts of Krystyna’s life, they amounted to a few sheets of A4 paper—information Krystyna’s son had been able to jot down over the years when his mother had talked about her past—but there was hardly enough material for a book. So I had to build a structure to hang those facts on, very much like creating a plot for a work of fiction. A friend of mine, Agnieszka, had visited Krystyna in her Peterborough care home on two occasions and I used her as a narrative device, so we see the story unfold through her eyes. This gave me much more opportunity to pad out the text while still being true to the available facts. I believe it also draws in the reader as the relationship between these two Polish women develops. Plus, it anchors the narrative in the present, making the contrast between that and the past even more compelling.
Doing research for the book was time consuming but very straightforward. There is a wealth of information in books and online. I read as much as I could to get a general overview of wartime Europe and also made sure that the dates of various events mentioned in the book were correct. When I read the personal accounts of women who had survived the death camps, I could see there were certain similarities and I could use these to add substance to the narrative in places where Krystyna’s own story was lacking in details. For example, Krystyna mentioned the awful roll calls the women endured when they were forced to stand outside for hours on freezing winter evenings. While my experience as a fiction writer helped me with scene setting to add further weight to Krystyna’s own description of these ordeals, I was also able to use the accounts of other survivors to add more detail to what was in the notes. Every account I read had similar horrors to report: women were starving and freezing cold, they had dysentery, and they were randomly beaten for no reason.
While the research was easy, embedding the structure of the narrative into it was not. It all had to flow and seem natural while everything that Krystyna had endured needed to be truthfully and sensitively told and in such a way that the reader would be able to follow the timeline. I used her words whenever I could. In fact I also used those she spoke when I visited her myself. I wanted the book to be as authentic as possible. In the end, I believe it worked really well and the underlying message of the story emerged naturally by the time I reached the conclusion of the book. Sadly, this message remains relevant today because the racism, intolerance and hatred that allowed the Nazis to persecute millions of people are still with us.
About Carol Browne
Born in Stafford in the UK, Carol was raised in Crewe, Cheshire, which she thinks of as her home town. Interested in reading and writing at an early age, Carol pursued her passions at Nottingham University and was awarded an honours degree in English Language and Literature. Now living and working in the Cambridgeshire countryside, Carol usually writes fiction and is a contracted author at Burning Willow Press. Being Krystyna, published by Dilliebooks on 11th November 2016, is her first non-fiction book.