The Freedom Circus,written by journalist and author Sue Smethurst, is an extraordinary story that follows the Horowitz family and their brave escape from Poland during the Second World War.
Congratulations Sue Smethurst on the publication and success of The Freedom Circus! It truly is an exceptional novel. What motivated you to begin writing this tale of hope, love, and resilience? Did you always have the intention of turning this story into a book?
Thank you, that’s very kind. I’m thrilled the book is out on the shelves and is being so well received! This never began as a book, it actually started as a family history project. I had heard snippets of my grandmother-in-law’s story from my husband and I’d always been intrigued by it, but Nanna never spoke about it and there was a general tone in the family that we didn’t ask because it may upset her. As she got older and we could see time was running out, I became more anxious to make sure we knew what had happened to her family and how she came to Australia for our children’s sake; I felt it was very important they knew their heritage and where they came from. So, I started visiting Nanna in the nursing home where she lived to talk to her about it and take down her story. It was clear to me from the first time we began talking that it wasn’t re-traumatising to her to speak, she just didn’t think her story was anything special because so many of her friends had suffered [from] the Holocaust too. Unfortunately, she passed away with many more conversations still to be had, and I felt a real sense that I wanted to finish what I started and get to the bottom of what happened to her family. It was such an incredible story that the book organically came from that. It was a family history project on steroids!
What was it like to research the novel and how long did it take? How did acquiring the information for this book differ from those you’ve written previously?
Overall, it took five years from the time I first sat down with Nanna to the book’s publication. It was hugely challenging because most of the information I was trying to find was on the other side of the world in Poland and, as I very quickly discovered, had been lost or destroyed during the war anyway. And, of course, the biggest difference between this book and previous books is that the other subjects have all been alive to share their story; in this case, we lost Nanna along the way which made the challenge even greater because the more I uncovered, the more questions I had and I couldn’t call her to ask!
It was a painstaking process trying to piece together a very complex jigsaw puzzle. I was fortunate that the family were really supportive and very helpful. My husband’s Uncle Denis had very strong memories of his childhood fleeing Poland, and my husband and his cousins all had a great deal of information that Nanna and Pop had told them as children; ironically Pop told them his story as bed time fairytales of the smart clowns who tricked the Nazis. As I discovered, they weren’t fairytales at all.
I don’t speak Polish, so I sought help from a Polish historian and translator in Australia who was an incredible help, and she was able to unlock lots of information for me and translate the documents we were able to find. It was quite a process and incredibly time-consuming, sometimes it took months for documents to arrive; often I’d assumed we had no luck finding information, then a random email would arrive many months after I’d been looking for something. Thankfully, I have a fabulous, wonderful, very patient publisher Sophie who forgave me after every manuscript deadline passed!
Was it ever difficult to learn so extensively of your family’s history? How do you think your position as a Horowitz family member influenced your authorship and writing?
At times it was absolutely heartbreaking. Particularly when we really began to understand what they’d suffered, the loss of their families, and the dreadful conditions they’d endured. And of course, I discovered that some family members, who Nanna had believed dead, had actually survived and they were never reunited. It was incredibly emotional at times, and I was very wary on not traumatising the family who were learning much of this information for the first time. It was quite challenging to have to share with the family some of the discoveries which I knew would be terribly upsetting.
What has stuck with you the most from this experience? Was there something you learnt or felt that has remained with you throughout the process of writing and publishing?
The one thing that really stayed with me was just how much I didn’t know about the Holocaust. I thought I had a pretty good knowledge of World War II and the events of the Holocaust. The more I researched the more I realised how little I really knew, and subsequently how little I think we as a community know about what this generation of people endured. It’s something I’m very passionate about now; our kids don’t learn anywhere near enough about world history.
As a journalist, you learn and share the stories of others. How has writing this book influenced your current and future work? Do you want to continue researching the past to keep our current and future generations informed?
There’s no doubt it’s influenced me enormously. I’m deeply interested in the Holocaust and telling the stories that have never been told, giving voice to those who lost theirs. We have so much to learn from our past and I do believe that it’s vital we understand our history for the sake of our future. As part of the research, we travelled to Poland to follow Nanna and Pop’s footsteps and that really opened my eyes to just how many stories still haven’t been told.
I saw that you had an online author talk event on Tuesday the 17th of November. How have you found the process of sharing this book? Has it enabled you to connect with others whose families have had similar experiences?
It’s been so enjoyable and eye-opening every time! I’ve spoken with people who knew my grandparents-in-law and remember seeing Pop perform. I’ve had families come forward who are in some of Nanna’s photographs—people we previously couldn’t identify. We uncovered the story of a fellow circus artist who also came to Australia and made a life here. It’s been really wonderful.
We always ask our interviewees for their book recommendations! What have you enjoyed recently and why?
I’m a huge fan of Jane Harper and Michael Robotham and I’ve devoured both of their latest books, The Survivors and When She Was Good, both brilliant, gripping books. At the moment, I’m reading The King’s Speech which I’m loving too. My ‘to-read’ pile is growing; I love to re-read books that I haven’t read for a long time too. The Australian classic Come in Spinner is sitting beside my bed. That’s my reading for summer.
Keep an eye out for Grace’s review of The Freedom Circus, due out soon!