Last year, a research study revealed a distressing issue: Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. The research was commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
What can be done to increase awareness among young people? One author is doing it through the art of storytelling. Roberta Seret, Ph.D., recently completed her third book on the subject. “Treasure Seekers” also marks completion of Seret’s “Transylvanian Trilogy.” The three books are set primarily in Romania and trace the fate of Jews during the Holocaust and afterwards.
Dr. Seret recently sat down with Jewish Scene Magazine to explain her writing process, how she goes about engaging readers and the importance of remembering the Holocaust.
Jewish Scene Magazine: You use a fairly unique technique known as hybrid storytelling. Can you explain how you developed this style?
Roberta Seret: “My two loves are literature and film, and I started to see that the best way to teach is, of course, through literature, but also through film. Because seeing is believing and students, as well as most of us today, are mostly visual learners and are accustomed to the screen of the computer and the iPad. And I thought that would be a wonderful way to capture using film and then also using literature as a reinforcement for retention.”
JSM: Another interesting facet of your work is the combination of historically accurate events with fictional characters. How does that work for a historian like yourself?
RS: “As I was creating “Gift of Diamonds” (first in the trilogy), I realized that a lot of people don’t know very much about Romania, and they don’t know about the politics in the history for Romania. I thought it would be a fascinating background for a story narrative, because it’s so colorful and so exotic and so unknown, and the country itself is so beautiful. And I knew nonfiction would be a little dry, so I thought if I mixed fiction with it, I would make the history and the facts a little more exciting. The idea is to make the fact more exciting and to make the fiction more real.”
JSM: How did you use the plot devices of a thriller, a love story and longtime friendships to advance the narrative?
RS: “Book one is the story of Mica and her escape with the diamonds. Book two is the story of Anca and her love odyssey. And book three is the treasure seekers in Romania. Chronologically, the three books fit very nicely together.”
JSM: What kind of response have you had from readers?
RS: “It’s been so positive. People find them very exciting. They say that it’s a ‘page-turner,’ and they just start reading it and the reading goes fast. I tried to edit it tightly. Readers want to see what’s going to happen, and they feel as if they’re actually there. What was interesting to me is that I had men who are saying how much they enjoyed it. And I thought that they would be more women stories because the protagonist mostly is female.”
JSM: Is it difficult for you as an academic to tell a story that combines fact and fiction?
RS: “My temperament is very creative and imaginative. Sometimes I think I live in a little fantasy world, and I love to tell stories. So the fiction was not so difficult because I was telling a story. It is a challenge, but it’s also a love, a passion. And I got into it. I also must share that I’m a type of writer that does not work with an outline. I do a little automatic writing, and I just keep going, and I rewrite by editing. So, I imagine it, I create, and I just think about it and try to put myself into the characters. And of course, I draw upon my own autobiography and life, that’s inevitable with the writer.”
JSM: Another component of your work is the International Film Festival in Romania during May and June. How does that event fit into creating more awareness of a tragic period?
RS: “The film festival is in Northern Transylvania, in a town called Șimleu Silvaniei, which is about 30 kilometers from the Hungarian border. This is a Holocaust education outreach to try to teach students about this period of time and the Hungarian and Romanian involvement in this history. We hope to show a film every one or two weeks in the in the synagogue and in the community center of Șimleu Silvaniei, in Romania. We thought we’d go slowly with them to explain that genocide was not only during the Holocaust, but genocide is genocide and the evil of it. The festival volunteers are all high school and college students from nearby Cluj. It’s one of the major Romanian cities after Bucharest, and the students knew nothing about the Holocaust.”
During the research phase Dr. Seret routinely conducts before writing her hybrid storytelling, she uncovered some sobering statistics about the Holocaust. They include:
- In 1930, Romania had a Jewish population of 725,000-750,000.
- In 1945, 290,000-360,000 Jews had survived.
- In 1940 there were 95,072 Jews living in Bucharest.
- In 1945 there were 100,000-150,000 Jews living in Bucharest, which included Jews from other sections of the country who had sought safety in the capital.
Postscript: Dr. Seret’s in-laws were among those who were saved.
Dr. Seret is director of Advanced English and Film for the Hospitality Committee at the United Nations, and founder of the NGO at the United Nations, International Cinema Education. The three books in the Transylvanian Trilogy series are available here.