Helene Ritchie, a leading local politician in Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington, was born in Wellington of refugee parents, in the year of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 1977 she is the first Jewish woman elected to Wellington City Council, then later the first female Labour leader there, the first female deputy mayor and the longest-serving city councillor. Helene talks to NZ Booklovers about her latest book.
Tell us a little about The Burned Letter.
“Every day I am in Auschwitz,” she would say. Even though she never was.
During the Holocaust, Lidi as a teenager flees Hitler and arrives in New Zealand with her mother, as a Jewish refugee.
Five years later, in 1945, a few months after the liberation of Auschwitz, she receives a letter that tells her what happened to those whom she loved most dearly.
Lidi burns the letter hoping that by turning it into ashes the horror would disappear along with her trauma.
But instead, she would say over and over again, “They, all those relations, just perished.”
Nearly 70 years later, just before she dies at the age of 92, Lidi says she regrets burning the letter.
“They” remain a mystery to me, Helene, Lidi’s daughter. As does their fate. For fifty years, she
Travels the world searching for her grandparents, and her “just perished” family. It was as if “they”
all just disappeared in a puff of smoke. Helene find traces in the killing centres, ghettos and death marches across Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany, and murder, suicides, theft, tragic love affairs.
Unintentionally she unearths some hidden parts of her mother and her Self.
The Burned Letter is a true assiduously researched Holocaust mystery, a story, piecing together, who they were, what happened to those in the burned letter.
Can you tell us a little about the research you did, seeking to find out about what happened to your family who perished?
I was determined that this book be properly researched and sourced. As a result there is an extensive bibliography and background notes, primarily to evidence the information in the book, but also to help others who are doing this kind of research and search. The research itself took many forms – site visits in far away countries, archival visits in dark tunnels, interviews, emails, letters, reading journals, and books, the internet, membership of specific groups, new contacts, new family contacts, to name a few.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
The writing started a long time ago, but not with the intention of writing this book. I travelled, I did what today might be called ‘site visits’. As well, the information sometimes came in astounding chance ways. Most of the time I sought it out across the world. After I left my political life in 2016, I was determined to do nothing else but intensive research and to write all the time, for over three years.
The complexity of the book the information, the people the dates of discovery and the dates of the people who were the story, made for challenging sequencing. Then many drafts, and editing, seeking advice from others, making multiple decisions, most on my own, matching end notes to texts, and constantly going back and forth, seeking permissions, deciding on photos, deciding on the method of publishing , the cover etc.. I suppose the only routine I had was to be determined to publish it and keep going for the then seven to eight years that I did almost to the exclusion of most other life!
This must have been a difficult, emotional book to write. How was it for you personally researching and writing this book?
Very often sad and challenging, and often questioning myself. There was surprise at discovery, coupled with a feeling for which there is no word perhaps of excitement, mixed with pleasure, profound sadness.
There was astonishment with the repeated serendipity, chance people, chance discovery.
There was intellectual satisfaction with research and the finding of evidence and proof.
Eventually, ultimately, there is a certain peace.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include that would evoke the mood of The Burned Letter.
I have no song or name. I have some poems I wrote within the book.
There is smell – constant smell of burning bodies, but that is not sound.
There would have been sound, horrific sounds.
And, there was the silence,
the profound and deep silence, grief for those most loved who were “all those relations,
They were murdered.
Is that a sound with a soundtrack?
The mood is sombre, sad, but also one of hope.
Are there songs like that ? I doubt it.
Should there be?
Do I want to evoke a mood?
There is none like it.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
The book launch was a celebration, so I invited others to join me to celebrate not only completion of this important story, but also to celebrate the lives of “all those relations, just perished”. I will also celebrate in some of the far-away countries of the book and with relatives I never knew I had until recently.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
There have been many, and because of my focus, most have been biographies, political biographies and books about the Holocaust and associated.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
Now that I know my whakapapa (and never thought I would), and I have unearthed some hidden parts of my mother, my Self, and of “all those relations just perished”, I feel I can write another book, about my own life, a life of service and political activism in my country, Aotearoa/New Zealand. But before I do that a walk in the bush, a swim, gardening in my allotment, and some time with my grandchildren are all on the agenda, along with introducing me and my book t a handful of newfound cousins, all dispersed in faraway countries of Sweden, Denmark, England, France, America, Czech Republic, and maybe, but next time, Brazil!
The book is available at all bookshops or online: