Heather Morris, THREE SISTERS

Heather Morris, THREE SISTERS

Zibby is joined by #1 New York Times bestselling novelist, Heather Morris, to talk about the third book in her trilogy of Holocaust novels, Three Sisters. The two discuss how miraculous each of the three sisters’ stories is, why she has chosen to write true stories as fiction instead of biographies, and what it means to Heather to know her books are being taught as part of the curriculum in schools around the world. Heather also shares how she initially became involved in this family of narratives as well as why she was sought out to write them because she herself isn’t Jewish.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Heather. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Three Sisters.

Heather Morris: You’re very welcome. Thank you for the invite. I’m happy to be talking to you, actually, from California. Day before yesterday, I arrived.

Zibby: Enjoy. It’s probably a lot warmer than it is in New York right now. You obviously wrote The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which became this giant, number-one New York Times best-seller out in the world, then Cilka’s Journey. Did I pronounce that right? Cilka’s Journey?

Heather: Yes, correct.

Zibby: Cilka’s Journey. Now this is the third in the trilogy of those called Three Sisters. I watched the video on your website of — oh, my gosh, now I’m blanking on her name.

Heather: Livia.

Zibby: Yes, Vivia. Livia. Sorry, Livia. I watched Livia’s video and couldn’t believe it. Why don’t you tell the story of how you discovered this story and how it led you to write this book?

Heather: The story found me. That’s the way it works with me these days. Stories come to me. I was in South Africa. I was on a book tour for Cilka’s Journey there. Early hours of the morning, I got back to my hotel room and read an email. That email was from Livia’s son, one of the three sisters, Oded. He had written to me saying that he’d picked up a copy of The Tattooist of Auschwitz in Toronto where he lives and taken it to Israel to visit his mom. The thing you need to know is that the cover of The Tattooist of Auschwitz in Australia and in Canada is different to what it is in the United States. It’s just a black background with two arms with tattooed numbers on them. He left that on his mother’s coffee table. She walked past, glanced down, and said to him, “That must be about Lale and Gita.” When he said, “How could you possibly know that?” she said, “It’s simple. Look at the number on the arm. Now look at the number on my arm. They’re three apart. I know that. Your Auntie Cibi’s was two apart from Gita’s. We went to school with Gita. We were on the train going to Auschwitz with Gita. We shared block twenty-one with Gita.” When you read that, no matter what the time of the early hours of the morning it is and no matter how many wines you’ve had because you’re staying in the wine region of South Africa, there’s no sleeping. Within a matter of only about four or five days, I flew directly from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv and into the apartment and into the arms of Livi and her family and Magda and her family and Cibi’s family. I’m now part of the family. Livi’s even asked if she could adopt me. I had to say no.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. When she told it in the video, she said, my son just set it. Of course, I knew her. She’s from my town. She went to school together. It’s crazy just to see it. I can only imagine the goosebumps you felt at that.

Heather: Absolutely. Just not what you expect to hear. This is the thing about the Holocaust in terms of the survivors, how far and wide they did flee and that they can then connect through this one book that I wrote in Melbourne, Australia, when Lale Sokolov gave me his story.

Zibby: It’s like the world becomes smaller and smaller. How did you start The Tattooist of Auschwitz? How did you find his story? How did this whole thing begin?

Heather: Once again, crazy. I had a cup of coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen for many months because I lived out of Melbourne a bit. She just casually said to me, “I have a friend whose mother’s just died. His father has asked him to find somebody he can tell a story to. That person can’t be Jewish. You’re not Jewish. Do you want to meet him?” When I asked her, “What’s the story?” she said she didn’t know. “Oh, never mind, I’d love to meet him.” A week later, I knocked on Lale Sokolov’s door, eighty-seven years of age, grieving the loss of his wife, Gita, and began this three-year friendship that resulted in his story.

Zibby: Why couldn’t you be Jewish? Why couldn’t the author be Jewish?

Heather: He was clear on that, Lale was. To him, there could not a Jewish person alive who was not affected by the Holocaust who did not have their own backstory, their own family’s story. I was the perfect bunny in some ways as I had to admit to him how my small-town New Zealand education had taught me so little about the Holocaust. I didn’t even know a Jewish person growing up.

Zibby: Really?

Heather: Yeah, a small, little, rural town in New Zealand, very protected from the rest of the world and what was going on and had gone on in it.

Zibby: Wow. I’m Jewish. I live in New York City. There are many, many Jewish people. It is not a small, remote town. Part of my Jewish education was once-a-week Hebrew school where we would talk about the Holocaust every time. As a child, I was like, can we talk about something else? I got it. I already got it. What are we doing this year? Same thing again?

Heather: See, that didn’t happen for me growing up, and even as a young adult. I moved from New Zealand to Australia. I met, of course, several Jewish people. I was working with some. I still really didn’t get a grasp on the significance of the Holocaust. I knew the word. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary. To then meet somebody — living history, Lale was. Livi and Magda who I’ve spent, now, time with and been lucky to be able to get in and out of Israel prior to the pandemic — of course, it’s keeping me away right now. Livi and Magda are both still alive. They are ninety-six and ninety-eight. I’m desperate to get back to them.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. By the way, I didn’t mean to sound flippant about learning about the Holocaust.

Heather: Oh, no, I know.

Zibby: Obviously, it’s very moving. I’m super interested. I feel like as I’ve gotten older, actually, I am even more interested in reading accounts of survival, all these little stories, because each family is a miracle. Every survival story is miraculous in some way. It’s improbable and miraculous. I find myself clinging to those as inspiration for getting through really anything, like your book. Tell me more about these three sisters and their unique story.

Heather: The fact that three sisters survived, the entire sibling of one family survived, I’m told by the historians and academics is an absolute miracle. Lale and Gita lost their family. For three of them to have survived — they were just young girls. Livi was just fifteen when she was taken there along with Cibi, her eldest sister. She was nineteen. Cibi only went on that train from Vranov to Auschwitz because she couldn’t let her baby sister go alone. The story, it’s told in the initial stages in two different narratives of two of the sisters together traveling and their existence for two and a half years in Auschwitz-Birkenau while Magda, the middle sister, is back in Slovakia with her mother and grandfather. Her survival, in some ways, getting it out of Magda was more difficult than it was to get Livi’s story. You got to imagine that this woman, even at ninety-eight, still carries the guilt of having slept in her own bed for two and a half years while her sisters were surviving in Auschwitz. She knows how bad it was because that’s where she ended up. It’s not like she couldn’t picture or in any way have to try and imagine what was it like from their telling. She ended up there two and a half years later. Then together, they survived a death march. The death march, you only get a snippet of it. There’s way much more to their death march survival, which is going to be coming out shortly. It’s coming out because after seventy-seven years, Magda’s family have found a diary that Magda wrote in real time on that death march. In the back of the book, there’s one little extract of it. They only found that diary as the book was about to go to the printers.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Heather: We now have this incredible document, some seventy-seven, seventy-eight pages, handwritten, beautiful Slovakian handwriting of Magda, the date, the time, the place as they were running on this death march. Germans, Russians, threatening , to survive that, again, a miracle where so many didn’t. It wasn’t days or weeks. It was months. I know exactly because of that diary, the date that they ran from the Nazis. It was the 30th of April. They were taken on that death march on the 18th of January. It was significant. Then to get back to Slovakia and once again to be not accepted, to be a second-class citizen, it was Livi, the baby, the youngest, who made the decision she would not live like that. The only good thing that happened to the sisters when they went back to Slovakia, Cibi met a man, fell in love, and had a baby boy, the one of the six children born to the sisters born in Slovakia, Karol. Livi said, no, we’re going, and persuaded Magda to go with her and train in the forests in Czech Republic. It was Czechoslovakia then. I’ve got to try and remember the timelines when these countries change from Czechoslovakia to Czech Republic to Slovakia.

Then they smuggled through the length of Slovakia, which thankfully is not a very big country. You’ve got to picture, it’s communist rule. You can’t move out of your town. For this group of young people to be smuggled through that country into Romania — again, communist controlled — smuggled through there and to get to the Black Sea and step foot on a boat and step off that boat on the 28th of February, 1949, in Haifa in Israel — it’s at that pivotal moment in time that the nation-state of Israel is being created. What I’m delighted about in telling this story is now sharing with readers what it was like for young people to be in that country, in that state as it was being created and developed, not through the eyes of politicians and the United Nations and the other folks who, they say they created the state. I won’t make a comment on the right and the wrong of one state being created at the expense of another. The girls’ survival there is, again, simple but extraordinary. Livi worked for the first president of the state of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, and befriended him and the first first lady. If you’ve seen in the back, the photo of Livi and Ziggy, that third person in that photo is Vera Weizmann, the first first lady of Israel. Such was their friendship. Once again, there’s way more to it too, of the maid and the president.

Phenomenal how every dignitary leader of other countries, heads of state that came to Israel to pay homage to Weizmann and to meet him, he insisted they had to meet Livi and say to them, “She is the reason we have created the state. She has more right to walk on the soil than I do. She and her sisters have paid the ultimate price and deserve to be here.” They had to meet her and acknowledge her for being a representative, I suppose you could say, of all those young people who fled to Israel. Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, whenever he came to the house, which was every week because Weizmann was actually quite sick and never left his home until he died — he actually died while still president in the home. Ben-Gurion, the prime minister, had to visit him every week. Ben-Gurion would immediately seek out Livi. He would kiss the numbers on her hand. To hear Livi sort of joke about, “You think my numbers would be all gone by now because Ben-Gurion would kiss them away so many times,” the story of these three amazing sisters. They each had two children. Cibi, two boys. Magda, two girls. Livi, a boy and a girl. Today, four generations of a legacy of their survival, their victory.

Zibby: Wow. Oh, my gosh, Heather, you are just a master storyteller. I could just sit here and listen to you all day. I know you write that way, too, from your book. Just even listening to you, wow. It’s so amazing.

Heather: I’m just so, so humbled to be telling these stories. I really am. I don’t say that lightly and glibly. They trust me to tell their stories. It’s a huge thing. Lale got to know me over three years. I was with him up until two hours before he died knowing he would not see the sun come up the next day. He met my family. He knew my family. He flirted with my daughter shamelessly. He was part of my family. These sisters, but not only Livi and Magda — Cibi died, by the way, in 2014, so I haven’t met her. I’ve got her story not only from her sisters, but from her two sons. Also, both Cibi and Livi made tapes. I’ve been able to sit and, not listen to Cibi’s tape, watch her, having read the translation because I don’t speak Hebrew. I have her story from her mouth.

Zibby: Why write it as fiction?

Heather: In writing Lale’s story, I was told initially to write it as a memoir. I tried to do that. I even went to memoir school for a day. It was a five-day course. I knew after one day I couldn’t tell it under the rules of a memoir or biography. They’re quite strict. You can’t have conversations in them. I’d spent three years talking to Lale. How else can I tell his story if not through the conversations that he’d shared with me? In making that decision, the publisher said, “It has to become fiction because you are, in some ways, reimagining the conversations that you’ve had.” Let me give you a good example of it with the sisters, of what I do. I’m going to give away the beginning here, folks, but I don’t think it’ll matter. If you picked up the book in a library or in a bookshop and you read the first two or three pages, you’d read this anyway. The whole premise of the story — you’re going to see this in a few weeks’ time when another video comes out that has been made about the family and all the families.

Zibby: I can’t wait.

Heather: You’re going to learn that these girls, this survival, they attribute their survival to a promise they made to their father when they were little girls. They were three, five, and seven. That promise was to stay together, look after each other, always be there for each other. There’s the spoiler. Their father died the next day. I know that. They’ve told me that. Their whole life has all been about, remember the promise to Papa. That’s how they remind each other. I’m told that by the girls, Livi and Magda. I call them the girls. As I say, nearly a hundred. They tell me that. Then I said to them, “What do you remember? How much do you remember about the promise other than the fact that you’ve remembered it all your life? What were the circumstances?” Livi tried to say something. Magda looked . “You were three. You don’t remember it at all. You just remember because we reminded you every day of your life.” There’s this lovely banter that goes on between these two beautiful sisters. Magda said to me, “You know, I can’t remember the details.” “Okay, it doesn’t matter.”

Then I said to them, “Tell me about your home in Slovakia, in Vranov.” Because they left there then as teenagers, the same home, both of them start telling me. “The house, we had one bedroom. We shared that with Mama,” and their grandfather which came to live with them after their father died. They joked and said, “He lived in a broom closet,” Livi’s saying. “Poor grandfather. He escaped in the broom closet.” I said, “Was it really a broom closet?” She said, “No, but it was so small, it should’ve been.” Then they describe a tiny, little kitchen area with two chairs for the grandmother and the grandfather to sit in and a table. That’s pretty much it. I thought, okay, I’ve now got a visual of the home they lived in. Then Magda piped up with, “Remember the oleander tree out in the backyard, Livi?” She said, “Of course.” Magda said, “Every year, that oleander tree wanted to die. Mama wouldn’t let it.” That’s the memory that this teenage girl has. Of course, it really was a matter of every winter, the tree dying off. To Magda, even now at ninety-eight, that tree was wanting to die, and her mother brought it back to life and wouldn’t let it. Livi piped in. She said, “The gate on the back fence that was never fixed, it used to bang when the wind blew. It scared me at night.” When you’re sitting with these women well into their nineties and that’s their memory, my job now is to tell you about the promise to their father. I get to decide where to set it. I reimagined and set it out in the backyard with their father around the oleander tree. That’s why it’s fiction, because we don’t know for a fact that’s where that conversation happened. Everything, the majority of my stories — of course, they tell me the vignette. They tell me what happened. Through research of the makeup of Auschwitz-Birkenau, researching the death marches and where they were and how they were, I can reimagine and put the girls into it. For that reason, publishers say it’s fiction.

Zibby: Wow, what a story. You told that scene beautifully. The father, was this true too, that he died of the bullet that was lodged in from the first war?

Heather: Yeah. It had caused him problems for years, quite debilitating. A doctor in , which is the nearest large town to Vranov, persuaded him that he could operate and remove it. He never made it off the table.

Zibby: After all this work that you’ve done so far and that clearly, you’re still right in the middle of doing, what does it inspire you to do? Now that you know all this — you came from a position of not knowing that much about the Holocaust other than broad strokes, Anne Frank. Now you’re deep in it and the ultimate researcher, really, of the entire thing. Of course, our last survivors are elderly at this point. Do you feel a big responsibility? You’re sharing, obviously, the stories far and wide in your fiction. Above and beyond that, are you getting involved in Jewish organizations? Do you feel this, now, ownership to some extent? Do you know what I’m trying to say?

Heather: I do. I’m very clear. They may be my books; they’ve never been my stories. In terms of responsibility, the only responsibility I actually feel is to Lale and Gita, to Cilka, and to the three sisters and their families. I am not an academic or historian. We just are so grateful that for the decades since the Holocaust they have kept that alive. They will continue. Is there a place for the individual stories that are now coming out? Absolutely, I believe so. Along with every survivor I’ve met, you know who they pay homage to, who they actually revere? Steven Spielberg, who made that amazing movie, Schindler’s List, who, when he completed that, sent videographers all around the world. Find survivors. Record their testimonies. Lale and Gita in Melbourne made a video. Livi and Cibi did. I believe that he has some fifty thousand-plus testimonies which will endure. The stories are there. Yes, we’re not going to have the same access to get them firsthand anymore. A lot of them, they’ve been told.

Zibby: Are you ready to write fifty thousand books?

Heather: If it’s not obvious, honey, I haven’t got the years on me left to do that. In terms of where I sit with regard to the Jewish people, the religion, the culture, the race, any other title you wish to give yourselves, absolutely privileged to be accepted into Jewish communities all around the world and speak at them, from South Africa to the London synagogue and, of course, the New York Holocaust Museum and everywhere in between. If it’s not obvious, I don’t mind speaking. I am really bummed about this pandemic, which has kept me from traveling. When I can, I will get back on the road and be traveling more. This is now what I — it’s not even a calling. That’s sort of being glib too. I’m very, very happy to speak to any organization who wants me to. I don’t use the word proud with me very often, but one thing I’m very proud of is that in Australia, in particular the largest state, New South Wales — in about two weeks’ time, the children there will return to school. They’re on their summer break. For two years, what are called here seven and eight, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is required reading. There are many schools in Australia already, and in the UK and in New Zealand, that book is on the curriculum. I speak to schools. I used to go and do a lot in person. Of course, it’s now Zooming. For me, being able to have young students now read another story out of the Holocaust — yes, they had Anne Frank’s diary and The Boy in Striped Pajamas. Now they’ve got Lale and Gita’s story. The wonderful thing is that these kids actually seem to relate to it. I know that from the thousands and thousands who have written to me and even thousands more that I’ve met and spoken to. Kids, teenagers, as young as nine have written to me saying, I get it.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. You’re doing a mitzvah, honestly.

Heather: Like every good story, these people involved were just ordinary people, but they lived and survived extraordinary times. None of these survivors that I’ve met — I’ve met them all around the world, many of them. None of them want to be in any way singled out or praised or in any way revered for what they did. It really is a matter of, tell my story so that it doesn’t happen again.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Heather, what advice would you have for an aspiring author, particularly, perhaps, somebody who’s trying to do this brand of historical fiction, if you will?

Heather: Find a snippet in your newspaper. Go back to old media. Look at something. See what catches your attention. There’ll be something there. If you’ve got an interest in the weather or in military and whatever, it’s a matter of, find this little gem of which they are there every day in front of you. You just got to open your eyes or listen. Then start looking into it. Here’s the thing about research which has got me into a little bit of strife occasionally. Don’t get me wrong, I do research, and I have paid professional researchers as well, as much as we can. When it comes down to telling a story and research through the history and the memory of the person I know, don’t walk side by side. I have to choose, what am I going to go with? Every time, I’m going to go with the memory. I’m not sure if you can confirm this, but I was told several years ago by a rabbi in Sydney that in Hebrew, there is no word for history. All your stories must come from the memories of those who lived, survived, were part of, witnessed, experienced. That’s where the stories come from. If they’re flawed and their memory is not a hundred percent, does it matter? To some people, it does. To me, it doesn’t. Their memory, their story. The number of survivors I have met — I get quite a sort of emotion about this — who thank me for writing and telling Lale and Gita’s story in particular, they say, in telling their story, you’ve told mine. They often will qualify that with, I now can rest easy. I now don’t have to keep trying to persuade others to remember.

Zibby: Heather, wow. Thank you. Thank you for talking to me. Thank you on behalf of all of the listeners who are hearing your story and the stories that you’re pulling out and shining a light on that could have just as easily been forgotten and, instead, are going to change lives. It’s really powerful work that you do and really meaningful. It’s just amazing to hear it right from you. Thank you.

Heather: Look, thank you so much. The story of Livi and Magda and Cibi, it really worth knowing because they were just these young girls. That pact, that sibling love — Lale and Gita’s story is romantic love. This is what I like about these stories. We’ve gone from romantic love to the unconditional love of siblings and that bond which for the majority of us, I hope and I presume, is unbreakable. I’m here in California. I flew here from Australia less than forty-eight hours ago. I’ve been locked out, locked in from so much of the world. I’m here to be with my brother and my sister-in-law because it’s all about family.

Zibby: Thank you. Enjoy your time in the States.

Heather: I will.

Zibby: I hope you get home with no incident.

Heather: That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?

Zibby: Exactly. You and Djokovic may be hanging out at the hotel or something.

Heather: Oh, don’t go there.

Zibby: Okay, I won’t go there. Anyway, thank you so much for spending the time with me and for sharing all of your work. I’m just so excited to follow everything and to watch the new video that you’ll be releasing soon too.

Heather: Yes, in a couple of weeks’ time. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye, Heather. Thank you.

Heather Morris, THREE SISTERS

THREE SISTERS by Heather Morris

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