Felice Cohen writing about her grandfather a Holocaust Survivor.
I am a writer, artist and professional organizer living in New York City. My first book is a memoir called “What Papa Told Me.” It’s about my grandfather, a Holocaust Survivor, and his life before, during and after the war. I wrote the book because my grandfather asked me to. It was to be a gift for him, but has since been endorsed by Elie Wiesel and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem in Israel and won two honorable mention book awards. I also write a weekly blog www.felicecohen.wordpress.comabout the benefits of being organized. The 90 square foot apartment I lived in (I moved out in January after almost five years) was said to be one of the smallest in the world. While it was only 12’ x 7.5’, it was a great home. Ever since the YouTube video went viral last year with over 4 million hits, it has helped share my grandfather’s story with so many people. And also from that video, I’ve been writing more about the organized way of life.
2. Share with us the writing story-when you asked Papa if he had nightmares.
It’s been over 65 years since the Holocaust ended, yet for my grandfather, the memories are still real.
That story happened almost 20 years ago while I was on an annual visit to see my grandparents in Florida. Their beautiful condo overlooks paradise, yet inside, especially at night when they sleep, they both would remember the horrors. Writing this story happened one morning. We were eating breakfast and my grandfather said he was tired because he didn’t sleep. When I asked why he said he often wakes up in the middle of the night dreaming that the Nazis were chasing him. Still today, sometimes when he closes his eyes they’re there.
3. Writing The Beginning of the End chapter was when the war started.
I wrote that title because for my grandfather, the start of the war was the beginning of the end of that life he knew. All of his family except for one sister and a few cousins were murdered.
4. What happened if you tried to escape, but were caught?
Many Jews tried to escape. Some were successful. My grandfather wanted to escape and be free (who didn’t?) and that one night in the barracks in a labor camp, when two new prisoners tried to get others to build a tunnel and escape with them, many were too scared of the consequences. It ended up that those two did try, but were caught and then hanged for all to see the consequences as i was writing this with my grandfather it brought back so many painful memories.
5. Talk the different camps, Direnfurt camp, (Muscle man)
My grandfather was in eight different camps, four labor camps and four concentration camps. In the labor camps you had a better chance to survive if you could work. My grandfather was in his late teens and was healthy enough to work hard, even though he was starving. Since he was a strong worker, the guards liked him because his hard work made them look good. Also, my grandfather was always cutting deals between the prison guards and the prisoners, trading valuables for scraps of food. But after a few years into the war, with it feeling like it would never end, it was hard to stay strong, to keep working on such few rations and in such harsh conditions. In Gross Rosen my grandfather wheeled dead bodies to the crematoriums and at night he peeled potatoes. Also, it was very cold, more so because they didn’t have warm clothes. But despite the harsh conditions my grandfather found a way to remain positive and have hope. Like at one new camp he discovered he had a cousin who worked in the kitchen and was overjoyed thinking his cousin would give him extra food. But when the cousin said my grandfather had to pay him, that’s when my grandfather became a “muzelman” meaning he no longer cared if he lived or died. He said, “If my own family is not for me, then who is?”
6. Your apartment- YouTube sensation with almost 4 million hits, why do you think it got so big?
I think the video became popular for the same reason people like to watch Hoarders or Before and After home shows or even cooking shows. We wish we could do that –renovate, get rid of, cook – but don’t. Seeing my tiny apartment with all the fixings you need, show that you can live comfortably with less. Most everything today is bigger. Food gets “Biggie” sized, SUVS, Costco, and while everyone wants more stuff, I don’t think it ultimately makes people happier, living cramped with stuff they don’t even use, and even having problems paying for the stuff. I have just what I need and I don’t have to worry about bills, cleaning lots of space or feeling tied down. I think people liked that. The fact it was popular internationally may be because many think Americans only want more and to see me living with less they were inspired. I have received writing from people all over the world impressed and inspired by how I live.
7. Gives us some marketing tips on how you move your book, (Social media, etc.)
Writing“What Papa Told Me” was just to print a few copies and hand them out to my family. But when the book came out, other factors came into play. I was asked to be in a documentary about grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, I discovered there was a group for grandchildren of Survivors in New York, and I realized there was this niche. Having studied marketing in college I started writing press releases and sent them out along with free copies to the press and directors of Holocaust centers and museums. I designed my own website. I figured I had nothing to lose. At first word of mouth helped. I tried and still try, to get copies into the right hands. Also, having it available as an e-book has been unbelievable. I am currently selling it for 99 cents and have sold a lot than I ever expected. The point of writing this book was not to make money, but to share my grandfather’s story.
8. What has worked well for you? What has not worked well for you? marketing your book.
Writing friends was very helpful at getting connections. I had a reading at a popular Boston bookstore because a childhood friend was friends with the owner, and another talk at a JCC because of a cousin’s connection. Not being shy helped. I send a lot of “cold call” emails or just call. I look at it like fishing. The more times you cast, the better your chances of getting a catch. I also designed bookmarks, which were inexpensive, and hand them out with each book. In terms of what has not worked well…it’s hard to say because I’m still learning, but I would say it could be the same thing. I have sent out a number of books to folks I’ve not heard back from.
9. Being a professional organizer-has that help you pull everything together?
By all means. In terms of writing the book and getting it published, I did everything from formatting, copyrighting, helping with cover design, etc. My parents helped edit and other family gave feedback, but I had to learn and complete each step as I went. Now I still wear many hats: PR, marketing, scheduling talks and readings, planning the travel, etc. I am also writing other books and the weekly blog, have clients I organize for (office and home), and work two days a week at a graduate school planning their events. Being organized is the only way I am able to juggle all the responsibilities.
10. Final comment: What travel experience changed your life?
Hard question. While being robbed in Peru of my passport and wallet three hours before my flight home was not fun, the trip that had the most impact on changing my life was my trip to Sczcekociny, Poland in 2008. I went to visit the town where my grandfather was born and grew up and where he last saw his family before being taken away to the camps. It was that trip that helped me finally complete writing “What Papa Told Me.” (I’d been working on it for years). Seeing the anti-Semitism still apparent in 2008, made me realize that I was writing this book not just for my grandfather, but for my niece and nephew, cousins and the thousands of people who’ve read it already and the thousands who still will. Writing this story will be for them so they can see what happened- so that it doesn’t happen again.