An interview with Kristy Cambron,
Author of A Sparrow in Terezin
Just like a single candle can brighten a dark room, a glimmer of hope can sustain the soul in dark times. In her highly-anticipated second novel, Kristy Cambron shines a light on the resiliency of the human spirit in A Sparrow in Terezin (Thomas Nelson/April 7, 2015/ISBN: 978-1401690618/$15.99).
Q: Your new book has a unique title — A Sparrow in Terezin. Where is Terezin, and what happened there?
Terezin (or Theresienstadt in German) was a small fortress and garrison city converted to a ghetto and concentration camp during WWII. Positioned just an hour automobile ride north of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic, the 18th-century fortress was an ideal place for the Nazis to set up a Gestapo prison for political prisoners early in the war. By 1941, the camp was converted also to a ghetto and transport camp for mainly Czech, but also Soviet, Polish, German and Yugoslavian Jews. Of the approximate 150,000 prisoners who passed through Terezin during the course of the war, nearly 90,000 were deported to Auschwitz or other extermination camps. Of the 15,000 children who were sent to Terezin between 1942 and 1944, fewer than 100 survived the war.
Q: How was Terezin different than other concentration camps we may be more familiar with?
Terezin was cruelly referred to as the “Model Ghetto” or “Paradise Camp,” but the horrors of indiscriminate killings, starvation and disease that occurred there made it anything but. The Nazi regime used this camp as a propaganda tool and transport camp, beautifying parts of the city late in the war as a model to show how “well” the Jews were being treated in all of the concentration camps. In reality, the Nazis used a beautified Terezin — with a public park, window boxes with flowers, even painted-plaster meat that hung in butcher shop windows — all as a ruse to mislead the International Red Cross. To alleviate over-crowding before the arrival of Red Cross workers, the Nazis shipped tens of thousands of Jews from Terezin to killing centers (such as Treblinka and Auschwitz) in occupied Poland.
Q: What compelled you to tell this particular story from the World War II era?
In early 2004, I was a young college student in an art history class. I remember the moment when the professor presented a topic I’d never heard of — the art of the Holocaust — and I was instantly captivated. From that day on, I devoured any books I could find on the subject, especially Elie Wiesel’s Night, which I still read every year. I remember hearing that whisper in my soul, that this topic was special somehow; the art of creation and worshipping God, even in the midst of the most horrific of circumstances one could imagine. It’s a stunning expression of beauty I still can’t fully understand. And though it’s a very weighty subject, I wanted to give a voice to these known artists, to help others hear their story. So I stored the idea away, hoping someday I’d know what to do with it. Ten years later, it turned into this series.
Q: Tell us about the children of Terezin. Where did you first hear their story?
While studying for my undergraduate degree in art history, I completed much research on the art of the Holocaust, specifically, the prisoner camp art of Auschwitz and the children’s art of Terezin. During that research, I came across I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942-1944 (Schocken Books, 1993). This book changed my heart forever. There are stunning pieces of the children’s art inside its pages. Watercolors. Cut-paper collages in brilliant colors. There are peaceful still-life portraits and others, more heart-wrenching, of work details and guards with machine guns. There are songs and poetry, all imagined by the sweet little hands and hearts of the children of Terezin. The art of these children refused to leave my heart. The images are so heart-wrenching that they beg for a voice. It’s because of them Sophie and Kája’s story was born in A Sparrow in Terezin.
Q: Why did the arts thrive in Terezin? What do you think the appreciation of the arts tells us about humanity?
A real shocker for me was to learn that not only did the arts community exist in Terezin, cultural life seemingly thrived. Despite the lack of basic sanitation, food and clean water (and people dying by the thousands), great effort was put into the arts. There were academic lectures on topics such as medicine, the arts and Jewish history, full symphony and chamber orchestra performances — Brundibar (or Bumble Bee) was a children’s operetta both written and performed within the camp. There was even a 10,000-volume Hebrew lending library. An appreciation of the arts would usually be exciting to research, but given the conditions the people endured, the investment in it here is heart-breaking. The lack of humanity is sickening.
Q: What lessons can we learn from your heroine, Kája, as she uses her education and abilities in the concentration camp? How were her talents able to aid her survival?
Like Adele’s journey in The Butterfly and the Violin (the first book in the series), Kája’s skills had a very large part in her survival. She was smart and brave in a way she couldn’t fully understand. But in the world of Terezin, she had a better chance than most. In a cultural community that was thriving, Kája would have been seen as added value. And though survival was a big part of her motivation, I think there was something greater: hope. She knew most of the children in her ghetto school would ultimately not survive. Instead, she used her God-given gifts to infuse them with hope in the best way she knew how. I love the fact that in the end, she cared more about the children (her little sparrows) than she did about her own survival. This brave part of her story tugs at my heart like few things can.
Q: Did you struggle telling such a devastating story? How did you manage to infuse A Sparrow in Terezin with a message of hope?
That’s a great question. The simplest answer has to be — yes. Some of the research was so gut-wrenching that I had to take breaks just to get through it. I broke the book into segments on The Blitz, the contemporary storyline and the scenes in Terezin. Because the ghetto scenes were so heavy, I’d have to step away from both research and writing for a time, work on something else and come back to them later. But despite the difficulty, I wanted the story to have hope. In fact, everything hinges on it. Joshua 1:9 is the foundation for Kája’s journey, both before and during her time in Terezin. There had to be hope for her to lean on, to know that no matter what was happening around her, God was still faithfully by her side.
Q: Do you ever wonder if you would have had the same courage and strength shown by Kája and so many others during the Holocaust?
This is the one question I hoped you wouldn’t ask. Why? Because I can’t imagine such circumstances, let alone possessing the courage to answer the challenges they pose. I wonder if I could have had a thimbleful of that bravery, to be bold and strong, even in the face of evil. There were so many of the WWII generation who stepped out in faith, who were strong and put their lives on the line for the generations that had yet to come. It’s a kind of sheer selflessness you just don’t find every day. I wanted Kája’s heart to be made of that same brand of courage.
Q: Because of Kája’s stand, a little girl named Sophie survives and grows to have an impact on the second heroine in A Sparrow in Terezin, Sera. What does that teach us about the importance of leaving a personal legacy?
There’s so much in a story — I think that’s what endears Sera to Sophie’s character. It’s the story that carries on long after we’re gone, long after each generation passes and the world we live in is continually made new. For every decision we make and for every road we walk in life, the sphere of influence in which God places us has purpose, and stories are the witness of that.
Q: What does Sophie’s painful past teach Sera about forgiveness — especially in regards to her new husband?
I heard a quote once: “How can you ever expect to lead anyone out of the desert if you’ve never been through the desert yourself?” I happen to love that Sophie is wise enough to recognize this at just the right time. She skillfully uses a past story as a catalyst to affect a future outcome. A testimony (AKA a past journey) is often how we as Christians share our own faith. It’s not because we have a perfect journey with Christ that the story holds weight. (Usually, it’s quite the contrary.) It’s all about grace.
Q: How important is forgiveness in marriage? Have you ever struggled with this in your own marriage?
My husband and I have been married for 14 years. In that time, I can say it’s been an amazing journey with my best friend. (But notice I never said it was easy.) The absolute best thing we’ve done in our marriage is to forgive authentically. We’ve both made mistakes. Said things we didn’t mean. Tried and failed to be a perfect spouse. That’s why I love the outcome of the situation Sera and William find themselves in. They’re newly married — their love not yet tested. But all at once the wedding is over and they’re faced with a real person in front of them. They’ve got to ask themselves some tough questions. “Can I really forgive this person?” “Do I still love him or her, even after the mistakes he or she has made?” They’re tough. Edgy, even. Forgiveness is not for the faint of heart. For some of us, it takes 14 years to get it right. And for others, such as Sera and William, it’s a hurdle they have to overcome almost immediately.
Q: What advice do you have for the person who has been hurt or betrayed by his or her spouse and thinks forgiveness is completely impossible?
Not knowing each individual struggle, my biggest piece of advice would be to stick close to Jesus through it. If you invest in your relationship with Christ, knowing only He can change the other person’s heart, what once seemed impossible may start to see the light of possibility break through. Getting into a Bible-believing church is another major step. You’ll gain strength in the fellowship and find support. And your heart may begin to awaken. There are many pieces of the puzzle to get to forgiveness, but the true in-depth grace we all crave can only be found in that relationship with our Savior. Until He fulfills us, nothing (or no one else) can.
Q: What are some ways to rebuild trust in any relationship after it’s been broken?
My husband has a saying: “Faith for today.” I love that! And he’ll remind me of that often with a, “Honey, we just need faith for today. We’ll get more when tomorrow comes.” Whether it’s trusting God, surrendering our will to His, or offering and receiving forgiveness in our lives — it starts with focusing on the faith needed for the “now.” Rebuilding trust can take a while. It may take dozens of faith-for-today moments before you start to gain traction in it. The key is to remember that it’s a marathon; not a sprint. We may not be ready to forgive overnight. Sometimes, it’s a faith-for-today process of lots of overnights jumbled together. Just keep it up. Make the choice to dive into faith each day until you don’t have to choose it any longer. By then, “broken” will be a part of the past, and trust will be the characteristic of the future.
Q: You wrote A Sparrow in Terezin during a difficult time in your own family; what happened, and how did it impact your writing?
I did. Much of The Butterfly and the Violin was edited at the local cancer center, as my dad underwent chemo for a rare and aggressive form of leukemia. The remainder was edited in the weeks after he passed away. So with this second book, the writing came on the hinges of grief for our family. A Sparrow in Terezin would be my very first writing journey without my larger-than-life and 100% supportive dad cheering me on from the sidelines. I wanted to tell a story of courage and faith, but to be honest, I felt neither at the time. That’s when I remembered a text message my Dad had sent me months before. It was simple: “Joshua 1:9.” My dad had a genius way of saying the most with the fewest words possible. I knew that despite the fear, despite the pain and uncertainty, I’d never be alone. In fact, there’s a scene in the book where Kája finds herself crippled with fear, just as she’s about to venture into Nazi-occupied territory. That scene in the Norwich station bathroom was patterned after a particularly difficult moment I had while my dad was in ICU. Like Kája, I just simply asked God to “be there.” I just needed to know that though circumstances were poised to get much worse, He wouldn’t let us go through it alone. And as we spent time in ICU and said a peaceful goodbye to one of my best friends, I felt God’s presence more than any other time in my life. I’m not a fan of the pain it took to get there, but the lesson learned on faithfulness changed my life. He IS faithful, and we have this book because of it.
Q: How do your readers inspire you as you continue to write?
Every day I’m inspired by readers! They’re so very supportive. And I can’t tell you how much the connections on social media, the cards and emails, or the hugs of encouragement mean to me as a writer. Before a pen is put to paper, the readers are prayed for. I assure you, they’re thought of with every step in the writing and editing process. And my heart sings every time a reader steps into a book-signing line and shares his or her story with me. It’s the kind of amazing I couldn’t have imagined before becoming an author. These readers — friends and brothers and sisters in Christ — have become cheerleaders in the process, and I’m so grateful. They’ve added such meaning to my life.
Q: What is the number-one message you would like readers of A Sparrow in Terezin to walk away with?
Above all, my hope is that readers walk away from this reading experience with a changed heart — to know that no matter what journeys life brings, they can have strength and courage with every step. We can stand firm on the truths in Joshua 1:9 and find our courage in Him, whether it’s in circumstances as horrific as the Holocaust or the discouragements of our everyday lives. He can still bring beauty from ashes. He can (and will) still breathe life and color and hope into every situation.