The Xlibris Blog puts the spotlight on Xlibris author Jerry Jennings who has self-published three books to date with the leading Indiana-based self-publishing company. He talks about his Holocaust-themed trilogy, including Stella’s Secret, Darkness Hides the Flowers, and I Choose Life. He hopes to show that survivor stories are not about hopeless despair, but can be inspirational and positive demonstrations of how people can rise above mass inhumanity by holding onto their individual humanity.
Xlibris author Jerry Jennings, up close
Xlibris author Jerry Jennings has aspired to become a creative writer since high school. In college, he majored in history and psychology to hone his writing and look deeper into human behavior and cultures. As it turned out, he found a career in clinical psychology where he channeled his writing aspirations into over 30 scholarly publications in professional journals in psychology, philosophy, and forensic psychology. He felt something was still missing, however.
“I still feel the need to write creatively. In the past ten years, my writing has focused on two areas: The first has been a series of three memoirs that I’ve written pro bono for four Holocaust survivors, all of which were published by Xlibris. The second area is screenwriting.”
The Xlibris author has won and placed in nineteen screenwriting contests for nine different scripts, including one based on Stella’s Secret. He also earned a Certificate in Screenwriting at the University of the Arts. As of January, he is finalizing the sale of two screenplays which hope to begin production in the coming year. Of all his achievements, he says the greatest one is being a husband to his wife and a father of a college freshman and a high school senior.
His writing influences
Jerry believes that support and feedback from other writers is very important to stay motivated and write well.
“My biggest literary influences are my peers in my writer’s group. Nine years ago, I just happened to meet another writer and offered to critique her work. She was really talented and, like me, was hungry for some peer support and feedback. That gave us the idea to start a writer’s group. Within months, we had the core members of what has become the Wynnewood Writers Group and it is still going strong. It is wonderful to have a group of peers, now good friends, who I can trust completely for their insights and opinions. (We use one key rule: that any and all feedback needs to be delivered in a way that helps the writer to achieve his or her goals. Otherwise, there can be a tendency for group members to give all sorts of ideas about what they think your story should be – instead of serving the goal of what you want your story to be.)”
About His Xlibris Books
Stella’s Secret is the first of the three memoirs. Each one is an uplifting and inspirational story of the triumph of human love and dignity.
“When people finish reading my books, they have feelings of joy and hope. I know that seems odd to say. But there is a myth that personal stories about the Holocaust are always depressing and sad. The core message of Stella’s Secret is that people of all kinds are fundamentally good and the same and therefore we can never succumb to intolerance and bigotry against any ethnic, religious or racial group. Though Stella was just a teenager at the time of her liberation and lost her family, she had the wisdom to refuse to be consumed by hate for the Nazi killers. Instead she chose to live her life guided by love and compassion. In the case of Stella’s Secret, I really tried to convey Stella’s wonderful positive attitude by capturing her European accent and colorful speech. So, even though her narrative may be full of grammatical errors, there is an authenticity that is the perfect way to convey her energetic personality and sense of humor and love of people. Her story is harrowing, but we experience her sweetness in the face of overwhelming evil and, time after time, her survival is made possible by the kindness of strangers, even including a German officer. Ultimately, Stella ends up in the same barracks at Bergen Belsen with Anne Frank. She believes that Anne and her sister did not survive the typhus epidemic because they fell ill at the same time, whereas Stella and her mother fell ill at different times and thus were able to nurse each other.”
His second Xlibris memoir, Darkness Hides the Flowers, takes place in rural France. The main character, Ida, is a talented teenage pianist who must flee from the Nazis and survives by moving from farm to farm, alone and at the mercy of the kindness (or abuse) of strangers This memoir is totally unique because it blends the survivor’s actual paintings and poetry into her narrative of this harrowing journey.
His third Xlibris book, I Choose Life, is unique because it is two linked stories of Holocaust survival and rebirth. The book starts with the amazing survival story of Sol Finkelstein, then tells the story of Goldie Cukier. Then it narrates how they fall in love in a displaced persons camp and end up in an unusual new community of Jewish chicken farmers in New Jersey. In fact, the book has been featured by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as an example of how people can use the Museum’s resources to find out what happened to their grandparents and parents during the war.
The Holocaust as inspiration, not despair
As a historian and a psychologist, Jennings has always been fascinated by the Holocaust.
“I thought that if I could somehow understand this hellish thing, I might understand something essential about human beings – not just the evil, but the good. When I began writing Holocaust memoirs, I thought it was important to document these stories of unspeakable horror and loss so that the world will never forget or deny what happened. As I learned more and spoke with actual survivors, I realized that hope is an essential element of survivor stories – in two crucial respects. First, I realized that, in nearly every case, the survivor was able to retain his or her humanity and goodness in the midst of overwhelming misery and brutality and that the person survived because of multiple acts of altruism by others, often total strangers, not just because of random luck. My second realization was that the story of Holocaust survival does not begin with World War II and end with liberation from the concentration camps. We must also see their lives before the war and to see what happened to them after liberation. It is crucial to see how many survivors, like those I’ve known, refused to remain victims. They went on to rebuild their lives and raise children and grandchildren with values of compassion for all people. When you put these things together – the acts of altruism and their rebirth from the ashes – it reverses the despair of their suffering into a life-affirming belief in hope, tolerance and the human spirit.”
He revealed that his third book, I Choose Life, reflects this affirmation among survivors to rebuild their lives based on positive values. The actual words come from a dramatic scene in which Sol Finkelstein was given a “choice” of death by shooting or hanging by the Camp Commander at Auschwitz. Young Sol defied him, replying, “I choose life!”
His writing process
Showing careful attention to the writing process, he spends about a year to perfect a story.
“In terms of writing time, each of the three books I’ve written has taken about four months of concentrated writing to complete a first full draft. Then, I usually spend another four to six months with editing and rewriting. As I mentioned, I like to get feedback from my peers in my writer’s group to be sure that the book is clear, effective and entertaining.”
“Many people, including Jews, actively avoid reading the personal stories of Holocaust survivors for two common reasons. First, they fear that it will be too painful and depressing to learn about these horrible stories of mass murder and loss. With my three books, I’ve tried to convey that the survivor’s stories are actually full of enormous hope and inspiration, which is made all the more poignant by what they’ve endured. Second, readers have the opinion that these stories are very similar, repeating the shared experiences of the ghettos, the cattle cars, and the concentration camps. On the contrary, there is beautiful variety in how each individual retained his and her humanity in these shared situations and, most importantly, variety in how they built new lives based on love and compassion, not despair and hate. My message is that these Holocaust stories can be uplifting and inspirational – and can enrich our appreciation of what it means to be fully human. But to appreciate that positive message, we need to better show how the victims lived after the war. Too many Holocaust testimonies simply end with the ashes of liberation. We need to see the flowers that grow from those ashes.”
Thoughts on self-publishing through Xlibris
Jerry shares the same excitement that many self-published authors have attested to.
“It is always a thrill to see the first galley proofs of the manuscript and just as exciting to see and touch the first test copy of the finished book. Since I’ve self-published three books with Xlibris, it shows how pleased I’ve been with Xlibris.”
Words to aspiring authors
“Writers should not write alone. Even the most skilled and experienced writers need on-going feedback and encouragement from peers. The ideal is to find a writer’s group where you can get both support and edits. If you can’t find a local writers group, or one that you feel comfortable with, you can start your own group. Another good idea is to take writing classes, which is a good way to meet fellow local writers and build lasting friendships. If you are unable to find a group, then you should find someone like a teacher or a professional who has solid writing skills and can do some edits and offer ideas for better clarity and impact.”
Future writing exploits
“After writing and publishing three Holocaust memoirs with four different survivor stories, I feel like I have developed a sort of methodology that makes it easier. So it is entirely possible that I may write a fourth “sequel” if opportunity presents itself.”
Xlibris book promotion
“The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recently teamed up with Ancestry.com to launch ‘The World Memory Project.’ My third Xlibris book, I Choose Life, has actually been featured in this international campaign because the book is a great example of how ordinary people can utilize the Museum’s archives/database to research what happened to their parent’s and grandparent’s families during the Holocaust. The book makes powerful use of images of actual Nazi documents that verified names and dates, and that made it possible to solve the 60-year mystery of what happened to Sol Finkelstein’s father in first days of liberation. In fact, the actual moment of this joyful discovery is captured in an award-winning video on the museum’s website titled, ‘Yes, that’s my father.’”
The Xlibris Blog supports Jerry Jennings admirable advocacy and wishes him the best in his future writing endeavors.