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Q & A with… Margaret McQuillan

By Cindy Mindell

In 1924, 7-year-old Walter Less of Luneburg, Germany, received an orange for his birthday. Nearly 80 years later, the boy’s daughter took up the seemingly insignificant story as a way to teach children about the Holocaust.
McQuillan wrote “An Orange in Winter” in 2006 as a curriculum tool for the school she headed in Massachusetts. Now principal of the Buttonball Lane School in Glastonbury, the author will tell her family’s story at Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford on Saturday, Nov. 6, as part of a program commemorating the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht.
McQuillan spoke with the Ledger about the story behind “An Orange in Winter” and her return to Luneburg 70 years after Kristallnacht.
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<b>Q: What inspired you to write “An Orange in Winter?”</b>
A: My father had told me a story when I was growing up, and I was using it as the basis of a children’s book. I wanted to explore the idea that the best gift is something you give from the heart or that is a sacrifice of some sort.
My father grew up in Luneburg, Germany, and his family owned a clothing store and was very well off. At his seventh birthday party, he invited all the boys from his class, as well as the son of a warehouse employee who worked for my grandfather. The party was in December and when the boy arrived, he brought my father an orange. My father didn’t get the significance of the gift and my grandmother swept in and said, ‘This is the best gift’ and made a fuss. As I mention in the introduction to the book, I grew up in California where oranges are not rare. But in the 1920s during the winter holidays, an orange was an expensive gift. Most people in Germany at the time were extremely poor, in the aftermath of World War I.
I realized that I would have to create a back-story and make the boy real, so I named him Hans. I talk about how Hans gets invited to the party, how his parents feel about him going to a rich kid’s party, how he chooses the gift. I tell the story as a flashback the adult Hans has, after World War II.

<b>Q: Was it difficult writing a Holocaust story for children?</b>
A: At the time I wrote the story, I was principal in a fourth and fifth grade school, so that was my intended audience. I also discussed the story with a guest author at our school, Norm Finkelstein, who told me, ‘You’ve brought the Nazis into this, so either you explain it more or go back to the teeny story of the birthday party.’
I began doing research, and had a wonderful built-in editorial group of children. Out of this germ of a story, I tried to create a mini-curriculum unit, as opposed to a chapter book. I took the story of the orange as a way to describe the lives of two children – my father’s and Hans’s – as Nazis were coming into power.
In the fictionalized account, Hans joins the Hitler Youth. One day it’s like being in the Boy Scouts, having a good time, and the next day there’s a banner hanging in the town saying, “We will die for Adolf Hitler.” He must then make some difficult choices. The accompanying study guide asks readers to consider what happened to Hans and why. I was particularly focusing on the Hitler Youth for young readers because I was astounded by the fact that there were 26,000 Hitler Youth before Hitler came to power. They would go into the countryside, telling people that this man would save Germany. The theory is that without that he wouldn’t have come to power.
I’d asked my father to write his memoirs for me, and I was able to extrapolate from them and create the character of Hans. As I wrote the story, I was able to create characters who reflected the ideas of the time and to provide different viewpoints and show what my father was going through.
When I read the book to my fifth grade students, they wanted to know what happened to my father. So I created an epilogue and told the rest of his story.

<b>Q: How did Kristallnacht affect your father’s family?</b>
A: My father was sent to San Francisco in 1932 when he was 15, sponsored by an uncle. His parents had also applied for visas. When my father turned 21, in 1938, he became a citizen and his parents were moved higher up on the priority list. On Kristallnacht, the Nazis took his father to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was imprisoned for a month, and was only allowed out because he could prove that there was a visa waiting for him.

<b>Q: You then connected back to Luneburg. Describe how that happened.</b>
A: After I finished the book the first time, I thought it would be great to find a fifth grade in Luneburg that could discuss the book with my class. My husband’s brother is fluent in German and sent a letter to the town and I never heard back. When we moved to Glastonbury four years ago, I got a letter from Berlin, from a woman named Brigid. She writes to tell me that she grew up in Luneburg and has a friend, Ingrid, who is dying of cancer. The friend has a menorah that was bought by her aunt in Luneburg before World War II. Ingrid’s aunt was preparing for her wedding at the time, and went to a Jewish store in town to buy items for her trousseau, including the menorah.
When her aunt died, Ingrid asked if she could have the menorah. When Ingrid was dying, she wanted to find the rightful owners of the menorah, and Brigid had helped find the name of the store in Luneberg. It was my grandparents’ store. Brigid sent me the menorah.
I learned of a history group in Luneburg whose life mission is to tell the true story of what happened to the town’s Jews. They had written a book about the Jewish inhabitants, including information on my family, but didn’t know anything about me. In 1995, they had hosted a huge welcome-back celebration and invited every Jewish family they could find to spend a week in Luneburg. I contacted them after receiving the menorah and they asked me to come.
My son and I went in April 2009 and they honored us and took us on a tour. I saw my grandfather’s store and spoke to high-school students at my father’s school, as well as to in-service and pre-service teachers.

<b>Q: How did the Luneburg students react to the book?</b>
A: Because I was trying to write for young adults, my book is written in fairly simple English and could easily be read by the German high-school students and teachers. It was designed to promote other questions, like why the government affected its policies during the war. One thing the students loved about the story, and that perhaps made it more accessible to them, was that Hans was not a villain, but a real human being with difficult choices to make.
While I was at the high school, one of the girls asked, “Do Americans still think we’re all Nazis?” A teacher told me, “I teach them history and they really don’t care about it,” but that after my talk, a student told her, “Now we understand.” I had told the students, “My father’s store is still there. I don’t know whether it will continue to be there, but now I’ve told you about the building and what happened to the people in it and you can’t say you don’t know.”

<b>Q: As an educator, what are the lessons you hope to convey with the book?</b>
A: With the children, my approach is, let’s look at the evolution of how people get used; let’s think about bullying. It’s easy to think you’d stand up for what’s right, but if your life and family are in jeopardy, it’s not as easy as you think. I hope the book becomes a starting point for students to look at difficult situations and choices. There are people who are new to the subject of the Holocaust and say, ‘I didn’t know that,’ so I want to give them a way to gain knowledge and enter into the conversation.
I was trying to focus on what happened before the Holocaust, as well as the beginning of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of children, so that young readers will have characters to relate to and to take them through the story.
While we were in Germany, my son and I also visited Sachsenhausen. Going with him was an extraordinary experience because we have a responsibility to tell the story, particularly after the survivors leave us. Passing this story on to my son, and having adults in Luneburg reading the book – this is part of our obligation as children of survivors.

<I>Postscript:</I>
In her research, McQuillan read “Luneburg Remembered” by Susan Rosenbaum-Greenberg of Fairfield. In the book, the author describes the day after Kristallnacht, when her grandfather was taken by the Nazis to Sachsenhausen, along with the other men of Luneberg. With no resources to live on, Rosenbaum-Greenberg’s family moved into the home of McQuillan’s grandmother. McQuillan says that she was able to accurately describe Sachsenhausen in her book thanks to Rosenbaum-Greenberg’s account.

Margaret McQuillan will speak on Saturday, Nov. 6 after Shabbat services, at Beth David Synagogue, 20 Dover Road, West Hartford. For more information: (860) 236-1241.

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