Interview and Article by:
Megan Helberg, Nebraska (MTF 2016)
& Josha Sietsma, Netherlands (MTF 2015)
Amy McDonald (Wilsonville, Alabama; MTF 2014) teaches history at Shades Valley High School in Irondale, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. She recently wrote a book about Holocaust survivor, Max Steinmetz, who currently resides in the Birmingham area. We’d like to introduce you to Amy’s work as a MTF and her journey to write Max’s story, Determined to Survive: A Story of Survival and One Teacher’s Passion to Bring That Story to Life.
We can’t interview a teacher from Alabama without asking about Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). Megan loves To Kill a Mockingbird and Josha loves baseball, so we’re combining the two: “You know who loved the Mets? Harper Lee.” This quote was found in an old issue of the Paris Review. Amy, are you intrigued by Harper Lee or any particular sports?
I have always admired Harper Lee. We all know about the power and impact of her writing. As odd as it sounds, one of the things I loved about her was how she didn’t seek attention or fame. She loved living a simple life. I love the following quotes by Harper Lee: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” (HL, To Kill A Mockingbird)
“You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer.” (HL in an interview, 1964)
As far as sports, I can’t say that I’m a big fan of baseball, but I am a HUGE fan of Alabama football. Roll Tide Roll! 🙂
We know that you have recently written a book. How exciting! Hemingway was once asked the following questions for an interview and we want to pass the questions along to you: “Could you say something of this process? When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule?”
The two-year process of writing this book involved traveling to many places. Obviously, it’s all a very long story. Since sabbaticals are unheard of for public school teachers, I worked after school hours and on weekends. There were many nights when I woke up with my head on the kitchen table. During the summer, I tried to keep a consistent writing schedule. I had a routine of going to a library in the morning and working for a few hours. I found that working from home was too distracting.
We understand your book is on a story of a Holocaust survivor. Can you take us back through your journey and tell us what brought this story into your life?
Well, I met Max Steinmetz, a Holocaust survivor, in 2012 just after I returned from Germany and Poland. Visiting the places that I had previously only read about impacted me dramatically. This was an overwhelming experience for me. I teach a semester-long Holocaust course and when I returned from my trip I realized I needed to change the way I was teaching this class. I knew I wanted to bring a survivor in and make it more personal. I decided I would have the same survivor come in and speak on four separate occasions and make this a year-long project. The kids and I really got to know Max. He was liberated from one of the Dachau death marches. He couldn’t decide where he wanted to go once he recovered. He thought about going home to Romania, but was afraid. He moved to the U.S. in 1947 and wound up in Birmingham, AL in the 1950s, which is how we came to know each other since I also live near Birmingham.
I thought to myself, “His story needs to be written.” I didn’t know it was going to be me at that point. In 2012 I asked him, “Has anyone ever written your story? I would be glad to do it.” In 2014, Max and his wife invited me over for dinner and asked if I was still interested in writing his story. I was honored. I told them,”I am not an author! I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll do my best!”
After developing such a close relationship with Max and his family, I knew I had to travel back to Romania. Max was born in the small town of Targu Lapus, Romania. In 2016 I was awarded a Fund For Teachers fellowship and was able to travel to Munich and then into Romania, following Max’s death march route. Going back to his hometown was really meaningful. He has such awful memories associated with his hometown. He said, “Why would I go back? There is nothing to go back to. But yet there is something inside of me that wants to go back to see where I was born.” It is a really complicated situation for him.
Was your work successful in Romania?
When I arrived in Romania the teachers and students were more than willing to assist and listen to Max’s story. Max was surprised that people wanted to help me with my research in Romania. I spoke at several schools and told his life story. Max was so excited! Kids and teachers sent gifts back to him. He just couldn’t believe it. There are these great pictures of the kids in Romania holding his book. It’s gone full circle. Maybe it’s restored his faith a little bit.
Also, since my return we’ve started a blog in my classroom and with a classroom in Romania. Last semester they read Night together and this semester they will read the book about Max together. I’m excited to see how the connection between the two schools might continue to grow.
What part of Max’s story impacted you the most?
He always tells a story about a bridge that he and his Jewish friends would cross to get back and forth from his house to town. Sometimes they would get in the middle of the bridge and the other boys from town would block the ends of the bridge. Max and his Jewish friends would either jump in the water or get beaten up. This is such a powerful memory for Max. When I returned home from Romania, the students over there sent me a picture of the old bridge and Max recognized it. They also sent a picture of five or six high school kids holding up a sign on the bridge that says “We Remember”. It is so powerful to me because of what it means to him. I cry every time I see the picture.
What is your advice for teachers who are new to Holocaust education?
The key for me was being willing to make the effort and take the risk to step out and go to the workshops, and go to the trainings, and apply for the scholarships. Be willing to travel! Be willing to go! That has done nothing but broaden and deepen my knowledge. The people and friends you meet are priceless. It’s helped me learn and grow more as a teacher, and as a person, more than anything else.
I’m still in awe that I’m the author of a book, it still sounds so weird! It was so important to get the book done. There was an urgency because he’s 92. I’m relieved that it’s done. I have an “at peace” kind of feeling, and that’s a good feeling.
Determined to Survive: A Story of Survival and One Teacher’s Passion to Bring That Story to Life (Self-published). Available at the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and soon in your bookstore and Amazon.