Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Joel Stern grew up knowing only a little about his grandfather’s experience in the Holocaust. He didn’t like talking about it at all.
“He left Germany at 13, and he was haunted for the rest of his life by what happened and the fact that he never saw his parents again,” Stern said.
But Stern, a marketing director who lives outside of London, ended up diving into his grandfather Freddy’s dark past during the pandemic. He wrote a book about Freddy’s experience in Germany and surviving the Holocaust.
“Just Freddy,” published in June 2022, tells the story of how Freddy’s idyllic childhood in Germany was shattered by rising antisemitism, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. It’s told through Freddy’s perspective.
Stern calls it a “factual skeleton with fictional flesh” because it’s based on his grandfather’s story and real people, but he added rich detail, developed characters, and lots of dialogue to keep the story moving.
He used an interview his grandfather did with the AJR Refugee Voices Archive, records, and testimony from relatives to write the book. Freddy died in 2020 while Stern was writing it.
Inspiration to explore his grandfather’s Holocaust story
Stern had been interested in learning more about Freddy’s experience after living in Israel and visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum multiple times.
During the pandemic, he watched an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” where British celebrity Robert Rinder discovered more about his family’s history in Germany. (Rinder also wrote the forward of the book!) That, and being a father, inspired him to start writing.
“I started thinking about my own kids who at the time were 4 and 7,” Stern said. “How do I start talking to my kids about our family history in this area? My idea was I’ll write a kid's book that they can read and it kind of spiraled from there.”
A Holocaust book for people of all ages and backgrounds
Freddy grew up in a town with a very small Jewish community. The book opens with Freddy's mother explaining why they keep kosher to his non-Jewish friends, and no one had an issue with it. Of course, that all changed.
Growing up, Stern also lived among a small Jewish population. He said he felt like his family kept him sheltered and insular, something that trickled down from his grandfather’s experience. He is aware of that and is actively trying to integrate with the community. This book is part of that effort.
The goal of the book is to get the message out so people don’t forget what happened to the Jews — and so history doesn’t repeat itself. All proceeds from the book are going to Holocaust education programs.
“I think it’s really important that as a third generation survivor, we tell these stories, we make sure these stories are there for all to see and hear because otherwise, they will be forgotten in 60 years or so, and that would be tragic,” Stern said.
Watch the interview with Joel Stern about his life, his grandfather, Judaism, and how he wrote the book
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