An Interview with Anna Stuart

Unveiling The War Orphan 

Anna Stuart, acclaimed author of The War Orphan, poses against the scenic backdrop of Derbyshire, where she draws inspiration for her captivating historical fiction narratives.

Anna Stuart, an accomplished author renowned for her compelling narratives spanning historical fiction, invites readers into her world of captivating storytelling in a riveting interview with Reader’s House magazine. Residing amidst the scenic beauty of Derbyshire when not immersed in her writing endeavours, Stuart’s life is as vibrant as the characters she brings to life on the pages of her novels. With a penchant for delving into the lesser-known corners of history, Stuart’s literary explorations take readers on an unforgettable journey through time.

In this exclusive interview, Stuart sheds light on her latest work, The War Orphan, a poignant tale set against the backdrop of World War II. Drawing inspiration from the remarkable true story of the Windermere Children, Stuart unveils the heartfelt narrative that breathes life into the experiences of young Holocaust survivors. From the tranquil landscapes of Windermere to the tumultuous aftermath of war-torn Europe, Stuart expertly weaves a tapestry of resilience, hope, and the enduring search for loved ones amidst the chaos of post-war existence.

Reflecting on her research process, Stuart offers insights into her meticulous approach to crafting historically authentic narratives. With a keen eye for detail and a deep appreciation for first-person accounts, she brings her characters to life with unparalleled depth and authenticity. Whether unravelling the mysteries of medieval Europe or chronicling the untold stories of women in history, Stuart’s literary prowess shines through in her ability to give voice to the silenced and overlooked.

Through her work, Stuart endeavours to shed light on the often-overlooked facets of history, championing the stories of resilience, courage, and compassion that define the human experience. From the untold tales of female protagonists to the remarkable journeys of Holocaust survivors, Stuart’s narratives resonate with contemporary audiences, offering a glimpse into the indomitable spirit of humanity in the face of adversity.

As readers embark on a journey through the pages of The War Orphan, Stuart hopes to leave a lasting impact, sparking conversations about the enduring legacy of war and the power of compassion to heal the deepest wounds of the human soul. With her unparalleled storytelling prowess, Anna Stuart continues to captivate audiences, inviting them to discover the hidden gems of history and embark on unforgettable literary adventures.

Can you tell us about your journey of discovering the little-known story of The Windermere Children and how it inspired The War Orphan?

When visiting the Lake District a few years ago, I read an article about the 300 Jewish orphans who’d been brought to Windermere and instantly wanted to know more. Luckily, the excellent historian Trevor Avery was running the Lake District Holocaust project, which was part of making the amazing BBC documentary ‘The Windermere children in their own words’, and film, ‘The Windermere Children’. I loved these but found them very male-focused and wanted to explore the forty girls in the party. That led me to Weir Courtney, the fascinating country house where the younger children were taken after Windermere. Most fascinating of all was Alice Goldberger, the intelligent, driven and exceedingly kind women who led both projects. She is very much an unsung heroine of the Holocaust and I was keen to give her a voice.

Around that time, I was writing the ending of The Midwife of Auschwitz, where Ana and Ester release a group of children from a barrack. It seemed a wonderful extension of the horrors explored in that novel that I could follow Tasha and Georg on to a happier future in Windermere.

What aspects of the real-life experiences of the young Holocaust survivors did you find most compelling or moving, and how did you incorporate them into your novel?

I was lucky enough to meet two of the Windermere children. Jacky Young was one of the Bulldog’s Bank youngsters, adopted as a toddler, and he spoke to me very movingly about trying to find his roots, an underpinning theme of the novel. Zdenka Husserl was at Weir Courtney with Alice and shared wonderful memories of the kindness and patience she showed to the children. She also talked of how Alice worked to know the children as individuals and I was keen to show her fighting (as she truly did) to get the intimidating funding committee to pay for the children to have things like piano lessons that would let them grow as people, rather than just stay alive.

Your novel The War Orphan delves into themes of resilience, hope, and the search for loved ones in the aftermath of war. How did you approach capturing the emotional depth of these experiences while staying true to the historical context?

In the process of researching several WW2 novels set in Europe, I’ve had my eyes opened to the very different experiences at the end of the war between Britain and the Continent. Life in Britain was far from easy in the latter 1940s but did return to something like its normal patterns. In Europe it was chaos. Over 400,000 people were far from home, often with really tricky journeys back and little way of finding their families amidst the ruins of so many cities. Lydia’s journey may seem incredible to modern readers but it was one that far too many people genuinely made in their urgent attempts to salvage something of their previous life from the ruins of war.

It was important to me not to make my characters’ experiences idyllic. The oprhans came to an idyllic location – and appreciated that – but they’d had a terrible time and become very tough. I was keen to show Tasha as abrasive and defiant and her many clashes with Alice as a part of her desperate, and very understandable, need to find her mother. 

Could you share some insights into your research process for writing historical fiction, particularly for a period as significant and sensitive as World War II?

I don’t think I do anything special – just read a lot!! I start very wide and then delve into more specialist areas. For this novel, I researched the overall situation for ‘displaced persons’ in Europe before moving into the Windermere and Weir Courtney projects. The internet can be a great resource but I tend to prefer books, and first-person diaries or memoirs are real treasure. Capturing  voices is a big challenge when writing from the 21st century and I always play close attention to people’s attitudes to things like sex or women’s rights to try and make the characters believably of their time.

You’ve written under both the names Anna Stuart and Joanna Courtney, exploring different genres and historical periods. How do you approach writing under each persona, and do you find any significant differences in your creative process?

I started out writing as Joanna Courtney. Having specialised in Medieval and Arthurian literature for my English literature degree, I was keen to uncover the female stories buried deep beneath the more loudly-trumpeted male ones of that period. There are few concrete facts about even the highest born women which was frustrating but did leave room for creativity! I was worried, when moving into WW2, that there would be so much historical fact I would feel hampered in creating individual, emotional stories but in fact I’ve found many areas that are not widely known and many women – notably Alice Goldberger in The War Orphan, and Stanisława Leszczyńska in The Midwife of Auschwitz – who are still sadly little-celebrated. 

It’s important to me to get both my real-life and fictional characters as realistic as possible. I find that briefly-mentioned intimate details can give me the key to bring them to life – for example, reading about Alice’s photograph of her brother led me to the sad story of Max, and the true details of her sweet-filled donkey and her harmonica-playing gave me the nuances of her character. For Tasha, I used the angle of hair. When I visited Auschwitz, I was horribly struck by the display of the prisoners’ cut hair and imagined the horror of seeing your mother shorn. I used Tasha’s keeping of Lydia’s hair as key part of her character, as well as a symbol of so many people’s brave determination not to let the Nazis dehumanise them.

Your work seems to focus on bringing lesser-known stories to light, such as those of women in history or the experiences of Holocaust survivors. What draws you to these narratives, and why do you think it’s important to share them?

I resisted writing about WW2 for some time as I didn’t feel I would find anything new or exciting to write about. How wrong I was! From the moment I discovered that Berlin Zoo stayed open until capitulation, I was caught, and I’ve loved chasing down similar stories ever since. The incidents and events that may seem small within the wider sweep of this most terrible of wars were all-encompassing for the people stuck within them. The travel of 300 orphans is not, perhaps, anything major in history, but for those who were brought to the green prettiness of Windermere it was a life-transforming event and I wanted to capture that in my novel.


“The Midwife of Auschwitz is a poignant tribute to human resilience, love, and sacrifice amidst the horrors of World War II.”

Anna Stuart’s The Midwife of Auschwitz tenderly unveils the harrowing yet resilient spirit of humanity amid the darkest chapter of history. Set against the backdrop of Auschwitz in 1943, this novel, inspired by true events, follows Ana Kaminski and her friend Ester Pasternak as they navigate the horrors of the concentration camp.

Verified by MonsterInsights