Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Guest Post: The Girl with the Silver Star by Rachel Zolotov

Please join me in welcoming Rachel Zolotov to Let Them Read Books! Rachel is celebrating the release of her debut historical novel, The Girl with the Silver Star, and I'm thrilled to have her here today with a guest post about the inspiration for the novel: her own family's harrowing history. Read on and grab the Kindle copy for only $2.99!

For the readers of The Nightingale and Lilac Girls, inspired by the true story of the author’s great-grandmother’s journey during World War II, The Girl with the Silver Star is the extraordinary story of a mother’s love and will to survive during one of history’s darkest time periods.

As a hailstorm of bombs begins to shatter the city of Minsk in Belarus, Raisa and her family run through the darkness of night to take cover. When Raisa, Abraham, and their daughters, Luba and Sofia, emerge from the bomb shelter, they find an unfamiliar city before them; chaos and terror burn in every direction. Fearing for their lives, they must leave at once to find the rest of their family. But before they are able to escape, Abraham is conscripted into the Russian Army and the family is forced to part ways. Raisa’s love and strength are put to the ultimate test as she finds herself on her own with her two young daughters in tow. How will she manage alone without her soulmate by her side?

Relying on hope, resourcefulness and courage, they walk, hitch hike and take trains heading for Uzbekistan, over 2,500 miles from home. Along the way they run from bombs, endure starvation, and face death.

Raisa finds solace in the women around her. Her mother, sisters, old friends and new help carry her through the difficult war years, but Raisa’s longing to reunite with Abraham still rages inside her heart. Will they ever see each other again? Will Raisa and her family find their way back to their homeland?

The Girl with the Silver Star is a captivating journey through war-torn Soviet Union as it illuminates a unique part of WWII history, the female heroes. Raisa’s journey is a tribute to the nameless women, their determination, bravery, grief and unwavering love during impossible times. Their stories shouldn’t be forgotten.  

It was early winter of 2016 and I had just finished reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. As I turned the last page and closed the book, I started to think back to the stories my parents had told me about by family during WWII, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t really know much about what they went through. My family is Jewish, and they lived in Minsk, Belarus – I knew there had to be more to their story than just the few details I had overheard as a child. 

As a young girl, I could be often found evading bedtime by reading historical novels and memoirs from WWII under the covers with a flashlight. This fascination didn’t stop in adulthood, so how was it that I barely knew anything about my own family’s past?

I picked up the phone and called my mother, on a mission to find out more. I had my notebook ready to scrawl down all the details. A few minutes later, I had a page of notes, but barely any more information than I had already known. My mother explained that they didn’t talk about those times much. For obvious reasons, it was too painful of a memory to relive. There was, however, one detail that I didn’t already know. My great-grandmother Raisa and her two girls, Luba (my grandmother) and Sofia, evacuated to Uzbekistan during the war.

I was having a hard time imagining how many countless miles it took to get from Minsk to Tashkent. After a quick search, I discovered how incredibly far they had to travel; over 4,000 km. That’s about the same distance as New York to San Diego. They walked some of the way, and took trains for the rest. As a mother of two girls myself, I thought about taking that journey with them under those circumstances, and couldn’t fathom how they survived such a journey. I was instantly drawn to find as many of the puzzle pieces as I could.

That was all it took. One conversation and a few hours of research later, I was inspired. I needed to know more, and thus it began, The Girl with the Silver Star.

I had no idea where to start with such little information, and to make matters more difficult, I was dealing with the Russian language, not my first language. Fortunately, I came across a site called JewishGen.org. It was packed with information about the Holocaust and contained a database filled with testimonies and original documents.

According to the site, approximately one million former Soviet Union Jews were evacuated or fled to Uzbekistan and neighboring areas before the German troops entered their cities. They estimate that as many as 300,000 deportees perished from disease and starvation, while some died in the line of fire while serving their country. 152,000 registration cards have been digitized in their database and made available with records of evacuees that arrived in Tashkent between 1941 and 1942.

I quickly signed up for an account and began typing in the names of my family members. I started first with my great-grandmother, Raisa Tsalkina.

There it was. A few clicks, and I was staring at a copy of her registration card. It listed her two girls along with other information like what city they came from, birthdates, occupation, and the address where they were sending them to live.

After many Google searches and scouring the web for information, I realized that even though I had bits and pieces, I didn’t have the entire story or anywhere near it. I needed more. I wasn’t sure how to continue and where to look, but then I remembered something my mother always says when I’m feeling stuck.

“If you don’t knock on any doors, none will open.”

So I started looking beyond the library and the internet and began reaching out to my extended family. I spoke to relatives I knew well, and to ones that I didn’t even know existed. A few phone calls later, I was in contact with a very distant relative from my great-grandfather’s side who still lives in Belarus. He was also interested in the family history and had compiled a very detailed family tree, which I had within a few hours of chatting with him on Facebook!

Later, another relative sent me the most precious package I have ever received. The original letters that Abraham (my great-grandfather) sent to Raisa. Just holding the collection of letters and postcards sent shivers down my spine. I knew in that moment that I was holding an amazing story in my hands that must be written down; If not for me, then for my kids and others.

After more than a year of research, I began writing, and the words flowed freely, as if they were meant to be told. Many details of the book were inspired by the letters and postcards that I had painstakingly translated from Russian and Yiddish, but many parts were taken from my own childhood, and some were from passed down stories from my family members. I double checked each detail that I added to the story to be sure it fit with the time period and circumstance since I wanted to take every attempt to make the novel as historically accurate as possible.

As I continued to write, I realized that there were a few things I wanted to be sure to include. First were the letters to Raisa from Abraham. I wanted them to flow through the story as a way to keep Abraham and his voice a part of the storyline. Another unique aspect I wanted to weave into the story was a taste of how life was before the war. It was important for me to share those special moments as full chapters in the past so the reader could have brighter spots among the darkness of War. 

I have always thought of myself as a reader, not a writer. I never thought I would write a novel, but here I am about to publish The Girl with the Silver Star! All it takes is one spark to ignite the imagination and a passion for the message being told through your words. I hope you found my journey inspiring, and I am so excited to share my family’s incredible story with you and the world.
About the Author:

Rachel Zolotov was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri as a first generation American born into a Belarusian family. Rachel has a passion for antique jewelry, art, reading, cooking and history. She started her career as a Gemologist and Jewelry Designer, and studied Hand Engraving in Austria.

After the births of her children, Rachel felt the desire to research her own lineage and was inspired to uncover the puzzle pieces of the journey her ancestors had taken during WWII. She wrote The Girl with the Silver Star in hopes of teaching and sharing what she discovered with future generations.

In her free time, you can find her snuggling up with a good book and a large cup of tea. Rachel lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two beautiful daughters. If you would like to learn more, please visit RachelZolotov.com

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1 comment:

  1. Captivating, fascinating and this resonates greatly with me since I am Jewish and my parents came from Poland. Minsk. They emigrated to Canada in 1920's.


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