Interview with Yudit Kiss about her book More Nights Than Days: A Survey of Writings of Child Genocide Survivors
Your book, More Nights Than Days is harrowing, deeply tragic and yet a testimony of human resilience. What drew you to research child genocide survivors?
The short answer is that it was an accident. I never wanted to work on this subject. However, after I started to read some books of child genocide survivors,
I felt I had a moral obligation to share their stories, exactly for what you mention, their profound humanity and power of resilience.
The long answer is that it is actually a logical continuation of my previous research projects. I’m trained as a development economist and have been working for decades trying to understand the factors that make some societies progress and others stagnate. I’ve been working first on Latin America and then, after the fall of the Berlin wall, on the social and economic transformations of Eastern European countries. One of the major factors that distorted development in these societies was arms production – even though it is usually presented the other way around. I spent decades arguing that converting this sector into socially useful and economically more sound activities – for example environmental protection – on the medium and long-term would benefit enormously the whole society and the world.
In recent years I switched the focus and began to look at these questions from the perspective of their human and social consequences. What impact do these unhealthy development patterns have on human life? How do the lack of social justice, inequality, exploitation, greed and manipulation lead to the destruction of millions of innocent human beings? At the micro-level the question of individual survival resembles that of development bottlenecks. What helped these children survive and others perish?
Through personal stories history comes alive in a different way. It is a noble mission to tell these stories, but it must have been a consuming research period emotionally. How did you find these personal testimonies? Can you tell us a bit about the how you wrote the book? What was the research method?
You are right, these have been harrowing years. I had to develop strategies to avoid having nightmares all the time. I kept recalling that the people who wrote these books went through horrendous things and found the strength to write down their experiences even if it made them suffer over and over again. They were motivated by the hope that they can help future generations to avoid such horrendous events. I felt I – we - owed them the effort to make their voices heard. And again, these books actually talk about life, about fundamental human values, and they are full of energy, creativity and often humor, which makes it easier to work with them.
Initially I started with Janos Nyiri’s book, Battlefields and Playgrounds, which led me to other books of child Holocaust survivors, which logically led me to child survivors of later genocides.
I used the same method that I had in my previous research projects: first I delved into the primary sources. In the economic research projects, I always started with extensive field trips, numerous case studies and statistics. Here the primary sources were the books written by the child survivors. In the next stage of work, I tried to create a structure of the key findings; to identify the key common elements and important differences among the experiences themselves and their literary rendering. At this stage I started to read secondary literature – history, literary criticism, psychology –, in order to deepen my knowledge of the background, to check the validity of my points, to identify the missing aspects and widen the scope of study.
What are the different coping strategies you experienced?
There were many different coping strategies and some proved to be extremely useful in the aftermaths as well, during the slow and painful process of reconstructing a new existence after survival.
Children who were able to mobilize their internal resources, their creativity, their imagination, their capacity to challenge the state of affairs, the ones who were able to nourish human relations, to share, cooperate and resist had better chances to survive then others.
The book brings experiences from all around the world. From Rwanda, Cambodia to Bosnia and Eastern Europe survivors tell their very personal experiences. What was different and what linked them together?
There were significant differences among the experiences of Holocaust survivors, depending on their country of origin, their social and family background and their age. The historical, political & cultural differences in the situation of the generation of later genocide survivors were even more significant. Nevertheless, and this is one of the most painful findings of this book, the mechanisms of marginalization, exclusion, dehumanization, privation and persecution of the very different communities to which the children belonged to were very similar. And, they found very similar coping mechanisms in these rather different circumstances that suggests that there might be some profound common patterns to struggle with adversity.
Was there a story that was more difficult to retell? Which affected you most and why?
The book presents the experience of Jewish, Roma, Cambodian, Tutsi and Bosnian children who managed to survive massive assaults aiming to wipe out their communities. Each of these genocides ended with solemn words of “Never again”. The book ends with the testimony of a Rohingya boy that has chilling similarities with the experience of the children mentioned above. The most difficult is to realize that genocides keep taking place and our systems are unable or unwilling to stop them.
What are you working on now? What are your future research plans?
Right now, I’m working on an unusual book about Geneva that tells a largely unknown dimension of the city’s history – seen from the perspective of strangers. Famous or unnamed foreigners: visitors, refugees, migrants, guestworkers, who inspired, built and shaped this very cosmopolitan city and left their imprint on the urban landscape.
What would you recommend reading that made a major shift in your life and perception of the truths of history?
I would recommend reading the classics, the major funding texts of our civilizations; Gilgamesh, the Book of Kings, the Homeric epochs, the Mahābhārata, Shakespeare. They teach us a lot about societies and human beings.
The book is open access thanks to the libraries subscribing to our Opening the Future programme. You can download it from our website of find it on our partner OA platforms such as Project Muse. https://tinyurl.com/YKMoreNights