REGIONAL — Writer Bill Durbin has become adept at bringing history to life for young adult readers. His early books are set in northeast Minnesota, chronicling the fur trade, iron mining, and lumber trade, as well as the lives of the many immigrants who settled in our area.
But his latest book, co-written with his wife Barbara, is set in Ukraine during World War II and is based on the true stories of Jewish families who lived in an underground cave for almost two years as Nazi soldiers. and Ukrainians. sympathizers systematically killed the country’s Jewish population.
Historians estimate that more than one million Jews living in the Soviet Union, mostly in Ukraine, were killed as part of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution”, often with the help of local Ukrainian collaborators. The most notorious episode occurred in Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv, where 33,771 Jews were killed in two days in September 1941.
A retired teacher, Bill taught at Cook High School for nearly 30 years, then at Mesabi Community College, and he also spends a lot of time running writing workshops with schools across the country. Barbara is also a retired teacher, and although she was always her husband’s primary reader, she has taken a more active and collaborative role in Bill’s writing since her retirement. The couple live on Lake Vermilion in the summer and in Duluth in the winter where they are closer to their grandchildren who live in Duluth and the Twin Cities.
How their new title ended up fitting into the news is a story in itself.
“The connection with Ukraine is just a coincidence,” he said. “Kids always asked me if I was going to write a book about World War II.”
The idea came to him when he found an article in an old National Geographic magazine written by a caver, Christos Nicola, who lived in New York.
“He had traveled to Ukraine to research his genealogy,” Bill said, “and he went to explore caves outside the village he was visiting.”
In 1993 Nicola went to explore the gypsum caverns and found evidence that people were living deep underground.
“He found all kinds of artifacts and writings,” Bill said.
But Nicola couldn’t convince the people he was talking to in the nearby village to tell him about what might have happened.
“Many had returned Jewish families and were ashamed,” Bill said.
When Nicola returned to New York, he asked a few questions online, and a few days later he was contacted by someone who had lived in the cave. The man, then in his 80s, connected Nicola with other members of his extended family, mostly living in the United States and Canada.
The true story is more poignant than the one the Durbins eventually published. They simplified some details, focused on a smaller family unit instead of the extended family of 38, shortened the time spent underground, and kept the family in a cave. In real life, the Nazis discovered the cave, killing two family members, while the other members fled to another cave. In total, they survived over 500 days underground, the longest time ever recorded for underground survival.
The two decided to tell most of the story with a single family with three children, who are aided in their efforts by their Ukrainian neighbors, risking their own lives to help this Jewish family. The story also includes an orphan Ukrainian girl, whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis because she was suspected of helping hide Jews during the war. She is buried alive under her deceased family members, but escapes with the help of the Jewish family’s teenage son and her Ukrainian neighbor, who find the scene of a mass murder while they are at night. looking for potatoes in an abandoned field.
The novel is full of action and the story it covers will raise a lot of questions for young readers. Barbara made sure that this book, although dealing with a difficult subject to understand, had a positive result.
“I was bonded and determined that it was going to be positive,” she said. “I think we did.”
Barbara said that while Bill knows best the historical facts that ground the novels, she knows the emotional lives of the characters a bit better.
“We are a good team,” she said. “I wanted a book that was hopeful and full of love, and I think we did that.”
The book is also another first for Bill. While his previous books have been published by Scholastic, Random House, and University of Minnesota Press, this time he decided to publish the book himself. His literary agent had retired and “at my age, I didn’t want to hire another agent,” he says.
“Self-publishing is now a viable option,” he said, “and it seems to be working really well.”
The book is available at area bookstores, including Piragis in Ely, as well as online (check onlinebookshop.org to support local bookstores). Fifty percent of royalties from the book are donated to the United Nations Food Program in Ukraine.
The couple are already researching their next book, which will focus on the differences between young people growing up in rural areas versus big cities.
“No Place on Earth”, a film about the Stermers, the Ukrainian family who fled the Nazis and found refuge in a cave. http://www.noplaceonearthfilm.com. The film is available for rental online.
Cave artifacts: (including the grinding wheel they transported to the site) http://www.noplaceonearthfilm.com/dig-deeper/the-objects/
“The Secret of the Priest’s Cave: A Holocaust Survival Story” by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola.
And learn more about all of Durbin’s books at Williamdurbin.com