Nancy Wright Beasley (left) in 2010 with Anne Derse, then U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, and artist Sam Bak, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Lithuania Photo courtesy Nancy Wright Beasley
As I begin my 15th year in this space, I still find it hard to produce decent prose. Over 34 years as a journalist, I've often described my angst by saying, "Writing is easy. Just belly up to a typewriter and sweat blood." (A twist on words attributed to the late Red Smith, a New York sports writer.)
Trading my Electrolux for a computer didn't make writing easier; it just meant I erased faster. Reading this column in 10 minutes doesn't reflect that sometimes I have spent weeks writing it. The hard-working staff at Richmond magazine deserves my thanks, as do my faithful readers, one of whom expressed appreciation for my work affecting the community and asked, "Are you an angel?"
No, definitely not. Understanding that few angels reside among us is why I believe readers connect with me in this space. Knowing that life is sometimes so damn hard, you just grit your teeth until you find something to laugh about. Receiving that feedback assures me I'm not alone.
At times, though, I've felt completely alone, especially as I wrote my first nonfiction book, Izzy's Fire: Finding Humanity in the Holocaust. If producing a column can be compared to climbing Buffalo Mountain, then writing a book was akin to scaling Mount McKinley. Many nights, over a seven-year period, I walked the floor and cried — before completely rewriting it three times.
I self-published the book because Randi Smith, then a language arts supervisor for Chesterfield County Public Schools, read several chapters of the unfinished manuscript and placed an order for 90 copies, with the caveat of delivery by January 2005. I complied, believing education is an effective tool for thwarting discrimination. I nicknamed the book "Izzy" and flung it into the universe, watching in amazement as it grew wheels and took off. I often tell people, "Izzy's driving the bus. The only reason I'm along is because I have a license."
"Izzy" has been continuously taught in Chesterfield schools, starting with Patty O'Connor using it at Manchester Middle from its inception and more recently with Becky Quesenberry coordinating 20 teachers at Elizabeth B. Davis Middle, encompassing 450 students, the entire seventh grade. It's now found at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, in many schools, universities and colleges in numerous states and some other countries, garnering me speaking invitations from the Alaska World Affairs Council to the Rotary Club of Jerusalem to the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania. In April, I'll be speaking at the Jewish Educational Alliance in Savannah, Ga.
Connections seem to multiply exponentially. I stand in awe at how Nomeda Repsyté, a Lithuanian woman who learned of "Izzy," wrote an e-mail in 2008 offering to be my guide, should I ever visit Lithuania. A year later, I was in Lithuania staying at Dr. Virginija Vasiliauskiené Mann's home. Would you believe that Nomeda lived one block from Virginija but they didn't know each other?
I found Virginija through Gadi Shlom, who lives in Israel. Gadi, the son of the late Emmanuel Shlom, one of the characters in "Izzy," told me about Barry Mann, a friend of Emmanuel's when they were young and living in South Africa.
Barry moved to El Paso, Texas, years ago but met Virginija when he was trying to locate her mother, who, along with her parents and brother, saved eight Jews from certain death after they escaped from Kovno Ghetto, the same ghetto I write about in "Izzy." One of those Jews, Henry Kellen, established the El Paso Holocaust Museum. Henry wanted to reconnect with the family that risked their lives to save him, so he enlisted Barry's help. Barry married Virginija, who still maintains an apartment in Kaunas, Lithuania, the setting for my book. I spoke at the El Paso Holocaust Museum and later stayed with Virginija in Lithuania while she visited family.
I've visited Lithuania twice and was astonished at the media attention my presence solicited. After reading "Izzy," Anne Derse, then the U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, invited me to stay at the Embassy guest quarters. She and her staff arranged numerous speaking engagements and also gave a dinner attended by Holocaust survivors, including Sam Bak, an internationally known artist. I cannot describe how I felt reading from "Izzy," while sitting encircled by Jewish leaders, college professors and members of Parliament. I was so nervous that I began my presentation by saying, "I never dreamed I'd experience this, especially since I grew up on a farm milking cows."
Watching the ebb and flow of life and death on a farm was a good primer for writing. When I was three years into composing "Izzy," I told my mother that I was giving up the project. I explained that helping to care for her and my father, trying to survive as a freelance writer and attending graduate school at VCU was just too overwhelming, when added to the challenge of writing a book. Her response: "Don't give up so easy."
I followed her advice, writing the last words four years after her death, and I dedicated the book to her. I think she'd be pleased to know that "Izzy" is being used in Lithuanian schools and there's interest in publishing it in Lithuanian for wider use.
I'm also hopeful that eventually it will find a home on a theatrical stage, and I'm working toward that end. Stay tuned.
When I began writing for The Richmond News Leader in 1979, I dreamed of writing a personal column like this one. When I wrote Izzy's Fire , I hoped it might reach a wide audience, especially children.
My beloved mother, over countless years, always encouraged me by saying, "Nothing beats a failure but a try," so I just kept on trying. I wish she could be here to see how her advice has paid off.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2013. All rights reserved.