01 June 2022

UEL's people are full of captivating and inspiring stories, and our alumni are no exception. Dr Vivien Sieber, former UEL lecturer and student, has put pen to paper to document her family's fascinating history in her recently published book, Kino and Kinder: A family's journey in the shadow of the Holocaust.

We sat down with Vivien to discuss how she came to write the book and the mesmerising story it tells.

Dr Vivien Sieber

Can you tell us a bit about your time at UEL?

I was a Senior Lecturer in genetics in the department of life sciences for eight years, where I had a lovely time and learnt a huge amount. My PhD is in plant sciences and genetics, so I did some plant research and became very interested in study skills. UEL was very supportive, so when we wanted to do things, we generally found a way. While lecturing, I also took an MA in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

How did you go from studying plants and biology to becoming an author?

After UEL (and prompted by my MA) I moved into e-learning and began working with librarians. I learned so much from them and my searching skills got very good.  I went to the University of Surrey, where my role focused on information literacy and embedding that in the curriculum. Biologists are trained to ask questions. You're asking, "Is my answer to this question reasonable?" That's an important skill when researching for a book.

What inspired you to begin writing?

I always knew I had this interesting family background, where my father was a Jewish refugee from Vienna in 1938 and my grandmother owned a cinema there which was taken by the Nazis. My grandmother came to England aged 54, penniless and speaking no English. She got a job as a matron in a hostel for girls who were saved by the Kindertransport.

Before my father died in 1999, he got in touch with the girls who had lived in the hostel and asked for their stories. They wrote incredibly movingly about their time there - having to leave their parents and the journey which must have been extremely frightening. Some of the girls were as young as five when they travelled here.

When he died, I inherited a case of miscellaneous pictures and letters (mostly between him and my grandmother) and a box of photographs of my family. He'd also left a couple of unpublished manuscripts - one about his life and one about his grandmothers.

This was all bubbling away in the background, and then we went to Vienna to look for my grandmother's flat. I had always known the building address, so I Googled and emailed all the people I could find who were living in the flats. We were invited for tea and it turned out to be the flat my grandmother had lived in, which was an amazing coincidence! Our hosts had been to the archives and got loads of papers from them about my grandmother's cinema. The archives in Vienna were incredibly generous and gave us as a huge number of papers.

Paula, Dr Vivien Sieber Vivien’s Grandmother

It sounds like you had so much material to work from. How long did the process of writing and publishing the book take?

It took around three years - which wasn't that long. During that time, we met some of the girls who had lived at the hostel, who were so helpful with my research. Sadly, there are fewer than there were - two died of Covid. One of them is now 88 and was the youngest in the hostel aged five. She lives in Wimbledon and calls me quite often.

It was obviously a very emotional experience writing the book. What was the most challenging part?

The most upsetting part was when I started looking into my distant family. I had always known that my grandmother was the only one to survive bar her nephew. There are now massive databases, so if you have someone's name and date of birth you can generally find information on them - these people suddenly became real.

It's easy starting and asking questions as a biologist, but it's very different when you realise this person is your great aunt, for example. Then there's discovering how many horrific killing centres there were. What's really upsetting now is seeing the names of those centres appearing in the news because Russia is bombing them.

On the flip side, what was the most positive part of researching the book?

It has to be the lovely people that I met along the way. When we were in Vienna we visited the site of the old cinema, which is now a Spar supermarket. I wrote to the conservator of the Jewish database for the area and asked him all sorts of difficult questions - such as what had happened to the cinema after the war? Two weeks later he sent me a timeline that he and his wife had drawn out. We've been chatting via email and we're going to meet them in Vienna next month!

The hostel girls in 1944

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

Be incredibly organised and use your reference manager! I wasn't very organised, and I think the people who taught me would have been horrified at my sloppy ways. I was dealing with the sort of data I wasn't used to in any way. I tried several classification systems for the letters and none worked very well, but then I haven't had historian training.

At one point I looked inside this briefcase of letters and I thought 'if this were a field and I didn't know what these flowers were' I'd sample them at random. That's what I tried and it sort of worked. I didn't really set out to write a book, but if I thought that I would have perhaps done things slightly differently

Do you have plans to write any more books?

I really don't know. At the moment I'm busy having a lovely time meeting people and talking about the book. Obviously, I haven't got another story like the one I have written, but I do really enjoy writing. I have no idea what I'd write about next, but I wouldn't rule it out.

You can find out more about Vivien's book, including purchase details, on her website.

Vivien’s book cover

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