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‘I was put on Earth to learn about the Holocaust and write these stories’

Concordia alumna Monique Polak carries her mother’s past forward in The Brass Charm
February 15, 2023
By Wendy Singer

A woman with curly hair stands in front of greenery Photo by John Fredericks

Monique Polak, MA 84, says it took her mother more than 60 years to talk about her experience during the Holocaust. And it took her even longer to tell Polak about a gesture of kindness and a brass charm that impacted her life and, ultimately, that of her daughter. Polak shares the story in her new historical picture book for children, The Brass Charm (North Winds Press, Scholastic Canada).

“I immediately felt as if I had a responsibility to tell this story to everyone I could possibly tell it to for the rest of my life,” says Polak.

In 1943, Polak’s mother, Celine Spier, was transported from Amsterdam to Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp located in what is now the Czech Republic. Just weeks after her arrival, on May 24, a woman, whom Spier described as tall and beautiful, found her sitting on a stoop, crying. It was Spier’s 14th birthday and she had not received any gifts. The stranger reached into her pocket and gave Spier a brass monkey-man charm.

Though Spier never saw the woman again, she secretly treasured the charm until 2012 when, on the eve of a trip to Amsterdam, she gave it, and the story, to her daughter. They were travelling together for the launch of the Dutch translation of What World is Left (Orca Book Publishers, 2008), Polak’s young-adult novel about her mother’s experience in the Second World War.

Polak, who feels an inexplicable closeness to the woman, wears the monkey-man around her neck every day. “He’s ugly, but I love him,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder how that woman would have felt if she’d known that almost 80 years later, the daughter of the little girl she gave the brass charm to would write this book, would talk to the newspapers about it and would share it with thousands of students,” she says.

A love of knowledge gained at Concordia

Polak says that she always dreamed of becoming a writer and a teacher. The two years she spent working on her MA in English literature at Concordia paved the way to a prolific career in both.

Her thesis advisor, now-retired professor and author Lewis Poteet, provided her with the support and openness she required to explore a topic that was considered avant-garde at the time: a psychobiography on author Lewis Carroll and his children’s classics, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

While writing her thesis, Polak was thrilled to teach her own English composition class as a teaching assistant. She was inspired by her English literature professor, Michael Brian’s engaging teaching style, which influenced her 35-year career teaching Writing for Children, The Stuff of Nonsense and many other courses at Marianopolis College, a post-secondary college in Montreal.

Image of book cover by author Monique Polak features an illustration of two young girls below the book's title The Brass Charm The Brass Charm shares an act of kindness that author Monique Polak’s mother experienced while imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1943. | Illustrations by Marie Lafrance

Polak sold her first manuscript at age 44, and has since published 32 books for young people  (she only hoped to publish one), with more in the works. She is a three-time winner of the Janet Savage Blachford Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature (Quebec Writers Federation), and has been nominated for many other prizes, and is also a journalist.

Known by her friends and family for her catchphrase, “What’s the story?” Polak calls herself an insatiably curious person, fascinated with stories and how memories inspire them. While ideas come easily, however, she says she struggles with the writing. “I don’t think of myself as super talented, but I’m a super hard worker. The writing is where I face my weakness every day. I guess I like a challenge!”

Ultimately, it is her mother’s story that has most impacted her life. “I feel like I was put on Earth to learn about the Holocaust and write these stories,” says Polak. “How lucky am I that I found the thing I was meant to do?”

Keeping stories alive

While Polak retired from teaching in 2022, she continues to feed her passion with author visits to schools. “When I was a kid, I had nobody to tell me anything about writing and publishing. I’m hoping there’s someone like me who’s lapping it up,” she says, encouraging anyone who feels they have writing talent to take themselves seriously and to know that the arts provide viable career options.

Her hope is that The Brass Charm will lead her to someone who knows something about its original owner, and that the story will continue to grow from there.

“Unlike things, stories live on and we need to keep telling them — not just stories about the Holocaust, but any story of hardship, resilience and love. The monkey-man reminds me that kindness is possible, even in the hardest times.”


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