One of Morey Kogul’s main goals in writing a book about his late father’s experiences during the Holocaust was to convince readers they were hearing from the survivor himself.
Kogul, a 43-year-old urban planner and River Hill resident, chose to write in the first person to establish an emotional connection between the audience for his nonfiction debut, “Running Breathless: An Untold True Story of WWII and the Holocaust,” and Van Wolf Kogul, who died in 2014 at age 91.
The author will discuss his book and sign copies on Wednesday at the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City, to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is being marked on Jan. 27 this year. Audience members will be invited to share their stories.
Between 1941 and 1945, six million European Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany at concentration camps, along with members of other persecuted groups.
Kogul’s father, a Polish Jew, survived by fleeing to the Soviet Union, where he was involuntarily enlisted to serve in the Soviet army, a process known as conscription.
How Jews survived on the Eastern front of World War II is “a relatively little-known story,” Kogul said.
On a family trip from Denver 25 years ago to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and other Washington landmarks, Kogul made a pledge to his father to tell his story. With his book’s publication by Mascot Books in June, the author finally kept that promise.
“I was woefully underprepared as a teenager to conduct that first interview with my father, since he never talked about what he’d been through,” Kogul recalled of his dad, who was 53 when he was born.
Kogul crammed a binder with notes, placed it on a shelf along with the recording he’d made of the interview and went off to college a year later. Five years passed before he asked his father for a second session.
“Both conversations were very, very difficult,” sometimes driving both men to tears, Kogul said.
But father and son persevered.
The result was a 40-page outline that Kogul reviewed with his father, and which later became the foundation for his book.
Kogul wrote the book while on paternity leave from August 2016 to January 2017 after the birth of his son, Jonah, who is 2. The author and his wife Rachel also have a daughter, Hannah, who is 12.
“There are lots of sections in the book where you’ll be laughing, not just crying,” said Kogul, who will donate a share of the book’s proceeds to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
“Even in the worst of times, there’s humor,” he said.
The story of survival against considerable odds was as emotionally wrenching for the author to hear as it was for his father to tell.
“He was 19 in 1941 when World War II broke out,” Kogul said. “There were 15,000 Jews in his hometown of Dubno, which is located in present-day Ukraine, and only 300 survived.”
But there was a second, deeply painful aspect to his survival story.
Contributing to a nearly lifelong case of survivor’s guilt for the elder Kogul was the fact that he was the sole survivor among his parents and two siblings, the author said.
There was no record of how any of his family members died until around 1982, when Van Kogul finally learned “the horrifying circumstances” of his mother’s death, Morey Kogul explained.
“This was all very difficult for my father to reconcile,” he said, adding his dad was so utterly devastated by the information that he couldn’t bear to ever discuss it with anyone.
Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, where Kogul and his family are members, was given an advanced copy of the book and wrote a review for the back cover.
“Many survivors are not capable of sharing their experiences because it’s too massive and too painful a subject,” Axler observed. “Part of the power of this book is how one individual’s story shapes the narrative of the family he builds after the Holocaust.”
Another aspect that sets the book apart is the wide gap in age between father and son.
“Morey is on the very young side of being a direct survivor and he has an interesting perspective because he’s considerably younger,” he said.
Axler also emphasized that the timing of the book’s publication matters.
“It’s important right now, in this moment, to tell these stories of survival,” he said, “and humanity has an obligation to stand up” against modern-day acts of bias.
“In the Jewish community, there’s a phrase, ‘Never again.’ It not only applies to the Holocaust, it means never again should this happen to any people at any place or time,” he explained.
As Kogul conducted research for his book, he turned to Miriam Isaacs, a retired professor of Yiddish language and culture at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a former visiting fellow at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“It’s very important to tell these stories and to write them down,” said Isaacs, who endorsed Kogul’s book in an online review.
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“The Holocaust destroyed much of traditional Jewish life in Europe,” she said. “My own father wouldn’t have survived if he hadn’t illegally migrated to the Soviet Union from Poland, so I have great empathy for those who cross our [nation’s] border illegally.”
Kogul said the current state of the world and our political culture, along with increased incidences of hate speech, has led to many conversations with readers about their present-day experiences.
The author said he hopes the event may inspire a call to action in Howard County. And despite the weightiness of the topic, the book concludes on an upbeat note.
“There is hope at the end,” Kogul said.
“I want people who come to this event to know that they’re not just going to hear an author talking about his dad. This is a subject with relevance to all of our lives today.”
If you go
Morey Kogul will give a free author’s talk Jan. 30 on “Running Breathless: An Untold True Story of WWII and the Holocaust” from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Miller Branch Library, 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City. It will include a slide show for historical context, video clip of the author’s father and a reading from his debut novel. Books will be available for purchase and signing. To register, go to hclibrary.org/classes-events or call 410-313-1950.