Today we are talking with author Danny M. Cohen about his debut novel, TRAIN, which comes out today! Happy release day Danny!

Train by Danny M. Cohen (Unsilence Project , 2015)

Train by Danny M. Cohen (Unsilence Project , 2015)

About the book:

TRAIN is a YA historical thriller with a particular focus on the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals. This novel is self-published in partnership with Unsilence Project.

“This thriller gives voice to the unheard victims of Nazism — the Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, intermarried Jews, and political enemies of the regime.” (via Danny Cohen’s website)

Over ten days in 1943 Berlin, six teenagers witness and try to escape the Nazi round-ups of Jews and Roma. Giving voice to the unheard victims of Nazism — the Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, intermarried Jews, and political enemies of the Nazi regime — this historical thriller will change how we think about Holocaust history.

Marko screwed up. But he’s good at swallowing his fear.

By now, the 17-year-old ‘Gypsy’ should be far from Nazi Germany. By now, he should be with Alex. That’s how they planned it. But while Marko has managed to escape the Gestapo, Alex has been arrested in the final round-ups of Berlin’s Jews. Even worse, Marko’s little cousin Kizzy is missing. And Marko knows he’s to blame.

Yet the tides of war are turning. With hundreds of Christian women gathered in the streets to protest the round-ups, the Nazis have suspended the trains to the camps. But for how long? Marko must act now. Against time, and with British warplanes bombing Berlin, Marko hatches a dangerous plan to rescue Alex and find Kizzy.

There are three people who can help: Marko’s sister with her connections to the Resistance, Alex’s Catholic stepsister, and a mysterious Nazi girl with a deadly secret.

Nadia: Today is your release day! Happy pub-day! 🙂 What does it feel like? Anything cool you are doing to celebrate today?

Danny: First of all, it’s an honor to be interviewed by GayYA.

I’m so excited this day is here. I’m nervous, too, of course, but mostly because so many people care so deeply about what my novel, Train, represents. Train is about real, hidden histories of the Holocaust that I hope will start some amazing and surprising conversations.

But celebrations will have to wait. Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day—it’s exactly 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. Tonight, I’ll be giving a public talk in Chicago on the question, What Is The Future of Holocaust Education?

N: Without being spoilery, what can you share about your debut TRAIN and its characters? Why should people give it a try?

D: At the heart of Train is a gay romance and two rescue stories inspired by real Holocaust survivor testimonies—the kinds of stories we rarely hear.

Marko, a seventeen-year-old ‘Gypsy,’ is keeping a dangerous secret. And he’s frightened—but not for himself. His best friend, Alexander, has just been arrested by the Gestapo in the final round-ups of Berlin’s Jews, and Marko has a plan to save him. At the same time, Marko’s sister, Tsura, is determined to travel to a Nazi camp for Roma on the edge of the city, to find their mother and aunt. But when their little cousin, Kizzy, goes missing, Marko and Tsura’s plans begin to fall apart. The characters draw us into questions about courage and hope and fear and fighting for the people we love.

N: What would you say was the best thing (or your favorite) about writing TRAIN?

D: I loved making sure that every event in Train—down to the minute—was historically accurate. I knew where the story needed to go, but my research (with advice from some brilliant Holocaust historians) dictated each plot twist and the book’s most incredible and haunting moments.

For example, when I was reading testimonies and historical reports about Marzahn, a Nazi camp for Roma on the edge of Berlin, I realized I’d unintentionally set a pivotal scene of the story during an Allied bombing raid on the city. So I had to rewrite that scene. Amazingly, the inclusion of the air raid changed the direction of the story and brought Train closer to historical truth.

N: I recently learned you work as a designer of Holocaust education. What does your work entail?

D: Being a Holocaust educator means I get to be a storyteller every day. Holocaust history can be entirely overwhelming, but we can make it accessible and relevant if we focus on the stories of individuals. Then, we need to connect those individual stories with other stories. One story plus another story plus another story, until we begin to have a sense of the big picture.

I have the honor of training educators to lead tours of Holocaust museums. I work with teachers. I work with communities. I help educators think about the appropriate (and avoid inappropriate) ways of engaging teenagers in urgent questions about human rights and our collective responsibilities to take action against atrocities around the world today.

N: You founded a non-profit dedicated to teaching and human rights, the “Unsilence Project.” It sounds like incredible work, what can you tell us about the project?

D: We break open taboos. Many educators have a hard time talking about certain issues and histories with young people. Unsilence Project creates free story-driven educational programs—and offers educator training—to engage young people in conversations about transgender rights, sexual violence, and other topics we struggle to talk about.

Train is the central text of Unsilence Project’s inaugural educational program, Overlapping Triangles, which we’ll be rolling out across the U.S.—as well as overseas—over the next year or so.

N: How difficult is it to talk to people about this subject? I remember being in high school, and finding out there are people out there who actually deny the existence of the Holocaust. Have you encountered this kind of trouble before?

D: The first Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves. When they realized they would lose the war, they started to burn evidence of their crimes. But there was too much evidence to destroy. If a student says to me, “My friend’s Mom says the Holocaust never happened,” I reply, “Look at all the photographs, watch the testimonies, read as much as you can, and then decide for yourself.”

As for the challenge of engaging people in the history: Some people can’t stomach the details of Holocaust history at all. Many people suffer from nightmares after reading too much about the Nazis’ camps and careful methods of murder. Train isn’t a light read. The story is dark. But it reflects the realities of human history. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to look.

N: Do you think teaching has influenced the way you write? If so, how?

D: I actually think it’s the other way around. How I write has changed how I teach. Every class I create starts with a hook, a compelling question, or even a surprising activity. From the start of any lesson, I have to keep the students on the edges of their seats. I have to keep them asking, “What will happen next?” And every class has to end on a cliffhanger that makes them excited to come to the next session. I know I’m doing a great job when the students can’t stop asking questions. And sometimes I have to stop myself from giving away spoilers. “Good question,” I’ll say. “But you’ll have to wait until next week before we answer it.”

N: When I read the summary for your book I was fascinated! The phrase “the unheard victims of Nazism” particularly struck me. What made you write about these unheard voices in particular? And since you could have easily written an adult book about this, why did you decide to make it YA?

D: For many decades, so many people and institutions—including the Polish government, some German politicians, some conservative Christians, and some ultra-Orthodox Jews—have opposed the recognition of homosexuals as victims of Nazism.

The Roma and Sinti—who were rounded up across Europe and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators—as well as people with disabilities—faced many of the same barriers: denial of reparations, denial of victimhood, denial of dignity and commemoration. I trained as an education designer and I chose to dedicate my work to the unsilencing of these hidden histories.

I didn’t set out to write a novel. But over time, it became obvious that writing a page-turner for teenagers would be the most effective way of changing our collective memories. If thousands of middle school and high school students read Train, then these stories—of homosexuals, of Roma, of people with disabilities—alongside Jewish stories of the Holocaust, will be known by the next generation.

What’s great news is that other scholars and educators are so supportive of my work. For example, I’m working closely with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and, tomorrow, I’ll be running an all-day training for sixty Chicago teachers on how to teach Train and its hidden histories. And this is just the beginning.

N: TRAIN is your debut novel. But according to my research, you are not a first time writer. What can you tell us about your other work?

D: Last month, my choose-your-own-pathway mystery, The 19th Window, was launched. You can try to solve the mystery here.

I’ve always been a writer. Since I was in primary school in the UK, I wanted to be an author of fiction. I remember handing in a 50-page fantasy story about a kick-ass teenage girl battling a wicked sorcerer!

For years, I’ve been writing accessible non-fiction—mostly for history and education design journals—about the design of Holocaust and genocide education. I’ll continue to write for academic publications, but I’m starting to find my voice through human rights fiction for young adults, and it’s exhilarating.

N: What’s next on your horizon? Do you think you’ll write more LGBTQIA+ YA in the future?

D: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I’m working on my second novel—Hide Or Speak, a contemporary YA human rights thriller that has some brilliant queer protagonists.

In the middle of a U.S. election, the daughter of a presidential nominee goes missing, and the media and the public become caught up in a global treasure hunt to save her life. Behind the scenes, panic is overshadowed by a family secret that threatens to bring down the political campaign but could also change the lives of thousand of people across the world.

N: Thanks so much for talking the time to talk with us Mr. Cohen! And congrats on the new release!

D: Thank you and thanks for having me!

And there you have it folks! Doesn’t TRAIN sound fascinating? I for one can’t wait to pick my copy up and check the story out!

Check out Danny’s guest post here.

Danny M. Cohen

About the author: 

Danny M. Cohen is a learning scientist, fiction writer, and education designer. Danny is also the founder of Unsilence Project.

An author of human rights fiction for young adults, his works include the new historical novel Train, the short story Dead Ends, the choose-your-own-pathway mystery The 19th Window, and the forthcoming contemporary thriller Hide Or Speak.

Born and raised in London, Danny lives in Chicago with his husband and their daughter.