Samuel in the Quantum Field: How One Boy’s Holocaust Story Can Help Us Bridge Space, Time, and Everything In Between – An interview with author Elyn Joy

Interview by Ed McManis

When Hitler’s nightmare descended on Ludmir, Poland, Jewish teenager Shmuel (Samuel) Szynder was able to escape. But not his family. The Nazis burned his house, and years later as he tried to reconnect with his family, he learned that they were marched into the woods, shot, and dumped into a mass grave. In her book, Samuel in the Quantum Field…, author, and Shmuel’s daughter, Elyn Joy, recounts his harrowing escape. 

She chronicles his journey to survive, his multiple encounters with death, and how he was demonized as a Jew. Samuel was one of the lucky ones, a survivor. After the war, he managed to make his way to America to start a new life in Sioux City, Iowa, where he married, raised a family, and enjoyed the “American Dream.” 

In addition to Samuel’s survivor story, Joy combines the concept of the Quantum Field, how “everything is connected.” The book, written as part of a Holocaust presentation, is targeted for seventh graders through high school to help students connect with that dark part of history, and to help shed light on what it means to be a survivor, how everything is connected, what it means to be human. 

Ed: What was the inspiration for this book?

Elyn: The idea for this book had been stewing and simmering for probably most of my adult life. The stories shared by my dad when I was young were few and far between. He was so burdened with his past, rather than talking about it, it came out more in behaviors. So, I was always curious about these whisperings of stories about my dad’s story as a survivor. It was never really talked about until high school. I remember one day he said, “Kids, come in here.” That was his way, “Kids, come in here.” We sat around the dining room table, all the Jewish art around us. And he said, “I’m going to tell you about my life.” He started talking about some of these stories, and we just listened. And over the next thirty, forty years, I never asked him more about it until he knew that his life was winding down. He had a stroke, and I think it dawned on him that these stories were going to be gone. They would be nowhere unless someone sat down with him, shared them and recorded them.

Ed: And you transcribed those recordings and it eventually became the heart of this book?

Elyn: Right. So, I got out my tape recorder, which was much bigger than yours there, it was more like a toaster-oven tape recorder, and I did what you’re doing. I asked him questions and I recorded all of his stories. Or as many as he would share. And there were a few that were filtered through my mom. She said my dad had frequent nightmares remembering various things. And the one that kept recurring was when the Nazis invaded Ludmir, Poland, and started burning the village. He had left his sisters behind in the house. He was already in the woods, but he knew this was happening. Now, I don’t think his sisters died on that day. We believe that they were later marched out into the forest, into a mass grave. Shot and buried. I talk about this in the book. 

Ed: Horrific. In addition to these horrors, you’ve taken a unique approach with this book. The quantum physics section. Tell me about that.

Elyn: The quantum physics part was just decades of studying and digging. In college, I would say nine out of ten of my electives were either in astronomy or physics. The math really killed me, or I might have gone that direction. Quantum physics. I just don’t have a mathematical mind. I continued with those (physics) studies for the last thirty years.

Ed: What was the impulse to include that science element? 

Elyn: I think kids, students, have heard Holocaust stories over and over. And they’ve seen movies and they’ve probably read Elie Wiesel’s Night—which is a masterpiece—and they’ve read, you know, straightforward accounts of Holocaust survivors. But what’s been missing I think from Holocaust literature is the connection to “Why does this matter to me?” Or, “How does this affect me? This happened in history but it was not my people. I’m not Jewish…” I’m talking like an 8th grader now. 

Ed: To clarify, you targeted this book for what age group?

Elyn: I was thinking, middle school through high school? Seventh through 12th grade—and maybe beyond? The idea is that the quantum field, everything, every time, every person, kind of like the Butterfly Effect, not only is connected by cause and effect, but inherently intertwined. And so we think, I’ll use a metaphor that I use in the book, we think it’s someone else’s movie, but really, it was our movie too. And because of this universal connection, it matters to me in ways I may not have even considered. 

Ed: And this movie idea, I think it resonates beyond the YA audience.

Elyn: I think the points being raised, the story, the history connects to all of us. For kids today in this society, instant gratification is everything. I want to know something? I grab my phone. I want to reach someone, I text them. It’s just “now, now, now.” There is so little thought among most young people about historic significance. In this book, I think the science, and the philosophical thought, these are bridges to the kids to help them understand and not only connect with history, but absorb it in a way they might understand which will hopefully also affect their behaviors towards others. That’s the crux of what I’m trying to do. 

Ed: Now, you had the opportunity to present this book and your dad’s story last month (April, ’24)  in Iowa. How did that go?

Elyn: In Sioux City, Iowa, there’s a museum called the Rail Museum. It’s an intersection where railways, north and south, east and west, intersect. Just north of Sioux City, right in the middle of the country. The Sioux City Tolerance Week, along with generous donors, supported the creation of this railroad memorial exhibit called Desperate Passages. It is a tribute to the Holocaust survivors in Sioux City and the area. 

They replicated a German boxcar—it’s identical; well, first they wanted to ship one over. But the cost was prohibitive. So they designed one. When you walk into this exhibit, there’s a search light and a Nazi tower, and the search light follows you into the exhibit. You enter the boxcar and you can see and feel what these Jewish prisoners experienced. My dad is one of the featured survivors in this amazing place. 

Ed: You said the exhibit is fairly new?

Elyn: It just opened a year ago spring. In 2023, I was invited as an honored guest as the daughter of a survivor. The exhibit was so impactful–it gave me the same feeling as when I visited Yad Vashem, in Israel. Maybe five minutes into the exhibit, all of a sudden I could hear my dad’s voice, and I heard him telling his stories. I thought, “What is going on?” I turned the corner and there’s a screen, and there’s my dad. Talking. The video they run is one of the first-hand accounts Spielberg compiled for his institute in L.A. and the Iowa museum acquired the rights to run a few minutes from it. 

So, at that time, Lou Ann Lindblade, a leader for Tolerance Week and the museum, asked me if I’d return the following year and speak to 8th grade students. Well, I thought she meant go into the classroom, sure, but she meant every 8th grade student in the district. (Laughs) So it was 1800 plus 8th grade students in a large arena, and to prepare for this, I decided that I was going to finish this book. Which I did. I also created a fifty-minute presentation that follows some of the book, but mainly tells my dad’s story and relays the most important themes. 

Ed: How was it presenting to 2,000 8th graders?

Elyn: In the morning, it was the 8th graders, in the evening it was a much smaller group of community leaders including the former Governor of Iowa and the current Governor. Which was more nerve-wracking? I think because of my former life as a teacher, I was comfortable with the kids. I talked with a few of them beforehand, and they were so excited. There was a group of sixth and seventh graders who were presenting a skit on Kristallnacht—the night of the broken glass—and this one girl was probably three feet tall. Cutest girl, big smile, sparkly eyes, so excited about learning about the Holocaust. Not Jewish, none of them were. And she just smiled at me from the side of the stage and gave me two thumbs up. And I knew then that I could do it. The kids were unbelievably quiet and well-behaved. Luanne warned me and said, “Be Careful, they’ll get restless.” They did not. I think when we make something matter to someone, they’ll stay with you. 

Ed: You were able to present and connect them to a bigger picture, ironically by making it more personal. 

Elyn: I start by explaining that black and white photos lie. What I mean is that we look at books, at history, we see these black and white photos in museums and we think it’s not real. Today, with YouTube videos and movies, when we see a black and white still, it’s frozen… so it’s easy to tell ourselves that it didn’t happen. For the presentation, I took a photo of my dad and his friends when they were young. It’s hard to even describe the clothing. Knickers, long socks, these strange looking shoes, they’re all standing in front of their school, they have their page boy caps. 

I took this picture, edited it, and repositioned them in front of well recognized Sioux City attractions. So, my dad and friends were in front of the Hard Rock Café, and they were in front of the big bridge, and they were in front of the Band Shell at Grandview Park. And the kids just loved it. They laughed, they clapped. Photos lie; these guys in my picture…you might have run into them at Grandview Park. That was how I started my presentation and it immediately connected them. 

Ed: You were able to connect his world to their world. 

Elyn: Yes, because in reality it was a 360-degree surround-sound experience. As was every other historic event. You and I know this, but kids see it as distant. 

Ed: How did your dad end up in Iowa?

Elyn: My dad took the Butner (USS General H.W. Butner: troopship) the boat, from the displaced persons camp in Berlin to New York City. Many people were helping the displaced peoples, not just the Jews, also the Russians, Germans, Poles, there were many displaced people. It’s the equivalent now if you opened the paper and saw the want ads. “Wanted…” Job here, job there. They had lists of opportunities. The one that came up for my dad, the agency said, “Here’s one in Iowa for an iron and metal company.” Well, my dad had been a blacksmith for a short time. The Jewish Federations made the connection. He knew no one in Sioux City. For that matter, he knew not a soul in the United States. But he braved the unknown and went for it.

Ed: How did he meet your mom? 

Elyn: My mom, Dorothy Sterling back then, was his English tutor. She was a Sioux City girl born and raised in Carroll, Nebraska. She was working part time teaching English… a nice Jewish girl. He was a new immigrant, but one of the first things he wanted to learn was to say, “Will you marry me?” He found out how to say that and she said, “NO! You kidding? I just met you.” 

But they kept working together and six months later, as she tells the story, she was hoping and praying that he’d ask again. And he did.

Ed: Do you have siblings? 

Elyn: I have an older sister and a younger brother. My parents had three kids. 

Ed: So in writing your dad’s story, what was the biggest revelation? And did it change you in any way?

Elyn: Great question. And yes, the whole process changed me. I think the greatest revelation was how much he loved, treasured, revered, life. How someone can be at the brink of death, multiple times, which he was, and still say to his daughter, on a busy street a week before he died, “Elyn Joy, it’s not so easy leaving this shiny world.” He saw it as a “shiny world” and here we are cursing our lives when we have everything. When I think of how petty politics has become, the divisiveness, how it’s become so widespread. We find all these reasons to wage these little wars. Me versus you, us versus them, I wear red, you wear blue…your religion doesn’t align with mine, and so forth. And yet, the one thing that’s the greatest gift, that I think he was talking about, seems to have escaped us and that very simply is that we have this amazing, miraculous opportunity to live. My dad saw that, he knew that. 

The other side, growing up, he had his own prejudices. He didn’t always trust non-Jewish people. I don’t think he’d mind me saying this. Towards the end of his life I think he realized that we all share this life and at the very core we’re all connected. He loved his Muslim, Ethiopian nurse at the end of his life, loved her and trusted her completely. He was calling for her, wanted her to hold his hand. Growing up, I wouldn’t have believed this could happen. 


Ed: In the book, we read about these encounters with death, how close he was. What is striking is his strength, his survivor mentality and ability to keep on. 

Elyn: Exactly. This is someone who looked at another human, asked for bread when he was starving, and was turned down. The guy who refused ran a bakery. At that time, for my dad, you don’t help the Jews. He faced deep-seated hatred. 

Ed: You wonder how some survive and make it, and others right next to them don’t. 

Elyn: His cousin died of malnutrition and starvation and dropped dead—literally—while they were walking. And my dad had to dig his grave with his own hands. And the ground was icy and covered with snow. I talk about that in the book. My dad became more resolved because of that loss. To live not just for himself, but for Motl. Later, he learned his whole family and most of the community he’d loved had been shot and dumped into a mass grave. He lived for them, too. I think he took the deaths of those loved ones on as a responsibility to live doubly and by multitudes. 

Ed: I’m curious, as a Jew yourself, is this story a responsibility, or do you view it more as an author and an author’s work? 

Elyn: I think that I work as a…human. And as a part of life, the greater life. One of the things that I write about in the book is that we live as though our perception is king, queen and every other royal member in the party. We believe that life is as we see it. But there are so many perspectives. Again, it goes back to, “It’s not my movie.” Do I see life as a Jew? Yes. Do I see life as a human? Yes. We have to remember that there are as many different views in this life as there are lifeforms and living creatures. And I want kids to be able to exercise their minds that way. Because, if they can’t, there’s no hope for the future. 

Ed: So, perception and perspectives are the keys?

Elyn: I wrote a children’s book called, Everyone Has a Point of View. And the last line is, “Everyone has a point of view, and to itself each one is true.” I don’t have to agree with you. I don’t have to be you or your religion, I don’t even have to be your species. 

Ed: And I think this leads to that thorny question where you get into Animal Farm territory. I’d ask, “Are some perspectives better than others?” 

Elyn: That’s a great segue. Into a bigger question.

Ed: If I were to argue it, let’s take an obvious example. The KKK. They have a perspective. I think they’re wrong. I don’t respect it or support it in any manner. Are they entitled to their perspective?

Elyn: In philosophy, you know about Plato’s absolutes. So you’re asking, “Are there absolutes?” Is there an absolute, universal right? Universal wrong? Universal better than? Your answer is, “Yes, there is.” My answer is, “No, but…” That is, if a view harms another or belittles or shrinks the lifeforce or dignity—

Ed: If that happens, I think it defaults to the “Yes, there is.” 

Elyn: So, I think it’s yes and no. 

Ed: It’s complicated, right? On paper it’s one way, pretty straightforward; in context, all of a sudden everything’s gray.

Elyn: I’m glad you brought up context. We’re all a product of our context. That’s a big section of the book. Samuel was born Jewish. You were born Catholic. You didn’t choose that any more than a horse decided to be born a horse. We are born into particular families, cultures, races, economic groups. Etc., etc. So someone who is, let’s say a Nazi, was born into a context of believing, for whatever reason, Nazi ideology. 

Ed: Sure. Look at the old videos of the Hitler Youth. What else did they know? 

Elyn: Should there be by reason of our ability to reason, to rise above the context of our lives?

Ed: That’s a great question and I think leads back to your “yes and no” perspective. 

Elyn: And that is why this book is needed. If there’s one reason why I wrote this book, that’s the reason. 

Ed: Well, once you know, then you have a choice. You have to decide.

Elyn: Yes. You have to exercise your mind and see that there are different perspectives. 

Ed: Let me change course a bit. Why do you think there are so many Holocaust deniers today?

Elyn: I think it’s part of human nature to want to believe that we are inherently good. And even people who come off, from a universal Platonic perspective, as really bad, I think they believe that they are good. I think there are two factors. One: We don’t want to face the ugliest side of ourselves. Two: There is underlying fear of the other. All prejudice, including antisemitism, is fear of the other. How do we take care of fear? We cast it as hatred. One way to handle fear is to vilify the object of the fear. 

Ed: This helps silence the dissonance.

Elyn: Exactly. 

Ed: You’d mentioned the influence of Kabbalah on this book. What is Kabbalah? 

Elyn: The Kabbalah is an ancient collection of writings by the mystics, the old rabbis. A lot of it is esoteric and philosophical and spiritual. One of the main teachings has to do with the Tree of Life. The idea is that we think everything is built from the bottom up, when actually everything is created from the top down. They would say everything starts with the Divine. I would say, it starts with thought. Everything you see manifested in this world was manifested from thought. From thought to form. 

Ed: Did the Kabbalah influence your writing?

Elyn: Absolutely. Writing is the intimate manifestation of thought. To me, that’s what all literature is. It’s the manifestation of thought in a time period and a context. This book is a manifestation of a nerdy science-y girl who happened to be the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and ended up trying to use both sides of her brain. 

Ed: Great. That’s a good place to stop. Best of luck with the book. 

About the interviewer: Ed McManis is a writer, editor, erstwhile Head of School, and frequent contributor to Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared in more than 60 publications, including The Blue Road Reader, California Quarterly, Nimrod, Narrative, Lascaux Review, etc. He, along with his wife, Linda, have published esteemed author Joanne Greenberg’s (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) novel, Jubilee Year. His goal is to interview all the writers he knows, which saves him from having to work on his own stuff.