Salmon Arm residents will have the unique opportunity to meet Roxi Harms, author, and Adam Baumann, protagonist of the The Upside of Hunger: A True Story, during a book launch at Bookingham Palace on Saturday, Oct. 20.
Released in July 2018, The Upside of Hunger is a narrative history of Baumann’s life, from his childhood in a rural Hungarian village he longed to leave, to his teenage years and his traumatizing service with the German military during the Second World War, and into adulthood and his immigration to Canada.
Referred to as, “Beautiful, shocking and sometimes painful… (a) magnificently told story of a man who triumphed over the limitations of history to become his greatest self,” the book is Harms’ first. The Kelowna-based author and former resident of Salmon Arm said she was compelled to write it not long after meeting Baumann and his wife Jean, residents of Penticton, while vacationing in Costa Rica.
“(They) were vacationing in the villa next to my husband and me, and I introduced myself and we went for dinner, the four of us,” said Harms. “As you do when you’re having dinner with new friends, you exchange stories, and his stories, just in casual sort of conversation, little anecdotes of his life stories that came out, were compelling,” said Harms. Days later, after a second get-together with the Baumanns and hearing more from Adam about his life, Harms knew his stories needed to be written down.
“About two years later, I finally approached Adam and asked if he would be interested in a joint project; he tells his story and I try to write a book,” said Harms. “He embraced the idea and we spent the next five years working on it together.”
The Upside of Hunger begins in the small remote village in eastern Hungary where Adam was born.
“As a child, he didn’t see, I suppose, the rules and limitations by which a child of that time should have abided,” explained Harms. “He would do whatever needed to be done to achieve whatever, and he wanted to achieve – to the point when he was actually put in jail at nine years old for theft.
“As it turned out, he wasn’t actually stealing, he was trying to borrow the neighbour’s grey buck rabbit to breed into his rabbits so the rabbits he was responsible for butchering for his family for food would be bigger.”
After running away from home multiple times, Adam escaped at age 15 by volunteering to enlist with the German military.
“He had been listening to the propaganda on the state-provided radios that Hitler had provided and it was obvious to him that this was going to be a glorious thing to do…,” said Harms. “So he volunteered and became part of the S.S., having absolutely no idea what he was getting himself into. As a 15-year-old boy, he went through this horrific period of time. He was given a machine gun and sent to Russia at the beginning of winter.”
Harms said the stigma of having been a Nazi was something Adam dealt with for decades.
“The reality was, he had no idea of what the SS was about and not until years later what the other arms of the SS had actually done,” said Harms. “And so it was a fascinating story to me for that reason, as well as so many others. Here we could see a human story from another side.
“Normally we view the Germans, and particularly the SS as the bad guys. And here was a person who went on to become one of Penticton’s most successful business people, who has contributed as much as anybody, more than most, to the community and is a lovely person, a very gentle soul. He’s very courageous and robust, but he’s also a very compassionate person.”
The experience of writing the book was not without its challenges. For Harms, the endeavour involved a lot of note taking and months of research, gathering the historical background connecting Adam’s experiences. For Adam, there was a resurfacing of the heartbreak and trauma of his youth.
“Things like what we now call PTSD was stirred up through the retelling of all these things that happened to him as a child and teenager and young adult, and his nightmares, he resumed having nightmares,” said Harms. “That was a real reason for me to doubt whether this project should be done, because it was causing him some emotional trauma… So yeah, it was definitely a challenge.”
Despite these challenges, Harms says Adam’s family were very supportive throughout the writing process and grateful that his legacy has been captured.
Harms and Adam have done a couple of book launches already, and she says it has been great fun touring with him.
“He knows he’s had a pretty interesting life but he is also very interested in other people – he’s not full of himself is what I guess I’m trying to say,” said Harms. “I hear him regularly offer to people, if you have any questions about the story after you read the book, give me a call, I’m happy to talk about it.”
In addition to the book tour, Harms says she’s open to the idea of doing a bit of a campaign around book clubs, where she and Adam would be available to talk about the book.
“It’s very unique to have the protagonist of the novel available in the flesh for conversation,” said Harms.
Harms and Baumann will be at Bookingham Palace, in the Mall at Piccadilly, from 1 to 3 p.m. Oct. 20.