Labor of love

A family affair: Rhonda Fink-Whitman (right) signs copies of her book, 94 Maidens, which retells the story of her mother, Tania Fink (left), during the Holocaust. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Rhonda Fink-Whitman felt a special obligation when she began writing 94 Maidens, a novel inspired by actual events during the Holocaust.

“As a Jewish educator and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, it was not my choice to write the book, it was my responsibility,” she said.

Fink-Whitman, a Somerton native, took her time writing the paperback novel.

“The book took 12 years from conception to holding the book in my hand,” she said during a recent book signing at Philmont Country Club.

It’s the first novel for Fink-Whitman, a 50-year-old Bensalem resident who has served as a Tango Traffic television reporter and a guest host on QVC.

The author bills the book, first published in October, as a story of heroism, resistance, martyrdom and survival.

“People get invested with the characters,” she said.

There are three main themes.

One centers on 93 Polish schoolgirls who are about to be forced into prostitution by Nazi soldiers. The book title is a takeoff on 93 Maidens, a poem about their story.

A second theme is about how the author’s mother’s family plays a game of cat and mouse with Nazis in Germany.

And the third theme is Fink-Whitman’s travels to Europe to visit concentration camps and to examine sealed Nazi documents in an effort to learn more about her family’s struggles during the Holocaust.

“It’s three stories interwoven,” she said. “I threaded them together.”

The 291-page book consists of 76 chapters. Fink-Whitman explained that she didn’t want to bog down readers with longer chapters.

The author issues a spoiler alert. Readers should not check out the pictures, documents and newspaper articles in the back until they’ve read the book. She promises a “big reveal” at the end of the book.

“It’s a professional book in every way,” she said. “I was very passionate about the project. I wanted to get it done.”

Fink-Whitman attended local schools — Watson Comly Elementary School, CCA Baldi Middle School and George Washington High School.

Today, she’s married with two children, and she and her family volunteer for the USO.

Fink-Whitman supports a state bill that would mandate the teaching of the Holocaust and genocide in public schools. She was at a recent Rhawnhurst Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) meeting, where the bill’s prime sponsors — state Sen. Anthony Williams and state Rep. Brendan Boyle — spoke about the legislation.

Afterward, she contacted her state representative, Republican Gene DiGirolamo, who personally called her back to say that he would sign on as a co-sponsor.

The way she sees it, adults will learn about the Holocaust by watching movies such as Schindler’s List or documentaries about Adolf Hitler on the History Channel. She thinks young people should learn about the atrocities in school.

Now, Fink-Whitman is doing her part with 94 Maidens.

The book’s cover features a picture of the author’s mother, Tania Fink, clutching a doll. The 2-year-old is shown with her parents, Manfred and Regina Joel. The family lived in Berlin, Germany, but was separated during the war.

Tania was sent to the the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp complex from January to April 1945. That’s the same camp where Anne Frank died.

Tania was luckier, liberated at age 6½ by British armed forces. She stayed in England until coming to the United States at age 12 in 1949 under the sponsorship of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).

Today, she is 74 and lives on Ferndale Street in the Westwood section of Somerton. The book is dedicated to her.

“I used her memories in the book,” Fink-Whitman said.

The book made its debut in front of 200 people during a fundraiser at Melrose Country Club for the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center, at the Klein JCC at 10100 Jamison Ave.

The author gave her mother a copy of the book wrapped in a bow.

Fink, of course, loves her daughter’s novel.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I’m so proud of her. She’s very insightful.”

Regina Joel survived the Holocaust, too, and was eventually reunited with her daughter. The book chronicles Manfred’s journey, including time at Auschwitz.

Fink-Whitman watched a videotape of her grandmother that was produced by The Shoah Foundation, an organization founded by Steven Spielberg that chronicles the stories of Holocaust survivors.

“I really got the story mostly from her,” she said.

Fink-Whitman is spending a lot of time marketing the book, and it’s found homes in places such as college bookstores and Holocaust museums in Houston and Washington, D.C.

Recently, she traveled to New York to attend the television show Live with Kelly and Michael. Kelly Ripa accepted a book from Fink-Whitman and promised to read it. Lucy Liu, filling in for Michael Strahan, eagerly took a copy.

“She took the book like it was a gift from God,” Fink-Whitman said.

The story first came to her as a film, and her writing won a screenplay competition.

The more she thinks about 94 Maidens and the more positive reviews she gets, she wants to see the story on the big screen.

“This is a movie that needs to be made,” she said. ••

The book is available for $15 at Doylestown Book Shop or at amazon.com, 94maidens.com or barnesandnoble.com

The author invites people to visit the 94 Maidens page on Facebook and to follow her on Twitter @94maidens.

A family affair: Fink-Whitman holds a copy of her book, which was first published in October. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO