When Lesley Ann Richardson was offered the opportunity to write the story of Sam Herciger, she didn’t think very long before saying yes.

The request came in Jerusalem, Israel, where Richardson was meeting with a friend, Annabelle Herciger, who had shared stories about her father, an Auschwitz survivor who became a noted artist. “Annabelle and I were having coffee in downtown Jerusalem, and she told me about notes her mother took about Sam’s life before he died,” Richardson recalls. “She said, ‘If I translate them from French into English, will you turn them into a book?’ I just knew this was something I had to do.”

That conversation resulted in Creating Beauty From the Abyss, a book that Kirkus Reviews calls “a gripping, harrowing account of suffering and hard-won humanity” in a starred review.

To write the book, Richardson used notes that Edith Herciger took from her husband’s accounts of his childhood: His harrowing captures and escapes from the Nazis in World War II, his first two marriages, his eventual freedom, and, all along, his love for and creation of beautiful art. “Every evening, Annabelle’s mother, Edith, who was also an artist, said, ‘Sam, I want you to tell me your story, and I’ll write it down,’” Richardson says. Edith published a small book in French, but it was Annabelle’s idea to expand it into an English-language volume.

Sam Herciger provided the bones of his story. Richardson filled them out with dialogue and passages, surmising what Sam was experiencing. “There are many places where I just had to imagine what was going through his mind and through his heart,” the author says. What she did know, and what she researched exhaustively, was what was going on in the world at the time, and Creating Beauty From the Abyss has chapters throughout that are a straightforward historical account.

“I did a lot of background research, which immensely deepened my understanding of the history of Zionism, the history of Poland, the years leading up to the war, and the war itself,” Richardson says. “I realized I had to start weaving that into the background to really make sense of it all, and I felt it really added immeasurably to the book.”

She writes the book so that people who want to skip the historical background—context they may already know—can do so easily. The history is largely contained in chapters written in italics, interspersed with Sam’s specific story in other chapters.

Creating Beauty From the Abyss follows Sam from his native Poland to Israel, Russia, Belgium (where he spent years in hiding with his first wife, Hennie), Germany, Austria, and France, including many dark months in concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Gunskirchen.

As horrific as his life is, Sam consistently finds beauty in the art that he sees, the art he makes, and the art that others make, too, including a “camp orchestra” that would play music at Auschwitz:

There would be a moment of silence, a hush…but then! The music that flowed from the fingers of this bunch of ragged scarecrows seemed to come from another sphere, a transcendent realm of time and place that existed far beyond Auschwitz. Starving, desperately unhappy as the players undoubtedly were, forced to perform through suffering and humiliation, yet their music was the music of heaven. Something of their sorrow communicated itself as an undercurrent in those bright flowing melodies, the waltzes made for days of happiness beside the sparkling waves of the Danube, or nights of love under a star-studded sky. It evoked the world that had been lost, and all its brightness and charm—the world to which the prisoners could never again aspire to belong.

Growing up in Queensland, Australia, Richardson, too, found beauty in art and was a voracious reader. “It was a very peaceful, wonderful upbringing in Australia,” she says. Richardson wrote a little bit in her youth, “mainly shorter pieces, short stories, poetry, that kind of thing, but I never had it published.”

She studied literature and theology, the latter of which took her to Israel in her early 20s. “I was a Christian, but once I learned about the modern history, I was really fascinated by the whole historical background, and I wanted to go there, and I wanted to work,” she says. She worked for the Anglican International School Jerusalem for three years (where she met Annabelle Herciger), Middle East Television (run by Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network), and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

She moved back to Australia in the mid-’90s but in 2008 returned to Israel, where she renewed her friendship with Annabelle Herciger, who in 2015 asked Richardson to write the book. On that return to Israel, she also met her future husband, Dave Richardson, at Christ Church in Jerusalem. They married and spent a decade working for church and charitable organizations before moving to his native Canada in 2018 while he battled health issues.

Dave Richardson wrote the lyrics to the hit ’70s song “Wildflower” (“She’s a free and gentle flower growing wild”), and it was his life story that prompted Lesley Ann Richardson to start putting pen to paper in a more purposeful way. “My amazing husband,” the writer says. “After I met Dave, that’s when I was able to devote myself to writing full time, and I found it rewarding.”

Richardson, living in Vancouver, B.C., dove into writing Creating Beauty From the Abyss after her husband’s death in 2019 and during the pandemic. “I really was into it in a very, very deep way, I suppose, and totally caught up in the whole story,” Richardson says. “It was a big project, and I wanted to do it thoroughly.”

After she finished Sam Herciger’s story, she began typing up her late husband’s handwritten lyrics, which included hundreds of lyrics in addition to “Wildfire.” “I’ve actually written his life story, which is absolutely fascinating, and that book is coming out in a couple of months,” she says. “I worked those lyrics into his story.”

Richardson says her major literary influences are what she was raised on—the classics and English literature. “The Romantic poets, the metaphysical poets, Shakespeare, the Romantics—these words fed my imagination,” Richardson says. “I read all the great writers, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and I’d still say that they are formative influences in my life….I read a lot of theological stuff. I think at this stage in my life, I like to be provoked to think, and I find reading the classical authors and finding parallels with Christian writers is really something fascinating to me.”

But she’s also tempted by good old-fashioned murder mysteries. “I’d like to write one myself, set in Jerusalem,” she says.

She also plans to revisit Bible Gems From Jerusalem, a theological work she published in 2017. “I would like to write a Bible Gems No. 2, and this one would be exploring some of the mysteries that we have in scripture,” Richardson says. “I’d also like to write about the queens of Israel. You’ve got some fascinating stories there, and I think that’s a story that’s waiting to be told.”

No matter her future projects, Richardson will always carry Sam’s story with her: “I felt like I got to know Sam,” she says. “I felt I got to know someone who was determined and was courageous and didn’t let the horrific experiences cow him into submission but had a lot of wisdom and was full of compassion.…And I think he also had a sense of humor. So even though I didn’t have any kind of real description of Sam’s character and never met him, I hope I managed to capture something of his personality.”

Alec Harvey, a freelance writer based in Alabama, is a past president of the Society for Features Journalism.