Archives for category: Book

BTH cover

I met Deb Levy because we had something in common. We were both writing books based on someone else’s Holocaust story. Deb’s book, Bury the Hot, is now published. She sent me a copy and I read it in one big gulp. I had so many questions for her afterward but limited it to nine, which are answered by her below. You can purchase your own copy of Bury the Hot at amazon, which I encourage you to do. It’s a page-turner.

1. What was it like telling someone else’s story?

One of the very first things Sal [Wainberg] said to me after asking me to write his story was this, “Do not make a Hollywood version of my account. Do not embellish for the sake of storytelling. Do not make me out to be a hero. I just want the truth.” So, I felt a tremendous responsibility to hold to the truth. I also felt a tremendous responsibility for earning his trust, and that of his wife, Sandy. They were both sharing their memories and their marriage in such an honest and open way, and I held their trust in me in very high regard.

Deb Levy, author of Bury the Hot (courtesy of Deb Levy)

Deb Levy, author of Bury the Hot

2. How much and what kind of research did you do?

Sal sent me the VHS tape and transcript of a video testimony that he had given in 1995. I pored through it and filled a spiral-bound notebook with hundreds of questions. We don’t live near each other, so we spoke on the phone for several hours at a time – Sandy sitting silently on the line listening in. We called into a conference call center that recorded our conversations so that I could listen and respond without worrying about writing things down. We spoke once or twice a week, for hours on end, for several months. I also (like you!) used Google quite a bit and found amazing resources – from a Hebrew/Gregorian calendar conversion tool, to the Yizkor (memorial) book of his shtetl. And I went to Yeshiva University and the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] and looked through their archives to get more information about historical events that he was part of.

3. Who else did you interview beside Sal? How did you handle any inconsistencies in his story?

I interviewed his wife Sandy quite a bit, privately, because a good part of the book focuses on their marriage, and how the repression of his childhood experiences impacted their relationship. (She was learning some details of his past along with me, believe it or not.) I also spoke with his daughter, who is my age, to get a different perspective. But Bury the Hot is mainly Sal’s story, as he remembers his experiences and as he perceived them. Any historical inconsistencies, I checked with him and we compared notes on things like dates. For instance, he recalled the war breaking out on Erev Rosh Hashanah (he was three years old.) But every history book notes Germany invading Poland on September 1, which was about two weeks before Rosh Hashanah in 1939. When I pressed him on this, he said that he remembered wearing his new Rosh Hashanah clothes and going outside as planes darkened the sky above his home. And so he assumed it was Rosh Hashanah. But he realized that he must have just gotten his new outfit a few weeks before the New Year, tried it on, and then gone outside to show off his new clothes. To be honest, I was really amazed at how accurate and vivid his memories were.

4. Tell me about your decision to include Yiddish words, especially how you deftly handled their definitions, i.e., weaving them into the narrative rather than footnotes or parenthetically.

I love any book that weaves a foreign language into its prose – it brings a culture to life in a way that mere descriptions cannot. And Yiddish is such an amazing language, full of flavor and feistiness and a “hamisheh” quality. It’s the language of my family and our history, and the language that Sal spoke for the first 15 years of his life. It’s also a dying language and one that I wanted to revive in some way.

5. Has writing this changed the way you think about WWII and the Holocaust? What about your faith? I can’t imagine going through the process of interviewing, researching, writing and publishing and not coming out the other side unfazed.

To be honest, when Sal first asked me to write his story and his wife said, “His story is unbelievable,” my first thought (which I kept to myself!) was, “Yeah, I’ve heard it before.” I cringe now thinking about that. We may think that by reading Anne Frank and watching Schindler’s List we’ve heard it all before, but we haven’t. We haven’t even come close. There are millions of stories that need to be told – each one unique and heartbreaking and filled with truths and teachings. I don’t know that writing this changed the way that I practice or believe, but it changed me as a mother. I have three young boys, and raising them while writing about another young boy in peril was fraught with challenges. I struggled between wanting to do everything I could (as we all want to do as mothers) to give them a good life and protect them from harm. But at the same time, I started to resent their good life and innocence. I wondered often if they would have survived the things that Sal endured, and it terrified me, because I didn’t think they would. And so there was a part of me that wanted to “toughen them up” so that they could survive if their world, God forbid, turned upside down. But that is impossible, and probably not the best way to raise children!

6. How do you feel about the book, the people involved, the fact that the last survivors will soon be no more? 

I’m incredibly proud of the book, and incredibly, incredibly grateful to Sandy and Sal both for trusting me with their memories and laying themselves bare. Seeing it in print, seeing it go so public, I realize the incredible courage they exhibited in opening themselves up so completely. They were incredibly honest, and honesty is not always so attractive. Also, I think I was so close to it that it’s only been through the response I’m getting from readers that I realize I did something very important for history and humanity. Every day that goes by, there are less and less of those who can provide a first-hand account, or who can tell it cogently. And so there is this race against the clock to make sure we capture as much as we can and then share it with generations to come.

7. Any interesting or surprising responses to your book? Would love to hear what kind of feedback you’re getting from readers, whether they be from survivors, kin of survivors, Jews, non-Jews, etc.

The response has been incredible. Certainly, it is a Jewish-interest story. But some of my most fervent fans and supporters are non-Jews. And why not? It is a human story and one does not have to be Nigerian to appreciate Chinua Achebe, or Indian to read Salman Rushdie. But perhaps the greatest response was from Sal’s daughter, who hadn’t read a page of the book until it was published. The whole time I was writing his story, I worried about how she and her brother would feel reading about their father’s suffering, or their parent’s marriage. But she said, “I feel like we are now somehow related. Over 40 years, I have managed to absorb some of this history. But in 1/10th the time, you got it. And now you are my sister. This is why he chose you.”

8. Anything you wish you had done differently?

Yes! Like I said, I found the Yizkor book of Zelechow (his shtetl) online and used it as a resource for corroborating his memory of historical events. It also listed the names of people from his village, which I incorporated into the book. But it wasn’t until I went back to the Yizkor book, while I was working on the approximately 8th or 9th revision of Bury the Hot, that I realized there were pictures at the end of this online document. And I found pictures of his family, people he hid with. I had chills seeing the faces of the characters I had been writing about. Unfortunately, Sal had passed away by this time, and so I couldn’t share those photographs with him, or seek his help in identifying some of the people in group photos.

9. Name one thing you learned about the Holocaust that you didn’t know before starting this project.

I learned a lot about the difference between Polish and German society at that time, and the many years leading up to the war. I learned that the war’s end in 1945 did not bring an end to the suffering of Jews in Poland – at all. Anti-Semitism was centuries old, and persisted long after the Holocaust.

P.S. Click here if you’re curious about the book’s title.

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Hello to my loyal readers (all nine of you!). I was just accepted into the Byrdcliffe Writer’s Residency summer program to work exclusively on my book, Googling the Holocaust. I applied to the program several months ago and just found out today. You better believe I’m excited. Ecstatic. Yippee!!!

Thanks for your continuous support by reading my posts, commenting when something resonates (or riles), and basically for believing in me. I hope you’ll continue to stick with me as the story continues to unfold.

 

Sugihara-Train-9_4_1940-KaunasLithuania, USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

The Sugihara family headed for Berlin, Sept. 4, 1940. Courtesy of USHMM & Hiroki Sugihara.

I can’t get this image out of my head: Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara leaning out the window of his departing train, illegally signing off on visas to help thousands of Jews escape Hitler’s deathly grasp.

The Huffington Post captures the scene well: “The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno [aka Kaunas]. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.”

In Conspiracy of Kindness, a PBS film documenting Mr. Sugihara’s remarkable story, his wife, Yukiko Sugihara described their last days in Lithuania:

He was so exhausted, like a sick person. Even though he was ordered to go to Berlin, he said he couldn’t make it to Berlin and suggested we go to a hotel and rest before leaving. When we got to the hotel, the Jewish people came looking for us there. So he wrote some more visas in the hotel.

The next day when we got to the train station, they were there too. So he wrote more visas on the platform until the train left. Once we were on board, they were hanging on the windows and he wrote some more. When the train started moving, he couldn’t write any more. Everyone was waving their hands. One of them called out, ‘Thank you Mr. Sugihara, we will come to see you again,’ and he came running after the train. I couldn’t stop crying. When I think about it even now I can’t help crying.

From July 31 through August 28, 1940, Mr. Sugihara issued at least 2,139 visas; in many cases entire families were able to escape on a single visa.

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940
Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

There is so much more to his story, much of it heartbreaking, but certainly worth knowing. PBS produced a timeline of his life with just the right amount of details to give us a sense of who this courageous man was. When he was sent to Prague in 1941 after Berlin, he boldly issued another 69 visas.

None of this was without consequence. Upon his return to Japan in 1947 (he and his family were interned in Russia for 18 months after the war ended), he was forced to resign and lived the next 25 years in obscurity, taking on  menial odd jobs including selling light bulbs door to door.

All this time Mr. Sugihara wondered if his visas actually worked. Although many survivors attempted to locate him, no one succeeded until 1968, when visa recipient Joshua Nishri, by then an Israeli diplomat, got in touch with him.

It wasn’t until 1985 though, after amassing hundreds of survivor testimonies attesting to Mr. Sugihara’s brave acts of kindness, that Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, declared him “Righteous Among Nations,” and planted a tree in his name. A park in Jerusalem was also named for him.

The timeline concludes with his death in 1986 at the age of 86, “…having proved beyond doubt that one person can make a difference. By some estimates, more than 40,000 people alive today have him to thank for their very existence. Sugihara once said, recalling his decision in Lithuania in 1940, ‘I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn’t I would be disobeying God.’ ‘In life,” he said, ‘do what’s right because it’s right, and leave it alone.'”

In 2000, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Japan formally acknowledged his courageous deeds. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Foreign Minister Yohei Kono apologized to Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, for any ‘troubles’ that Sugihara had suffered and unveiled a plaque at the ministry’s diplomatic record office, where Sugihara’s picture, his story and the list of people to whom he issued visas are now prominently displayed.”

The New York Times referred to him as the “Japanese Schindler.” No disrespect to Mr. Schindler, but Mr. Sugihara saved more lives. (I know that sounds petty and somewhat callous, but hey, it’s true.) Perhaps Mr. Schindler should be called the German Sugihara?

If you’re interested in learning more, have at it:

Beate Sirota Gordon; via The Forward

Beate Sirota Gordon (photo via The Forward)

I love learning about unsung heroes. Especially when they’re women. And Jewish.

Meet Beate Sirota Gordon (pronounced bay-AH-tay). Born in 1923 to Russian Jews who had settled in Vienna, Ms. Gordon lived in Japan from ages 5 to 15; her father, a world-renowned concert pianist, had been courted by the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo. In 1939, just before her 16th birthday, she moved to California to study at Mills College; her parents remained in Japan. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she was unable to reach them and had no idea if they were even alive.

Using her skills (fluent in English, German, Japanese, French, Spanish and Russian) and smarts (convinced her professors to let her take her exams without attending classes and secured a job at a U.S. government listening post monitoring radio broadcasts from Tokyo), she slowly but surely figured out how to discover their fate.  As reported by New York Times obituary writer extraordinaire Margalit Fox (now that’s a job I truly envy), Ms. Gordon “later worked in San Francisco for the United States Office of War Information, writing radio scripts urging Japan to surrender.”

Beate Sirota Gordon in 2011; photo: Stephan Babuljak

Beate Sirota Gordon at 2011 Commencement;   Credit: Stephan Babuljak

By the war’s end, she’d graduated from college and had become a U.S. citizen, but she still had no word of her parents. At this time American civilians were not welcome in Japan. By securing a job as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff in Washington, D.C., Ms. Gordon eventually made her way to Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, where she promptly discovered the depth of the city’s devastation. She went straight to her parents’ house and found a mere charred pillar.

She eventually found her parents, who had been interned in the countryside and were severely malnourished. She nursed them back to health in Tokyo while working for General MacArthur.

The first item on MacArthur’s agenda was to draft a post-war constitution for Japan, a top-secret assignment that had to be completed in one-week’s time. As the lone woman on the committee, Ms. Gordon was assigned the section on women’s rights. She was 22 years old.

“Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,’ Ms. Gordon told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “Women had no rights whatsoever.”

Among the rights granted as penned by Ms. Gordon were “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.” The constitution went into effect in 1947.

She didn’t mention her role in Japan’s constitution until the mid-1980s. Her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, which came out in 1995, made her a celebrity in Japan. There is also a documentary about her life, “The Gift From Beate.”

Although there must be other stories out there of Jews in Japan during and after WWII, this is the first I’ve read about. If you know of others please send them my way.

As if we needed another reason to heart Mr. Jolie.

IndieWire reports the still-hot actor/producer (Moneyball, The Tree of Life) is going to produce and possibly star in the movie adaptation of Edwin Black‘s, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation.

Claude Brodesseur-Akner reports in Vulture, New York Magazine’s culture portal,

“While the Holocaust obviously predates the personal computer, it did not precede the information age, and Black’s book answers one of the Holocaust’s most obvious questions: How did the Nazis identify and round up so many Jews with such precision and speed?”

Of course there are other companies complicit in helping the Nazis implement their master plan that are still around today: Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen,  Ford (see Ford and the Führer). Other household names including Krupp, Kellogg and Bayer also profited from forced labor of Holocaust victims.

I remember learning about some of these companies’ involvement when I was younger and swearing I would never purchase or use any of their products. Well, to date I’ve never owned a Ford, Mercedes or VW but I’ve certainly ridden in all three. And I’ve taken Bayer aspirin on more than one occasion and although not a coffee drinker, my husband (the son of two Holocaust survivors) uses a Krupps coffee grinder to get his beans just right. Oh, and Kellogg’s? Please. Like Seinfeld, I could eat cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I’m getting off track here. The purpose of this post is that I’m excited for this movie to be made. And in a weird way I’m glad Brad Pitt is the force behind it, if only for the fact that he’ll be able to attract the right people and backers to get it done.

It’s interesting because you’d think this is a movie Steven Spielberg, with his Shoah Foundation and Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, would make. But I’m glad that it’s being made by a gentile — a smart, sexy, talented gentile, at that. I like when nonmembers of the tribe take up our cause.

Stumbled upon this comic strip called Edge City, “a groundbreaking comic strip that follows a hip Jewish-American family.” It just ended a three-week stint of a Holocaust-themed storyline. Not an easy thing to do, for sure, and as can be expected, some worked better than others. I’ve selected four to share. If you’re interested in the story behind the story, check out this Q&A with the cartoonist, Terry LaBan.


Writing books for children with the Holocaust as its central theme is not easy. So when someone seems to do that successfully, I take notice.

This new graphic novel about the Holocaust that is not by Art Spiegelman, is called Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer and was written by Trina Robbins. It tells the story of Lily Renee Wilheim, who fled Nazi Germany at age 14 on the kindertransport to England. She eventually reunited with her family in America and went on to have an illustrative career in the comic book industry.

There are a few reasons why I’m excited about this book (that I haven’t yet read but plan to) that I don’t even know where to begin. Of course, making something pretty with pictures is a great way to get reluctant readers interested in a tough subject. It’s also fitting, and of course intentional, that a graphic novel is the chosen medium  to tell the story of a comic book industry heroine.

According to Amazon.com reviewer Lori Katz, who goes by the name LibraryLady, World War II is one of the most requested non-fiction topics in a school library. Who knew? Not me. (I’m also writing a children’s book about my mother-in-law’s discovery of her American soldier hero, and their ultimate reunion, thanks to the powers of Google. I plan to test-drive it on my first-grader son).

Oh, and is Lily Renee stunning, both 60 years ago and today. Found both these photos of her on Women in Comics wiki. The additional biography about her in the wiki is pretty fascinating, like this little tidbit:

“She received a lot of fan mail from soldiers overseas (who all referred to her as “Mr. Renée”) and occasionally wrote back and sent sketches, as a token of her appreciation for them fighting Nazis.”

Lily Renee, 2010; photo: Jo Ann Toy

Hall of Names at Yad Vashem; photo: David Shankbone

That sentence stopped me in my tracks.

At last week’s 10th Biennial International Holocaust Studies Conference at Middle Tennessee State University, Steven Leonard Jacobs, uttered those words.

The Jewish studies professor from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa also said: 

“There were 150 members of my family murdered between 1939 and 1945. My father was one of seven survivors. All seven are now deceased. But growing up, I knew my family was different somehow. We weren’t like other families. I grew up with dead relatives. When I would tell stories about playing with friends, my father would say, ‘Oh, that reminds me of my cousin who was killed by the Nazis.’”

Imagine your own mother or father doing that? I’m sure it would become tiresome, if not downright depressing. I’ve spoken with other offspring of survivors who tell similar stories. Perhaps some children would be inclined to stop sharing playground anecdotes with their survivor parents simply to avoid hearing about dead relatives, but Prof. Jacobs seems to have gone in the opposite direction by becoming a professor who specializes in Holocaust studies. He seems to have come to it with great passion and vigor, and I applaud that.

“All of us,” he said, “the second and third and fourth generations of parents who survived this terrible thing, represent a bridge over Hitler. When I was born, my dad said I was the victory. The Nazis didn’t defeat us.”

Indeed, every child and grandchild and great-grandchild and so on down the line is a triumph over Hitler. My husband and children included.

One of the goal’s of this biennial conference is to give middle- and high-school educators the tools they need to teach Holocaust curriculum.

According to the article in The Tennessean, Prof. Jacobs told the teachers that it is not their job to provide answers but to “have a solid knowledge base about the subject and to wrestle with the question: Are there lessons we can learn from it today?”

I, for one, appreciated that question he posed because I can only hear, “We must keep it from happening again,” so many times. Of course, we don’t want mass genocide to ever happen again, but it’s said so often that it’s become trite and I feel almost deaf to it now. Hopefully these new educators will bring some new thoughts and words, and in turn, their students will also breathe new life into Holocaust studies.

Jenna Blum's novel, "Those Who Save Us"

I just finished Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, a novel that toggles between one woman’s shameful past in Nazi Germany and her daughter’s attempt to uncover the truth in present-day Minnesota. I’m impressed by how real it feels, especially as a novel about the Holocaust.

Apparently it was her first book, which impresses me even more. Curious about why she wrote it as fiction and wondering if it was based on personal family history, I checked out her site. I soon discovered I wasn’t the only reader who wanted to know the book’s back story. She explains:

“Readers assume Those Who Save Us is autobiographical—they often look surprised when they meet me and see I’m not an eighty-something German woman or embittered fifty-something German history professor. I take it as the highest compliment when my readers think my characters and their situations must be real. But in fact, I invented their stories.”

Wow. I knew it was fiction but assumed it was founded on some semblance of fact. I often wonder why people choose to write novels about the Holocaust when the real-life stories are endless and endlessly fascinating.

Like me, Ms. Blum is interested in the enduring impact of the Holocaust some 65+ years later. I got excited about how well she was able to impress upon the reader the transfer of trauma from one generation to the next, both through her main characters and even some peripheral ones like a man who witnessed the murder of his mother and younger brother at the hands of a Nazi. He spent the remainder of his life haunted by the fact that he did nothing to help save them.

As I read more about Ms. Blum, I noticed other similarities between us. She was introduced to the Holocaust at the age of five through a book called, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. My interest began at a young age too, when I met and spoke with real Holocaust survivors at my synagogue. We grew up in neighboring New Jersey towns during the 1970s and 1980s (am pretty sure we’re the exact same age, too) and although both intrigued by the Holocaust and its effects on subsequent generations, we’re both only tangentially connected to it. Haven’t gotten around to it but am thinking of contacting her and inviting her to lunch or coffee or some such if she lives in the tri-state area.

Anyway, if you like a page-turner and are as interested in character-driven Holocaust stories, you should consider picking up this book. It’s a fast read and it’s really well done. Let me know what you think of it too!

James H. Keeffe II in 1942 (age 19)

Now this is what I’m talking about: Google bringing Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans together. This story is reminiscent of my mother-in-law’s, but not as cool or interesting, in my humble opinion. [Keep up with my blog and you’ll soon discover more about my mother-in-law’s incredible story…]

James H. Keeffe II was an American B-24 bomber pilot whose plane was shot down over southern Holland during WWII. He was rescued by the Dutch Underground and spent five months eluding capture by going from safe house to safe house in Rotterdam. One of the homes also hid a Jewish family, a mother, a father and their eight-year-old daughter.

Keeffe’s son, James H. Keeffe III, recently wrote Two Gold Coins and a Prayer: The Epic Journey of a World War II Bomber Pilot and POW, an as-told-to memoir about his father’s war adventures. He also posted excerpts on Google Reader, which were discovered by 76-year-old Israeli Helen Cohen-Berman, who recognized herself as the little girl in the story.

James and Helen in Seattle, September 13, 2011

Helen and her family had been captured by the Nazis and that was the last Keeffe had seen or heard of them. He could only assume they’d been taken to a concentration camp and killed. Imagine his surprise and delight when Helen wrote to let them know she was alive and well and had been living in Israel since 1978.

On September 13, 2011 — 67 years later — Helen flew to Seattle to reunite with 88-year-old Keeffe. The power of good that is Google. Amazing. I have a feeling there are more of these Google reunion stories and I can only hope people write about them and share them with the rest of us.

Watch this quick clip of their reunion.