Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Champagne Spy

Wolfgang-LotzFor five long years Wolfgang Lotz, a horse breeder and bon vivant, lived the high life of an affluent former Nazi in Egypt. It was the 1960s and Hitler’s scientists were hard at work building rockets for the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, while veterans of the Wehrmacht trained his soldiers. Joseph Goebbels’ former propagandist Johann von Leers had changed his name to Omar Amin and was now one of several colleagues spreading anti-Semitic vitriol for the Egyptians.

At soirees at von Leers’ home it was possible to see Hans Eisele, who had been sentenced to death for experiments on concentration-camp inmates, singing the Nazi anthem known as “The Horst Wessel Song” with old Kameraden. Lotz, a regular at the country clubs as well as the stables, threw the biggest, most lavish and booze-soaked parties of them all, attended by powerful Egyptian generals as well as his fellow Germans. It was widely believed that the horse breeder had been a member of the SS but he never confirmed nor denied it, letting the rumor linger.

Lotz was indeed a veteran of World War II, but fighting for the Allies. He was German by birth but his mother was Jewish. When the Nazis came to power she fled with her son to what was then the British Mandate for Palestine. Lotz had joined the Haganah before he was 15, patrolling on horseback. He fought for the British in North Africa, smuggled arms for the Haganah and served in the I.D.F. before eventually joining the Mossad.

It was for the Mossad that Lotz had traveled to Egypt. He called espionage “the greatest game in the world,” but it was also a dangerous one. He got to know Egyptian generals and shared whatever secrets he could glean from them about the missile program but his luck ran out and he was arrested in 1965 and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

I stumbled across Lotz’s story because I was writing a book about a Nazi war criminal, Dr. Aribert Heim, who fled to Egypt one step ahead of justice. This towering blond war criminal lived out his days as a convert to Islam in a working-class district of Cairo. His story opened an entire world to me that, frankly, I could not have imagined.

When writing a book you have to prepare yourself for those stranger-than-fiction moments. I could hardly believe it when I learned, in Austrian municipal records, that the elusive Heim had a twin brother who died at birth. It all started to feel like an improbable, pulpy paperback thriller I had found at a yard sale.

But you also have to be prepared for the amazing supporting characters that pass by the edges of your story, the Rosencrantzs and Guildensterns of history. Arthur A. Becker was an inmate at Mauthausen turned war crimes investigator for the Americans after the war. He was responsible for the first known record of Heim’s atrocities in an interview with a witness. What I did not know was that he was also a playwright.

Becker wrote a play called “The Road Into Life” about his experiences at Mauthausen, which was staged in Salzburg shortly after the war. I discovered a copy on a back shelf at the Mauthausen Archive in Vienna. The archivists had no idea it was there. As I began reading it I came across a menacing reference to a Nazi doctor named Heim. The strands of fiction and history had crossed before my eyes.

Wolfgang Lotz remained a source of endless fascination. I bought his book, The Champagne Spy, and probably wasted a few more precious research days than I should have on this heroic but at times louche character.

His story had a happy ending. After the 1967 war the Champagne Spy was released in a prisoner exchange. I never could find out if he met Dr. Aribert Heim while he was there, one missing thread in the larger tapestry of my book.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Non-Standardized Testing

replacement-lifeI subjected you to quite a bit of fire and brimstone the other day, so let’s end the week on a lighter note. That’s right, a pop quiz. Don’t worry, it’s only five questions and they’re all True or False. And there’s a carrot: The first reader to answer all five accurately in an e-mail to contact@borisfishman.com will receive a free autographed copy of my novel A Replacement Life, out this week.

The subject of the quiz: Grandfather’s Shenanigans. A Replacement Life tells the story of a young man who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn on the instigation of his grandfather. My real-life grandfather didn’t ask me to do that, but he shares quite a bit temperamentally with his avatar in the novel. What kind of men are they? Men who get things done, in the old-fashioned sense: Resourceful, swashbuckling, unbothered by niceties. But I am no schlub—I know how to lie, too; I am my grandfather’s grandson, after all. So: Below find five stories about things that supposedly happened to my real-life grandfather. Did they happen? Or did I make them up? You be the judge.

1. State-sponsored anti-Semitism decreased during World War II; all Soviets had a common enemy in the Germans. But it was revived after the war; in the 1960s, all Minsk Jews with Russified names —say, Mikhail in place of Mordukh—were ordered to appear at police precincts to have their passports “restored” for easier “identification.” Grandfather went around the homes of family and close friends, collecting passports in a sack. Then he went to the police precinct. There he found a Captain Grishelev. “I brought you a sack of passports, Captain Grishelev,” Grandfather said. Only that on the way, Grandfather had added to the sack three bottles of vodka. Captain Grishelev decided to leave the passport-altering until the vodka was done. He and Grandfather went through the first bottle, the second, the third. By then, Captain Grishelev would have kissed my grandfather sooner than touch one of those passports. He sent Grandfather home and all the Mikhails stayed Mikhails.

2. While we’re on the subject of drinking: Grandmother needed her gallbladder removed. Grandfather didn’t like leaving things to chance. He found the best surgeon in Minsk and showed up on his doorstep the night before the operation with three bottles of Armenian cognac. There was no way the surgeon would work cavalierly on someone whose husband had made him such a gift. They drank and drank, into the wee hours, becoming friends and easing Grandfather’s heart. The next morning, however, Grandfather saw what all this new camaraderie cost: The surgeon was still drunk. In which condition he operated on my grandmother. And they doubt the miracles of Soviet medicine.

3. Grandfather was part of a gold-smuggling ring. (Possession of gold, as a foreign currency, was illegal in the USSR.) There were five members; the four others were caught. They were not especially close with Grandfather; the five were associates of convenience. When the four were asked who else was part of the ring, they said: No one. If they didn’t pony up their confederates, they were told, they would be executed. No one, they repeated. They were executed. Grandfather lived.

4. Grandfather was on a business trip to Moscow when he heard they were offering bras at the department store. You might find nothing odd in this, American reader – that is, after all, what department stores are supposed to do. Not Soviet department stores, which offered great variety in Shortages and Empty Shelves, but not as much in actual products. By the time Grandfather got to the department store, the line was out the door and down the block. He didn’t have that kind of time. With a friend, he climbed to the second-floor gallery, right above the spot on the ground floor where the bras were being dispensed. “Now you take me by the ankles and hang me over the banister,” he instructed his friend. His friend complied. This put Grandfather, upside down, at eye level with the bra saleswoman. “A bra for my wife, quick!” he yelled. “But what size?!” the poor saleswoman demanded. What size! A man is hanging off the second-floor landing by his ankles and still it isn’t enough! “I don’t know what size!” he yelled. “Like this!” He fit his hand around an imaginary grapefruit. That told the saleswoman what she needed to know. She gave him two bras and a compliment for being a devoted husband.

5. Grandfather was on his way home from the market with a fresh chicken. On the way home, he saw an old friend of the family standing in her doorway. “Avremele!” she called out to him. “How much did you get that chicken for?” Avremele liked to brag once in a while so he said half of what he had actually paid. “Avremele…” the old lady drawled. “I’m an old lady, weak… Sell it to me. And then run on back to the market with your young legs and get yourself another.” How can an upstanding boy say no to a plea of that kind? Only that on that day, Avremele paid price and a half for his chicken.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 6, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Feeding Other Writers, and Myself

nora-goldA few days ago my novel, Fields of Exile, was published in the USA, and this month marks exactly four years since I started the free online literary journal that I created and edit, JewishFiction.net. The convergence of these two events has got me thinking about solitariness and community in the lives of writers.

I feel very fortunate to be both a writer and the editor ofJewishFiction.net. Writing is a solitary activity, and this journal provides me with a kind of community since producing it occurs in communal, social space. In our first four years, JewishFiction.net has published 186 first-rate works of fiction (stories or novel excerpts) that had never previously been published in English, and that were originally written in eleven languages and on five continents. We’re honored to have published some of the most well-known Jewish writers living today, as well as many fine writers who are not yet well-known.

I’m often asked why I started JewishFiction.net, and the answer is that—in light of the crisis in the publishing industry—I was concerned that a lot of the great Jewish fiction being written now around the world would get lost. Recently, though, reflecting on the upcoming fourth birthday of Jewish Fiction.net, I recognized another, subtler antecedent to the birth of this journal.

My paternal grandmother, Leah Shteinman Gold, strongly believed that she (and everyone else) had an obligation to support Jewish writers and artists. I heard her say more than once, “We have to feed our poets.” She meant this not only figuratively—she was generous in her encouragement and appreciation for their work—but also literally. In the world she lived in, Yiddish-speaking Montreal, her home was a haven for struggling poets, writers, and intellectuals, and she often fed them actual meals. Some of my less charitable relatives referred to these people as “shnorrers,” but my grandmother stoutly rejected this characterization. “They are our writers,” she’d say. “We have to support them. They’re the future of our culture.”

She also helped these writers by always trying to find work for them. One result of this was that my father learned his bar mitzvah portion from the great poet Yud Yud Segal, and one of my brothers and I got weekly lessons in Yiddish language and literature from Sholem Shtern, another fine poet. I remember how, whenever Lerer (Teacher) Shtern came to our home for a lesson, first of all he’d receive a cup of coffee coffee and a bagel. For me, therefore, food and literature became intimately intertwined. One fed a Yiddish poet and he fed you Yiddish poetry.

As I reminisce about this now, perhaps it’s not surprising that I started a journal to help Jewish writers. Maybe this impulse runs in my blood. But here’s what’s surprising about it. In giving JewishFiction.net to the international Jewish literary community, I got something back. In feeding other writers, I’ve been fed, too. Through bringing together writers from around the world and introducing them to each other, and introducing all these writers to our journal’s large readership, I’ve met many interesting, delightful writers from Australia, Serbia, Argentina, Israel, Russia, Romania, Spain, Poland, France, Croatia, Iraq, the UK, and of course North America.

What I have been given—what I have received—from JewishFiction.net is something incomparably precious: a literary community, maybe even a literary home. And what greater gift could there be to any writer, struggling alone in solitariness, than to know that one’s work is being—even if invisibly—supported, cherished, and appreciated, and that in our solitary writing lives, we are not alone?

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 6, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Understanding the Villains; or, Stranger than Fiction

boris-fishmanDonna Tartt, the author of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch, was once told by Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, never to read her press: “I’ll tell you why, kid. The good things don’t help and the bad things still hurt.” A modified version of this guidance appears in virtually every testimonial by a fabled writer: You can’t worry about your audience; you must write for yourself.

Read without nuance, sentiments like these surely encourage the view that writers are elitist, self-serving navel-gazers. The truth feels more complex. As a writer, I am deeply engaged with my imaginary audience. I write because I have things I want to say, and a way I want to say them, but I want them to be heard. I write to connect. I write to have a conversation. At the same time, bad things happen on the page when you start writing with an overly concrete audience in mind. Instead of looking for new expression, you start saying things you think your audience will like. Entertainment is a perfectly honorable reason to write and read. But I believe writers have an obligation to push their readers—and themselves—to think about things they may not be overly eager to think about. It’s how literature, and, in some ways, the world moves forward.

I bring all this up because my debut novel, A Replacement Life, out this week, is on a subject that gets readers going: A young man starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn. I began writing the novel in the fall of 2009, inspired by my experience filling out my grandmother’s restitution paperwork in the 1990s (she was an inmate of the Minsk ghetto). My family had emigrated from the former Soviet Union only a decade before; I was just a teenager, but had the best English, so the paperwork was handed to me. Continue reading

Posted on June 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Leah Goldberg, Me, and the Search for a Title for my New Book

fields-of-exileThere’s a Jewish story you may know that includes the refrain: “You never know.” In one section of it, a young Jewish man living in czarist Russia falls off his horse, breaks his leg, and tells his father, “”hat bad luck I have.” His father merely replies, “You never know.” The next day the czar’s men arrive in this family’s village to round up young men to serve in the czar’s army but, because of this young man’s broken leg, they don’t take him. “What good luck!” he happily tells his father. But his father merely replies, “You never know.” And so on.

I thought of this story recently in connection with the process I went through to find a title for my new bookwhich is the first novel about anti–Israelism on campus, and came out last week in the USA. When my publisher, Dundurn Press, first offered to publish this novel, I already had a title for it: Exile. I loved this title and was very committed to it. I’d been calling my novel Exile for years, ever since I’d started writing it, and just as one talks to one’s baby using a specific name even while it’s still in utero, I was certain that Exile was my novel’s true name.

A little while later, though, Dundurn informed me that I’d have to change this title because they’d just published another book called Exile. I was distressed, and sure that I’d never find another title so perfect. Exile captured the essence of my novel: its protagonist is a young woman living in Toronto and experiencing herself as being “in exile” because she longs to be back in Jerusalem.

Having no choice, though, I began to consider alternative titles. After discarding numerous unsatisfactory options, I started reading Hebrew and Yiddish poetry on the theme of exile (both in the original and in translation), as well as essays about this kind of poetry. I eventually came across a book chapter from 1998, “Modernism and Exile: A View from the Margins” by Michael Gluzman, which contained Gluzman’s own translation of a then almost unknown Hebrew poem, written by Leah Goldberg at around age ten, called “Exile.” Here’s how it begins:

Exile
How difficult the word how many memories
of hatred and slavery
and because of it we have shed so many tears
exile
and yet, I’ll rejoice in the fields of exile…

As soon as I read the words fields of exile, I knew I had my title. I had a physical reaction to these words: something electric ran through my body.

The poem continues:

which are filled with oats and flax
the hot day and the cool evening
and the dead silence of night

the pale spring and the melting snow
the season which is neither summer nor autumn
when, in the garden, by some miracle
the green turns to gold.

I did not know at that time why I was so affected by the words and yet, I’ll rejoice in the fields of exile. In the subsequent weeks, though, it became clearer. According to Gluzman, Goldberg was rare among her contemporaries for refusing to conform to the simplistic negation of exile that was a central component of classic Zionist ideology. As Gluzman points out, although Goldberg’s poem “Exile” begins with a classic Zionist rejection of exile, it moves on to assert that even in exile there is beauty, and that this beauty can engender happiness.

The honesty of this poem and the stance that it represents resonated, and continues to resonate, profoundly with me. When I made aliya in the 1970s, willing, even eager, to adopt the “negation of exile” ideology surrounding me, one thing I could never quite negate—and the only thing I never stopped missing about the place I came from—was Canada’s natural landscape: its beautiful forests, rivers and lakes, which felt to me like home. Ever since then, wherever I’ve lived, the complexity of the concepts of “home” and “exile” has preoccupied me, and this complexity is central to my novel, Fields of Exile.

So what initially seemed like a piece of bad luck with my book’s title turned out to be just the opposite. Thanks to Leah Goldberg (and Michael Gluzman), I’ve ended up with a much more beautiful and evocative title – and a richer and more meaningful one – than I had before. As that wise old story says, You never know…

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 2, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

It’s the First Week of June. Do You Know Where Your Family History Is?

replacement-lifeI’ve daydreamt for more than a decade about what a day like tomorrow—publication date for my debut novel A Replacement Lifemight feel like. But there’s a sorrowful undertow to this week’s joy—it marks a decade since the passing of my maternal grandmother, a version of whom plays a central role in the novel. That’s no accident. In the novel—the story of a young man who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn—the narrator, Slava Gelman, agrees to break the law in part because it’s an opportunity to recreate on the page a grandmother he never got to know in real life. Wanting to “dialyze” Soviet Brooklyn out of himself, Slava runs off to Manhattan (thinking that’ll do it), and misses the last year of her life (she has a slow-moving, terminal illness). Filled with regret, he begins inventing her personal history in the false claim letters—now his only way to ask her the things he didn’t get to ask her when she was alive.

I’m often asked how much my apparently autobiographical novel—like Slava, I emigrated from the former Soviet Union as a kid; I also grew up in south Brooklyn—shares with real life, and the story of Slava’s relationship with his grandmother, as compared to my with mine, is a good illustration of the way fact and invention blend in this kind of story. Like Slava’s grandmother, mine was a survivor of the Minsk ghetto. Like his, she wasn’t eager to recall the details of that experience when I pressed her. Unlike Slava, however, I declined to respect my grandmother’s reticence. (Why did I press her? I’m not sure. Could I, as a teenager, understand that it was valuable to know, for one reason or another? I didn’t begin to articulate the answer until I came up with one for Slava in the novel: “Already, by then, he was visited by the American understanding that it was better to know than not to know.” In this way, fiction proposes answers that life fails to find.)

The official reason my grandmother didn’t want to talk was that she “didn’t want to upset [me].” But in a Soviet-Jewish family, where forthrightness is often taken as rudeness and asking for what you need as a kind of selfishness, this kind of “considerateness” is often cover for personal motive. I never asked, but hers must have been: She didn’t want to remember. So I tricked her into it. I told her I had an assignment to create a family-history narrative for history class. Grandmother wouldn’t dare cost me a good grade, and the stories came—imagination-boggling stories that profoundly deepened our connection, my conscience, and also my consciousness.

In transmuted form, her stories—her history—are now enshrined in a novel that will live longer than she could. But when I interviewed her, the novel was less than a glimmer in my eye. I pressed her because she had gone through something extraordinary, and her descendants, this one included, deserved to know what, even if it meant subjecting her to duress. Selfishly, I had decided that price worth it. Sixty years later, I wanted to be able to hand my own grandson a stack of interview notes and say: “Here. This is who your great-great-grandmother was.” And why is that valuable? Again, the novel answered: “Tell me because I’d like to tell my grandchildren one day. Tell me because it happened to you, and so I should know. Tell me because it will bring me closer to you, and I want to be close to you.”

I believe there is a dignity to being able to trace yourself back through history—via genes, via stories, via whatever you’ve got. That mandate has special meaning for Jews—because there is so much suffering for us to remember, so many calamities that remembrance must forestall from occurring ever again. For immigrants also—in emigrating to the United States, my family traded generations of life in Eastern Europe to start from zero in America. We gave up the soil, and many other, less tangible, things. Until my great-great-great-great grandchildren, born Americans six times over, read my interviews with my grandmother 150 years from now, all we’ve got is stories.

So, sit down your elders. Better yet, make your children do it. Ask your old ones to talk. And—gently, lovingly, apologetically—ignore them when they try to demure. Your children’s descendants are counting on you for their patrimony.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 2, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Research and the Power of Bashert

steven-pressmanI’m not a great believer in fate, but I certainly have encountered more than a few instances of bashert—that lovely Hebrew word signifying things that are meant to be—during the research and writing of my book and the production of the documentary film that preceded it.

For example, I’ll never forget one of my visits to the Jewish Museum in Vienna, which resulted in a very powerful moment of bashert. The museum has two locations—the main building and a sort of annex that is located on the Judenplatz—Jewish Plaza—not far from the Israelitsche Kultusgemeinde, the official organization of Vienna’s Jewish community. I was there on a weekday afternoon, and the museum was nearly empty. As I wandered through the building, however, I recognized an American whom I had met a few days earlier at the Vienna airport after we had both flown in on the same short flight from Berlin. We renewed our acquaintance at the museum, and this fellow, Marty Keller, introduced me to his cousin, Steve. We began talking, and they mentioned that both of their fathers had left Vienna as children not long after Nazi Germany had taken over Austria. Marty had come to Vienna for a conference, and Steve had come along after the two cousins thought they’d try to learn a little more about their fathers’ childhoods.

At that point, of course, I mentioned that I was in Vienna for some research about the rescue of fifty Jewish children in 1939. They both looked at me with identical shocked expressions on their faces. While they didn’t know much about the precise circumstances and details of their fathers’ escapes from Vienna, Steve said the episode I was describing sounded familiar. That’s when I reached into my coat pocket and unfolded a copy of a photograph of the fifty children on board the ship that brought them to America. I had gotten into the habit, for no readily apparent reason, of carrying around the photo wherever I went during my research. I had also been filling in the names of each of the children whenever I was able to clearly identify them. At this point in the project, there were still several children whom I could not match with a name.

Steve immediately pointed to one of the older and taller boys standing in the back row in the photograph. “That’s my father, Robert!” he told me. We talked for a few more minutes at the museum and made plans to get together the next day for coffee. I filled them in on more details about the children’s rescue, and Steve later sent me more information about his father, who had passed away many years ago. I was able to fill in another name on that group photo.

And then there’s the painting of Rosa Jacobs, and how it wound up hanging in our living room in San Francisco.

As part of my research into the backgrounds of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, I was always interested in finding out as much as I could about Gil’s work as a lawyer in Philadelphia in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time of the rescue mission in 1939, Gil had a law partner named Edward Weyl, and I learned at some point that Eleanor had a niece who had married into the Weyl family. After more digging, I finally was able to get in touch with one of Edward Weyl’s sons. Unfortunately, however, he didn’t have much information to offer about his father’s legal partnership with Gil, which is what I was mostly interested in.

“But I do have something here that might be of some interest,” Don Weyl told me. “I think I have a painting that belongs to your wife.” The painting, by the fairly renowned America painter Gladys Rockmore Davis, was an elegant portrait of Eleanor Kraus’ mother, presumably done sometime in the 1930s. On the back of the painting, along one of the edges of the wooden frame, Eleanor had written in ink that, upon her death, the painting was to be given to her niece Jane, who was Don Weyl’s mother. And when Jane died, Eleanor had also written, the painting was to be passed along to Eleanor’s granddaughter, Liz Perle. Don, however, knew nothing about Liz, and certainly had no way of finding her after his mother passed away. At least not until I called him one day, out of the blue, asking about his father’s long-ago connections to Gil Kraus.

Rosa Jacobs now looks down at us, in her original wooden frame, with my wife’s name on the back scrawled out in ink decades ago by her grandmother. Liz can now gaze up at her great-grandmother. And while I still don’t necessarily believe in fate, I certainly have come to recognize the power of bashert.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 27, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Vienna: A Stroll Through a Haunted City

I was in Vienna earlier this month to talk about my book and to show the documentary film I made at the U.S. Embassy’s Amerika Haus cultural center. During my research for this project, I had previously made two separate trips to Vienna but hadn’t been back to the city since the fall of 2010. It was a beautiful morning—bright sunshine, brilliant blue skies, a warming spring day—and I took a long walk to revisit some of the places I’d gone to before, all of which figured, one way or another, in Gil and Eleanor Kraus’ rescue mission.

Degenerate Art Exhibit

Degenerate Art Exhibit

I first stopped at the Kunstlerhaus, a nineteenth century artists’ exhibition hall that, in the spring of 1939, was the site of the Entartete Kunst—Degenerate Art—exhibit, which had traveled throughout Germany and Austria since its original opening, attended by Hitler himself, in Munich in 1937. Gil and Eleanor came to see the exhibition a day or two before they left Vienna with the fifty children. Coincidentally, I had attended only a couple of weeks earlier a fascinating and disturbing exhibition of some of that same “degenerate” art at the Neue Galerie in New York City. Suddenly it struck me as I walked past the Kunstlerhaus that I had gazed upon several of the very same paintings that Gil and Eleanor had viewed 75 years earlier.

After passing by the elegant Bristol Hotel, where Gil and Eleanor stayed while they were in Vienna, I made my way up Kartnerstrasse, one of the city’s fashionable shopping streets (as it was in 1939) and walked past the massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral. A few minutes later I found myself on Seitenstettengasse, the street where the offices of Vienna’s Jewish community are located today as they were when the Krauses were here. This is where Gil and Eleanor met with the parents and interviewed the children hoping to come to America. Not long before the Krauses arrived, the Nazis raided these offices, arrested Jewish community leaders and took control. During my visit, two armed police officers maintained a vigilant watch at one end of the street. A synagogue adjoins the Jewish community office, as it did in the 1930s. But the police are now stationed here to guard against anti-Semitic attacks, rather than to help carry them out as they did during the Kristallnacht riots of November 1938.

Stadttempel is the main synagogue of Vienna, Austria

Stadttempel is the main synagogue of Vienna, Austria

As I continued my stroll through Vienna’s inner city, I tried to imagine a time when these same, cobblestoned streets were teeming with Jews—lawyers, shopkeepers, merchants, journalists, writers, doctors—all of whom had contributed to the rich vibrancy of this once great cultural capital of Europe. In the 1930s, just like today, Vienna’s lovely green parks were lined with wooden benches. By 1938, little plaques had been affixed to the benches announcing they were reserved for Aryans. By the time that Gil and Eleanor arrived, Jewish children and adults alike were no longer even allowed in the parks. On this warm spring day, I’m free to take a seat on those same wooden benches. But the echoes of that once-thriving Jewish culture have vanished into silence. Only a tiny sliver of a Jewish community exists now in Vienna, and that earlier world is gone forever. I slowly made my way back to my hotel, passing yet another row of empty benches. Without warning, my eyes moistened with tears. I was surrounded only by ghosts.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Rock and Roll, Religion, and Leonard Cohen

leonard-cohenWith very few exceptions, the story of American popular music in the last five decades is largely a story of decline. After a brief and fiery decade, the Sixties, in which every kid who flocked to California or downtown Manhattan with a guitar case and a hungry heart seemed to turn into Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Lou Reed, things took a turn for the worse. Take away Springsteen, the Ramones, and the Notorious B.I.G., and you’re left largely with years and years of bloated stadium schlock, screechy garage noise, or confections too sweet for the musical palate of anyone older than 12.

What happened? How did a scene that produced so many masterworks in such a short time fade away? There are several feasible explanations, from the changing economics of the music business to the ravages wrought by technology, but one of them in particular deserves much closer attention: the reason American music has sucked so badly for so long may be, first and foremost, theological.

You don’t have to be a scholar of either religion or rock n’ roll to realize how much the two have in common. All you need to do is spend some time with, say, the Doors. If you look at the long-haired, bare-chested Jim Morrison striking a Christ-like pose in the band’s most iconic image, and if you listen to the way its four musicians race one another to ecstasy, creating songs that are so white-hot with passion they nearly fall apart, you realize that the Doors were about more than putting out albums and prancing on stages. They were about, to paraphrase their most famous song, breaking on through to the other side, transcending above reason and unlocking a higher mystical sphere of human consciousness. Continue reading

Posted on May 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Bringing to Light Quiet Heroism

50-childrenI feel extremely fortunate to have been able to tell this very dramatic, and heretofore almost completely unknown, Holocaust rescue story that came to a successful conclusion 75 years ago this month.

I say that it was “almost” completely unknown because, in a sense, the story of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, the Philadelphia Jewish couple who carried out the rescue mission of fifty children from Vienna, was basically hiding in plain sight for many of those 75 years.

My wife, Liz Perle, is one of four grandchildren of the Krauses—and she had long been aware, at least generally, of what her grandparents had done in the spring of 1939. More importantly, in terms of my being able to piece together this extraordinary story, Eleanor Kraus had typed out an account of the mission some years after it had taken place. Liz had an onionskin copy of her grandmother’s private memoir—and that remarkable document provided me with an essential blueprint for writing my book.

What I really loved about this project was having the opportunity to dig so much deeper into this story, considerably beyond Eleanor’s personal account. The main focus of the story, of course, remains on this brave and courageous couple who overcame immense obstacles, both in the United States and in Nazi Germany, in their effort to save a group of children and bring them to safety in America.

But doing justice to the quiet heroism of the Krauses also required me to tell a much broader story about cultural, social, and political conditions that existed throughout the 1930s both in America and in Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. In order to accomplish this, my research quite literally took me around the world—from Philadelphia and Washington, DC, to Vienna and Berlin—and eventually to Jerusalem. That’s where I came across an astonishing stash of documents (originally located in Vienna but moved to Israel in the 1950s) that provided even more graphic proof of Gil and Eleanor’s heroic actions. Tucked away in a set of dusty archives at Hebrew University were thousands of pages of family questionnaires filled out by Jewish families in Vienna who, by the late 1930s, had become increasingly desperate to escape from Hitler’s grasp. Included among those documents were the families with children hoping to be chosen by the Krauses for the journey to America.

While sifting through this trove of documents, I came across a two-page, handwritten list of the fifty children eventually selected by the Krauses. My wife, who had joined me on the research trip, held up those pages in her hand and instantly recognized her grandmother’s distinctively elegant handwriting. It was a moment of astonishing discovery and an intensely personal family connection that I will never forget.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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Posted on May 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy