Whenever I tell anyone that mother was in a German labor camp during World War II, they assume she was Jewish and in a concentration camp. I then explain that the Third Reich needed labor to produce war materiel and that millions of non-Jewish subjects of the counties they conquered were often forced into working in these camps. Although concentration camp inmates worked, the survival rate for labor camp workers was far greater. The Nazis work philosophy was that you either worked for the Reich or die.
My mother, a Catholic, was fifteen and living in Krakow when the Germans invaded in September of 1939. About two years later, she was put into a labor camp in Germany. She worked in a factory that made chewing tobacco. I thought this was an odd product for wartime; I associated chewing tobacco with hillbillies in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. But I discovered that soldiers (German or Allied) can’t smoke all the time in the field. A lit match at night or a wisp of smoke could give away a platoon’s position resulting in their destruction. The chewing tobacco satisfies the craving for nicotine.
One day when she was working, a civilian German supervisor came up to her and said he had a job for her. Because she was fluent in German, he could arrange for her to be a translator and housekeeper. This was an act of pure kindness on his part; there was nothing in it for him.
My mother would go to work for a contractor who tunneled out the Harz Mountains in Nordhausen where the Nazis built the V-2 rocket, the world’s first ballistic missile. Hidden deep under the mountains, the manufacturing facilities were protected from allied bombing. The tunnels had to be excavated and shored up from timber before they were lined with concrete. Inmates of all nationalities would go into the surrounding forests to cut the timber, while my mother acted as translator.
As a result of the German’s kindness, my mother lived in relative comfort with the contractor and his family while less than a kilometer away, mostly Jewish inmates perished while producing the rockets. It was these acts of kindness I wanted to include in my novel, The Paris Architect. Out of the goodness of their hearts, people step forward to help someone. My mother never saw the supervisor again but always knew how incredibly lucky she had been because of what this man did for her.
Most everyone has a family tree. But how do you turn a dry chart of birth and death dates into something more vibrant that can be shared for generations? Turn into a reporter. And then preserve the story in a compelling way.
By writing about my own family mystery with my first book, The Forgetting River, I wanted to share the story of the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of the Catholic Carvajals in a way that could introduce ancestors to descendants.
I’m a journalist by trade, but I made many mistakes along my own journey to explore my family. A basic lesson I learned was to start early to interview relatives about personal family history. By the time I began to probe our past, key relatives with vital information had died.
But one of the most crucial mistakes I made was that I lost my own journalistic skepticism when I questioned family members about delicate subjects. I didn’t gather much information when I asked directly if we were the descendants of Marranos, forced Christian converts who maintained a dual identity to escape persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. To probe sensitive family history, I realized belatedly that it’s best to work from the edges. Think. Watch. Observe. I asked benign questions and searched for records that allowed information to seep out about customs, household rituals, job patterns, prayers. I found that the older generation sometimes confided more in their grandchildren and nieces than their own children. From this strategy, I learned about a hidden menorah kept in a bedroom dresser or fourth cousins marrying fourth cousins, an almost tribal habit of trusted secret Marrano families intermarrying and maintaining the appearance of being Catholics.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about other strategies that families can exploit to start conversations and unlock memories. An acquaintance organized a family reunion for a large black family on the East Coast with some painful history dating back to slavery. Some relatives were reluctant to remember those times, but they settled on the idea of creating a griot cookbook, asking relatives for family recipes along with submissions of personal memories evoked by the dishes. The griot is a reference to a traditional West African storyteller.
Once conversations start flowing, seize the opportunity. Make a recording. The StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that offers advice about preserving personal history, down to suggested conversation openers (What is your earliest memory? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?).
For the finale – and a gift to future generations – make a digital slide show with a soundtrack that mixes music and their words. There are many iPad applications that allow amateur genealogists to turn into multi-media producers. Make sure the slide is show is about two minutes and focus on a time or a story that can lead to more conversations.
Yesterday, I put out a Twitter call: What should I write about? The always-dependable dlevy asked, in reply, “have you talked about responses to your work from non Jewish readers?” I haven’t, not yet — but I also haven’t really talked about my response from Jewish readers. (And, sort of on that subject, I could also puzzle why I’ve gotten such amazing Amazon reviews from readers I don’t know — because, as you know, all Jews know each other — but the one review that I know is from a friend is, well, nice, but so short.)
Weirdly, if you want to keep a scorecard, I’ve written two books that are about Orthodox Jews, my first two, and then two books (and a movie) that have nothing to do with Orthodox Jews. I say it’s weird because, as I’ve become more and more fundamentalistly Hasidic, I seem to be writing less overtly about Jews.
What does it mean? And why does my new book Automatic straddle the boundary, telling stories about me in high school, back when I had no idea I’d ever become Orthodox, but sticking in a blurb or two of wisdom from the Vilna Gaon and kabbalah? Here, let me show you:
Every day I remember I’m alive I feel guilty. Some days I sleepwalk through the day and don’t even remember that much. There are kids starving in Africa. There are kids starving a couple blocks from where I live.
The Vilna Gaon says that, if humans weren’t blessed with the power to forget, we would learn all there is to know in two or three years, and there would be no further reason for us to remain alive.
I’d like to think, in my self-assured way, that everyone (Orthodox people, non-Orthodox people, non-Jews) can float with my weird, Paulo Coelho-like digressions, and that they still understand what I’m saying in the first place. Back when I was going to poetry slams every night, people thought of me as “the Jewish guy,” even though this was Berkeley and half the room was Jewish — because I was the one who did poems about being Jewish. I talked about Judaism like the black kids talked about being black, and the Sri Lankan kids talked about being Sri Lankan, and the Palestinian kids talked about being Palestinian. And all my most popular poems were the ones that included the most weird things about religion, and the most Yiddish words:
One night I said to this gay Arab poet, who’d had to leave his country because they wanted to kill him, that we were both in exile, and he said back, Baby, the whole WORLD is in exile. It was the most Jewish thing I’d ever heard. And one of the truest.
Maybe that’s the meaning behind Automatic — it’s my little book about my friendship with my Christian best friend, and how Jewish the whole thing was. Or how Irish Catholic it was. Or maybe we’re all just talking about the same feelings, and using different metaphors to drive it home. And by “metaphors,” I don’t mean in that puzzling poetry way. I mean languages. And gods. And ways to digest the whole thing of our lives.