Earlier this week, Ellen Umansky recalled the complicated kashrut of her childhood home. With the recent release of her novel The Fortunate Ones, Ellen is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
I loved doing research for The Fortunate Ones—perhapstoo much at times. I spent countless hours searching for the right book or anecdote, sometimes delaying the actual writing that needed to get done, convinced that once I found the elusive detail, the secret of the novel that I was trying to construct would magically unlock and all would be solved.
Not exactly. And yet, doing research on worlds that I had never visited and never could, such as Vienna on the eve of World War II, was deeply compelling to me. When I read about the scarcity of pantyhose in postwar London and how women would draw lines in pencil on their bare legs to imitate the look of seamed stockings, the tactile specificity of this fact gave me a rush. Everything is research, or could be, I told myself. The following is a list of just a few of the sources I consulted while working on The Fortunate Ones.
Other People’s Houses by Lore Segal
When I was a graduate student in writing at Columbia University, I studied briefly with Lore Segal, who taught a seminar in Jane Austen. We MFA students weren’t disciplined lot, and I remember being shocked when I walked into class one morning and Lore handed us a pop quiz. “You must take the work seriously,” she declared in a crisp accent that I couldn’t quite place. I later learned that Lore had been a child refugee, sent on a train by herself at the age of 10 from Vienna to live in England, where she became a great fan of English writers—Jane Austen chief among them.
I thought of Lore and her work often when I was writing my character Rose, not only her life experience, but also her sharp wit and intelligence. Her first novel, Other People’s Houses, charts its protagonist’s flight from Vienna to England on a Kindertransport, the same journey that Lore herself undertook, and doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of living among strangers. “On the twelfth [of March], Hitler took Austria and my mother called Tante Trude a cow,” Segal writes in one of the book’s opening lines. The novel is as clear-eyed and unsentimental and insightful as Segal herself.
Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger
Like Lore Segal, Ruth Kluger was born in Vienna. When she was 11 years old, she was ordered to Theresienstadt, and later to Auschwitz. She survived the war, becoming a professor of German language in the United States, and wrote this memoir in her later years. It is a short, vital book that pulsates with intelligence and fury—at her parents, the act of writing about the Holocaust, the conventional wisdom of the survivor as hero. I recalled her arguments when I was conjuring up Rose and her objections to the way the Holocaust gets talked about, memorialized, and even, as Kluger says, prettified. “These stories have no end,” she writes. This memoir is barbed and hard and brilliant.
Into the Arms of Strangers
edited by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer
I turned to this film and its accompanying volume to glean more about the emotional stories behind the Kindertransport. The footage is simple: interviews with about a dozen men and women in their late 70s and 80s, who as children in the late 1930s were ferried out of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia to live in England. Their interviews are interspersed with still photographs from their childhoods, people and places long erased by much more than time. The subjects speak with frankness, humor, and sometimes bewilderment about the sea of change that overtook their childhoods. Some stories are small in their devastations—one woman describes how she realized she was Jewish when the village children refused to attend her eighth birthday party—other anecdotes are unspeakable, harrowing: Lory Cahn was seated on the Kindertransport when her father, watching her leave from the platform, urged her to open the window. They were holding hands when the train began to pull out, and he wouldn’t let go, tugging her through the window and onto the platform. Several years later, she and her parents were on another train, to Auschwitz.
The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas
This magnificent, surprisingly suspenseful book examines the destruction that Hitler wrought on Europe through the particular lens of art. Lynn Nicholas follows Germans selling art in Switzerland in the late 1930s to purportedly rid the country of such “degenerate” work, but with the added benefit of raising badly needed foreign currency for the Third Reich; she tracks the herculean effort to safeguard treasures during wartime (the Mona Lisa was spirited out of the Louvre via ambulance, and taken to an undisclosed location in the south of France). The book is meticulous in covering the infuriating, heartbreaking complexities of the artwork’s fate post war, when refugees who had lost far more than possessions tried to track down the objects that were meaningful to them and rightly theirs.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
A brilliant novel about an Englishwoman named Ursula who keeps dying throughout the book—on the night she is born, as a child who falls off the roof of her house, as a woman who gets caught in a bombing raid during the Blitz—only to be resurrected by the author and begin anew. The construction might sound forced or complicated, but it’s a thrilling, compulsive read, and its genius lies in the strength of each narrative: in nearly every scenario, it feels as if Ursula is living the life she was intended to live. Much of the action of the novel takes place in the 1930s and ’40s in London, during the Blitz and in the years just afterward. I read it not only to soak up the details of that time period, which she builds without laying them on too thick, but also to learn at the feet of Atkinson and her prodigious gifts. Each time Ursula dies, her life story is altered. I found this constant revision comforting as I grappled with the writing of my own novel; the possibilities of art remain open and can be ever changing.
Ellen Umansky has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including The New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short-story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp. She has worked in the editorial departments of The Forward, Tablet, and The New Yorker.