The ProsenPeople

JBC Bookshelf: Fiction Edition

Monday, May 02, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2011-2012 NETWORK season is about to begin and the Rohr Prize Gala is fast approaching, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have time to share some books on the horizon. And, it’s never too early to begin your summer or fall fiction reading list, so take a look below for a few highlights from the Passover break pile (more to come soon…):




The Dovekeepers: A Novel, Alice Hoffman (October 2011, Scribner)

The Little Bride, Anna Solomon (September 2011, Riverhead Books)

When We Danced on Water: A Novel, Evan Fallenberg (June 2011, Harper Perennial)

The Warsaw Anagrams: A Novel, Richard Zimler (July 2011, The Overlook Press)

Appassionata, Eva Hoffman (May 2011, Other Press)

Heatwave and Crazy Birds, Gabriela Avigur-Rotem; Dalya Bilu, trans. (June 2011, Dalkey Archive Press)

Motti , Asaf Schurr; Todd Hasak-Lowy, trans. (May 2011, Dalkey Archive Press)

 

       

  

Testifying for the Holocaust

Monday, May 02, 2011 | Permalink

Last week, Deborah Lipstadt wrote about eerie anniversaries  and Hannah Arendt. Her posts have been appearing as a part of Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

This blog entry appears during the time that we mark Yom HaShoah.  It is also the time of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  I am reminded of a small article which appeared on the front page [upper half] of the New York Times on April 22nd 1943.  The article read as follows:

The secret Polish radio appealed for help tonight in a broadcast from Poland and then suddenly the station went dead.  The broadcast as heard here said: The last 35,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto have been condemned to execution.  Warsaw is echoing with musketry volleys.

The people are murdered.  Women and children defend themselves with their naked arms.

Save us…

I am also reminded of  some of those who buried the Oyneg Shabbes archival collection which documented the destruction.  [The following material appears in Sam Kassow’s magisterial book, Who Will Write Our History?]  Israel Lichtenstein wrote on the day he buried the archives:

I do not ask for any thanks, for any memorial, for any praise. I only wish to be remembered…. I wish my wife to be remembered, Gele Sekstein.  She has worked during the war years with children as an educator and teacher, has prepared stage sets, costumes of children’s theatre… both of us get ready to meet and receive death.  I wish my little daughter to be remembered.  Margalit is 20 months old today.  She has fully mastered the Yiddish language and speaks it perfectly… I don’t lament my own life or that of my wife.  I pity only this little nice and talented girl.  She too deserves to be remembered.

With Lichtenstein on that day was Nahum Grzywacz who was  18 years old.   When they were burying the archives he heard his parents’ building was being blockaded.  He wrote:

I am going to run to my parents and if they are all right.  I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.  Remember my name is Nahum Grzywacz.  [emphasis in original]

Also present was David Graber who was 19.  As they buried the archives Graber wrote:

What we were unable to cry and shriek out the world we buried in the ground. … We shall certainly not live to see it, and therefore I write my last will:  May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened… in the twentieth century.  We now died in peace.  We fulfilled our mission.  May history attest for us. [emphasis added]

None of these people seem to contemplate the possibility of survival.  They hungered to be remembered.

May the history we write, read, and remember attest for them.  They have attested for themselves

Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, The Eichmann Trial, is now available.

Book Cover of the Week: The Arrogant Years

Friday, April 29, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

As promised, a book to look forward to this summer: 2008 Sami Rohr Prize Winner Lucette Lagnado’s The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn:


Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann Trial

Friday, April 29, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Deborah Lipstadt wrote about eerie anniversaries. She is the author of the new book The Eichmann Trial.

I have spent much of the past few weeks talking about my new book, The Eichmann Trial. I don’t want to make this blog entry about the book. (To be blunt, I’d rather have folks read the book.) But something has struck me in the talks and interviews I have conducted.

For so many people the issue of the Eichmann Trial remains Hannah Arendt. They seem to have a hard time conceiving of the Eichmann trial independent of Arendt’s “analysis.” I am speaking of who abhor what she said as well as of those who espouse her views.

I take a more “middle of the road” or balanced perspective. Let me be explicit (for nuance, you’ll have to read the book. OK, I won’t repeat that again. Twice is certainly enough. Though, please note, I wrote read, not buy). When I speak about Arendt I try to discern where my audience – whether it be one person or a multitude — stands on the issue. I then try to stress the “other” side, i.e. if they hate – and that’s not too strong a term – her words I tell them the affirmative things she had to say about the trial and Israel. If they are enthralled with her views, I point out the glaring historical mistakes on which they are based.

Sometimes that leads to trouble.

At a talk I gave at the Center for Jewish History I assumed that many of the people in the audience were familiar with all the negatives that had been said both by and about Arendt. They knew of her [c]overt antisemitic – if not racist – comments about Israeli society and of her historically inaccurate statements about the Judenrate, the Jewish councils established in the ghettoes by the Nazis.

I, chose, therefore to speak of some of the insights she had and powerful statements she made about the significance of the Holocaust. I wanted to make it clear to them that there are a lot of grays when it comes to Arendt. Sure enough, I received a number of emails and comments accusing me of having “gone soft on Arendt.”

Conversely, when I have spoken with those, whose view of the trial has been completely refracted thorough Arendt, they hear me as critical of her and have also reacted viscerally. They defend her in a knee-jerk fashion and excoriate me for being critical of her.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if people set aside their preconceived conclusions and read what I have to say about her? (Oops, there I go again. Clearly this is the place to end this blog entry.)

Deborah Lipstadt will be blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Her new book, The Eichmann Trial, is available now.

April 11th: An Eerie Confluence of Dates

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 | Permalink

Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, The Eichmann Trial, is now available. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Eichmann Trial and the 11th anniversary of the verdict [judgment] in my libel trial in the UK when David Irving sued me for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier.

More significantly, on April 11th I spoke at the United States State Department to mark the anniversary of the Eichmann trial. In addition to State Department staff members, there were a number of diplomats present [Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, and Israel among others], as well as friends and colleagues. It was quite meaningful that I was speaking about this seminar act of genocide to an audience composed in part of people who deal with genocide and persecution-related issues. One of the people with whom I spoke has spent years working to rid the world of land mines. Another had been involved in the genocide in Darfur. Another had worked on issues related to the former Yugoslavia. Tragedies all.

There was another factor that made this a meaningful moment. The audience was composed of Federal employees. My book is dedicated to three men who worked for a Federal institution, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. One of them, Special Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, gave his life for the institution. The quick response by the other two, Special Officer Harry Weeks and Special Officer Jason “Mac” McCuiston, prevented this tragedy from assuming far greater proportions.

I began by taking note of that fact and reading from the dedication. I was surprised by the emotion it evoked, not just from the audience, but from me. Soon it will be two years since the tragedy but the pain of that moment is still palpable.

Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial  is now available. Check back all week for her posts on the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Jewish Book Carnival: April

Friday, April 15, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It’s been a few months since the JBC hosted the ever-growing  Jewish Book Carnival, so we’re excited to be April’s host and set you up with some Pesach reading. See below for some interesting Jewish literary bites from around the web, and be sure to check out HQ for past and future posts.

First time reading a Jewish Book Carnival post? Here’s the scoop: The Jewish Book Carnival is a monthly event where bloggers who blog about Jewish books can meet, read, and comment on each others’ posts. The posts are hosted on one of the participant’s sites on the 15th of each month. To participate in May’s Carnival, be sure to submit your posts to Barbara Krasner at The Whole Megillah blog by May 11th. Email her at: BarbaraKrasner@att.net.

  • On My Machberet, Erika Dreifus describes a recent evening she spent attending the latest “Writers on View” event at the Center for Jewish History. This year, Erika reports, poets responded to the exhibition There is a Mirror in My Heart: Reflections on a Righteous Grandfather, an installation by artist Sebastian Mendes.
  • Erica Silverman writes a post on Emma Lazarus on the Women’s History Month blog. Read more here.
  • The Jewish Muse blog interviews the creator of Sammy Spider and the Littlest Books (Passover hook: she has written a children’s haggadah and a few Passover stories). Read “Spiders, Frogs, Oh, My: Author Sylvia Rouss tries to Engage, Comfort Children” here.
  • Read about the “Jewish Books Technological (r)Evolution” over at the Jewish Publication Society right here.
  • Leora from Here in HP reviews Barry Deutsch’s Hereville right here.
  • Puppets for Passover from Ann Kofsky! Find them here.
  • ForwordsBooks has a book list that honors the courage shown by our ancestors as they traveled out of their slavery and into freedom. Read the list here.
  • A fun song for Passover from Sylvia Rouss can be found here.
  • Rabbi Harvey meets Ilan Stavans on Jbooks.com. Read more here.
  • Neil Gaiman in discussion with Paul Levitz (at Symphony Space in NYC) and other events can be found here over at the Jewish Comics blog.

Authors mentioned in the above posts:

Barry Deutsch

Ludwig Lewisohn

Albert Marrin

Richard Michelson

Anna Olswanger

Sylvia A. Rouss

Roni Schotter

Lesley Simpson

Shelley Sommer

Ann Stampler

Ilan Stavans

Joel Stone

Dvora Weisberg

A.B. Yehoshua


Righting Wrongs

Friday, April 15, 2011 | Permalink

Ealier this week, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches and patricide, photography, and Audrey Hepburn. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Author Blog.

It goes against my convictions as a novelist to characterize any person as either a demon or a hero; human nature isn’t so simple.  It’s the fascist psyche that adores such black-and-white categories: good or bad, Aryan or Jew, friend or enemy, worthy of life or of extermination.  But even in a psychologically mature piece of fiction, there are protagonists and antagonists and what divides them from one another in The Jump Artist is precisely their degree of maturity of thought—i.e., their ability or inability to think in a nuanced, non-binary way.  Karl Meixner, a fascist, had a lot of trouble thinking that way.  Philippe Halsman’s attorney in the second trial, by contrast, refused to see the world in the polarized terms that would later dominate the politics of Grossdeutschland.

In the first trial, Philippe had been defended by a famous Jewish attorney from Vienna named Richard Pressburger.  The proceedings lasted just three days and presented little evidence against Philippe, but the jury convicted him with just as little deliberation.  “After hardly a half an hour,” a major Vienna paper reported, “the jury foreman pronounces the verdict: the accused is guilty of murder, with nine against three votes.” (Arbeiter Zeitung, “A Wrong Verdict in Innsbruck? A Half-hour Consultation,” December 17, 1928.)  By the second trial on appeal, the Halsman family understood the extent of local prejudices against outsiders.  When the family hired the defense team for the second trial, they sought out local Gentiles to represent Philippe.  The new attorneys were Innsbruckers Paul Mahler and Franz Pessler.

Pessler was born May 13, 1893 in Linz (an Austrian city halfway between Vienna and Salzburg).  Halsman describes Pessler as “a very interesting person, a former Jesuit student,” in a letter dated March 23, 1929.  He was a veteran of the First World War, described as “young, daring” in Die Wahrheit, a Vienna newspaper, on September 20, 1929.  Pessler married a Viennese woman named Martha Lodenbauer, with whom he lived in Innsbruck at 29 Anichstrasse.  According to the records in the Tiroler Landesarchiv (Geschäftszahl TLA-0509/1720-2006), they had no children.

Pessler was deeply committed to the defense of civil liberties even as Austria careened into fascism.  His passion for justice is reflected in his own account of the trials, “Ein Bild des Prozesses” (“A Picture of the Proceedings”), published in a paperback volume called Der Fall Halsmann, issued in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights.  (The Austrian League was a sister organization of the French League for the Defense of Human Rights, which had 20 years earlier defended the Jew Alfred Dreyfus following his indictment and false conviction in Paris.)  After the second verdict, Pessler continued to fight on Philippe’s behalf for legal redress, and he took part in the effort to obtain a pardon from Chancellor Johann Schober.

The trials affected him on a personal level, as well.  He writes in Der Fall Halsmann, pp. 90-91:

[Philippe] left prison as a broken man.  His imprisonment has resulted in a lung infirmity.  His engineering studies have been interrupted and subsequently cut off.  Who can right all the wrongs he has suffered?  Even if we succeed in bringing another trial to court, and prove his innocence beyond a doubt, the years of imprisonment and the horrible accusations have taken their toll.

We must learn for the future to be careful with any trial based on circumstantial evidence.  In any such future case we must remember Philipp Halsman.

Philippe, in turn, felt he would never forget his attorney.  In a letter to Ruth Römer dated January 28, 1930, Philippe writes: “[Dr. Pessler] sat down on the table and began to weep…. I will never forget how much [his tears] moved me, and how much I loved him the moment he wiped the table dry.”

After the Anschluss with Germany, Pessler ran afoul of the Nazis; he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp as a political prisoner on May 31, 1938 and was not released until almost a year later, on April 22, 1939.  According to the Tiroler Landesarchiv, he’d been added to the Nazis’ “Schwarzen Liste,” or Black List, because in 1938 he served as public defender for Friedrich Wurnig, an SS officer who was tried for murder; Pessler lost the case and Wurnig was executed.  Shortly after Pessler’s internment at Dachau, his wife moved to Eggenberg.  He survived the war and died in the same year as did his former client Philippe Halsman: 1979.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available.

Patricide, Photography, and Audrey Hepburn

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series.

People who have read The Jump Artist sometimes ask me what’s fact and what’s fiction. My answer is that it’s all fiction, but it’s fiction that incorporates as many facts as I could uncover and reasonably include. Years of research yielded certain results that tested me as a fiction writer—and none more so than those concerning Karl Meixner. To write about him truthfully was to risk caricature or cliché. Did he really keep Max Halsman’s head in a jar? Lest anyone think I invented him and his bizarre activities with human remains, here are some of the historical facts I uncovered about him:

  • Meixner was a professor of pathology at the Institute for Juridical Medicine in Innsbruck and an expert witness in the Halsman trials. Defense attorney Franz Pessler’s account of the trial in Der Fall Halsman points to Meixner as one of the most spirited advocates for Halsman’s conviction. In turn, Meixner was a focus of opprobrium from academics all over Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He published impassioned defenses of himself and of his reasons for condemning Halsman.
  • He has a convincing record as a fascist and an anti-Semite. Before joining the medical faculty at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner had been an active member of Vienna’s openly anti-Semitic fraternity, Burschenschaft Olympia. And in 1946, when the war was over, Meixner was recommended for forced retirement by the “investigation committee” of the University of Innsbruck because of his reputation as a “radical Nazi.” (See Oberkofler, Gerhard and Peter Goller, Die Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck: Faschistische Realität [1938] and Kontinuität unter postfaschistischen Bedingungen [1945], Eine Dokumentation, Innsbruck: Universität Innsbruck, 1999, p. 121.)
  • There is also convincing evidence of his transgressions against medical ethics. According to Oberkofler and Goller, directors of the University of Innsbruck archives, Meixner received a Nazi decree titled “Re.: Transfer of Corpses of the Executed to the Institutes of Anatomy” and affirmed it with his signature on March 18, 1939 (Oberkofler and Goller, pp. 12-14). The decree dictated that the corpses of Nazi prisoners executed without trial and then denied burial rites be delivered to Austrian universities for scientific use.
  • There is no data on how many corpses were transferred to the University of Innsbruck medical school under the decree sent to Meixner (and to a couple of others on the medical faculty). Nor is it known what may have been done with such corpses. However, it is well known that the Nazi policy on executed prisoners was exploited significantly at the University of Vienna. A University of Vienna inquiry, made at the behest of Yad Vashem, revealed in 1998 that Dr. Eduard Pernkopf acquired 1400 cadavers from Nazi executions for his anatomic studies. Pernkopf had been an active member of the Nazi party since 1933, and in the original editions of his world-famous anatomy text, his artists signed their names with swastikas and SS symbols.
  • Staff at Yad Vashem informed me that their correspondence with the University of Innsbruck on this subject will remain classified under Israeli law until 2020. It will be interesting to see what other non-consensual uses of human remains belong to Karl Meixner’s curriculum vitae; he certainly demonstrated significant credentials along these lines during the Halsman trials. According to newspaper reports, Meixner had Philippe Halsman’s father’s head separated from his body and, over the defense’s formal protests, he kept it in a jar at the Institute as a specimen. “I had repeatedly requested that the head of Max Halsman be released for burial,” Franz Pessler writes on p. 76 of his essay on the trial, published in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights. Meixner displayed the head to Franz Pessler before the second trial and again to the jury during the second trial. See Pessler, pp. 53, 76-77. (For photographs of the severed head, see Meixner, “Lehren des Halsmannprozesses,” Beitrage zur gerichtlichen Medizin, Vol. 10, 1930, pp. 62-76, and Heindl, “Der Mordprozeß Halsmann,” Archiv für Kriminologie, Vol. 92, No. 5/6, Jun 1933, pp. 185-188.)
  • Max Halsman’s head remained there in formaldehyde until 1991, according to an article in November of that year in The Jerusalem Report. (See Wise, Michael Z., “Vienna’s Dreyfus Case,” Jerusalem Report, Nov 21, 1991. p. 4.) It appears Max Halsman’s head was part of a collection of body parts and dead animals which Meixner had carefully tended and stocked. “In his capacity as morphologist, Meixner gave particular attention to the completion of the Juridical Medicine Museum, pushing for an expansion of its collection. Meixner also achieved the expansion of the Institute itself by establishing a facility for animals and a workshop.” (From Hundert Jahre Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck 1869 bis 1969, p. 273. You can also find Karl Meixner’s face in this volume, pictured in plate no. 43. In 100 years of faculty photographs at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner is the only doctor of medicine to sit for a formal indoor portrait with his hat on. He glowers like a B-movie police inspector.)
  • Meixner died on March 6, 1955, just 4 months before Philippe Halsman would make his 75th Life Magazine cover, a photograph of Audrey Hepburn on her farm in Rome under a pair of white doves.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts.

Book Cover of the Week: Vaclav and Lena

Monday, April 11, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Haley Tanner’s first novel, Vaclav & Lena, will be out in May:



As Jewish as a Hillel Sandwich

Monday, April 11, 2011 | Permalink

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

When I learned about Philippe Halsman’s life-story and determined I would write a novel about him (The Jump Artist, 2011 winner of the Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature), I was struck by the contradictions he embodied.  Here was a man whom history had ensnared in a frightful way—at the age of 22, he was falsely accused of murdering his father in anti-Semitic western Austria, and he served two years in prison, where he attempted suicide and almost died of tuberculosis.  At the same time, here was a man who re-emerged in New York in the 1940s as a photographer—one whose work expressed the playfulness and optimism of post-war life in America on the covers of Life magazine.  Halsman himself was by all accounts a secular Jew, but his story and his work are as Jewish as a Hillel sandwich, and represent almost as neatly the opposite poles of pain and joy that define the Jewish historical experience.

It’s clear that the events of Halsman’s twenties shaped and scarred him, and in a permanent way.  In a 1995 interview with Einstein biographer Denis Brian, Philippe’s wife Yvonne Halsman said of the “Austrian Dreyfus Affair” of 1928, “It was a suffering for him for the rest of his life. And for his mother and sister and for all of us.”  But it’s also clear that he became an astute observer of people, their psyches, and their torment, and turned pain into art, sometimes with a Kafkaesque sense of humor.  He collaborated often with Salvador Dali.

Calling himself the discoverer of “Jumpology,” he also compelled hundreds of subjects to jump in the air for his camera—everyone from Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe to Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Nixon. He wrote in his 1959 Jump Book, “The roots of my discovery reach into my early childhood. I was born with an intense interest in jumping…. I could run, jump and turn over in the air.” He delighted in jumping throughout his life and in photographingothers in the act of jumping. “Everybody hides behind a mask,” Halsman writes. “In a jump the subject, in a sudden burst of energy, overcomes gravity. He cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One has only to snap it with the camera.”

Upon photographing the great jurist Learned Hand, then aged 87, jumping off the ground, Halsman concluded that jumping was, among other things, a revolt against death and despair.  Halsman, like the Jewish people at different points in their history, found a way to rise above his hardships, as if by an act of magic levitation.  As a writer and as a Jew, I found his story irresistible.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts.