The ProsenPeople

Interview: Matthue Roth

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 | Permalink

by Elie Lichtschein

Elie Lichtenstein recently spoke with Matthue Roth about his newest book, The Gobblings.

Elie Lichtschein: You've written both novels and picture books. Does the process of writing a picture book differ much from writing a novel? How so?

Matthue Roth:The process of writing any story is different than any other one, of course—just by virtue of the character and the plot and the lives you're telling. But yes. When you're writing a picture book, you're making a blueprint. Every line you write is going to linger in the artist's mind and is going to be magnified a thousand times—you only get, what? Five or ten lines to a page? And partly because the artist will transform those five or ten lines into a whole tableau. Multiply that by sixteen double-page spreads, and that's the space you get to tell an entire story.

EL: What did the collaboration process between you and Rohan look like?

MR: There's a period of time where the manuscript is fully mine, and then a period where it's fully his. Our editor, Robert, is sort of the in-betweener—he's the conductor. There was some back-and-forthing, which was annoying for Rohan, I'm sure, because he was already work­ing on layouts when I was still planning what would happen in the big chase scene. But it also made everything a lot more integrated; it made the whole book more of a collaborative effort.

EL: What was the impetus behind The Gobblings? What inspired and pushed you to write it?

MR: Mostly this intense feeling of loneliness I had while spending time in Australia, and a Baal Shem Tov story of a boy on his own in a synagogue in a strange town on Yom Kippur [see the review here for a summary of the story]. I want to say that my kids pushed me, too—and they do; they're always asking for stories, and my head is rarely together enough to be able to launch a story at them fully-formed—but I think at heart, every story I tell is for myself. If it doesn't hold my attention, picture book or novel or film or something else, then it's probably not good enough for anyone else to read.

EL: What other works inform your writing? Which authors—classic or contemporary—were most influential while you worked on The Gob­blings?

MR: I think there's a lot of Kafka in there. And some of Maurice Sendak, who's basically in my DNA, and Kelly Link, who tells these very natural and organic science fiction stories that are both comforting and scary.

EL: You've written a picture book retelling classic Kafka stories. And the gobblings—long-snouted, reptilian, alien monsters who feed on metals and machines—are wonderfully Kafkaesque in their mundane absur­dity; they are, essentially, huge mosquito-like pests in outer space. Was this a conscious choice to channel Kafka in their creation?

MR: It really wasn't a conscious choice to evoke Kafka, although he's al­ways hunting around my brain. One reviewer pointed out that nobody's really evil in The Gobblings; even the gobblings only do what they need to to survive. It's really like a fairy tale—well, with space ships and ro­bots and stuff. Nobody's wicked; they just have different priorities.

EL: I understand you recently received an MFA in creative writing. Did The Gobblings, in an earlier draft, make an appearance in your program?

MR: Not directly! But I think telling stories is one of those things that, the more you do, the better you get. It ramped up my skills, not just how to tell "Adult Literary Fiction Short Stories," but how to tell stories.

EL: To write a picture book, do you need to be transported back into your childhood? Or else into a wide-eyed, all-is-possible, child-like mindset? If so, how do you achieve this?

MR: I think that telling any story is like creating a world. Sometimes it's even literal. I think I definitely get transported into a different mindset, but it's less "a kid mindset" than it is the mindset of my character. I think it's really just, like, whose story am I telling, and what words and form tell it best? And for Herbie, I was like, this is a picture book.

EL: What can readers expect from you next?

MR: I have two picture books in the works! One is called No Dogs Al­lowed, and it's about a dog that gets kicked out of a corner store and goes on a sort of fantastic undersea journey. The other is We Are in a Pot of Chicken Soup, and it also has a sort of fantastic journey. Under, um, schmaltz.

EL: What are you reading right now?

MR: A short novel by Steve Stern, The North of God, part of Melville House's wonderful novella series. And I just got my press copy of this crazy anthology called Jews Vs. Aliens, which I'm in, but now is the first time I get to read the other people's stories, which are uniformly bizarre and awesome. And with my kids, we just watched the film Labyrinth for the first time, and we're rereading Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There, which it's based on.

Elie Lichtschein is a writer and musician based in New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the New School, where he is completing a mysti-fantasy Middle Grade adventure novel.

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The Art in the Book

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Barbara Stark-Nemon wrote about how her family chose to remember Germany after World War II. She is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

There's a special meadow in the forest of novelists who integrate the visual arts into their work. In Even in Darkness, there are four distinct scenes involving paintings or sculptures that produce transformational moments for the main characters. As a photographer, sketch and fiber artist, and art history student, I've long been attracted to the visual arts. Over time, I've come to realize how much that interest informs my writing.

When I first began work on the manuscript that became Even in Darkness, I had the good fortune to attend a weeklong writer's workshop with Elizabeth Kostova, whose novel Swan Thieves has artists as main characters. All week, the workshop experimented with various approaches to including visual arts in our work, and I came away with two of the scenes that remain in Even in Darkness today.

Since this novel is primarily based on the life of my great aunt, some of the works of art that appear in it are ones she owned, or saw and spoke about, and I admired them or learned about them when I visited her in Germany. Lithographs by Marc Chagall lined the marble-floored entry hall of the rectory where she lived, and the priest she lived with wrote a book about kings and prophets in Chagall’s art. A watercolor, by a little-known German Expressionist artist, hung on their dining room wall, and my aunt told me the story of how it represented her need to restore her capacity to see beauty after all she’d suffered during the war. An oil portrait of my great aunt graced a wall in the priest’s study. It made its way into Even in Darkness. When I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, as my aunt and the priest once did, I imagined how her seeing a sculptural relief of St. Mary might have made her feel, as a grieving mother. I incorporated this scene into a chapter that catalyzed spiritual and emotional insights of Klare’s character for the reader.

Other art connections showed up in the book. On a research trip to an exhibit of German art rejected by the Nazis in the 1930s, I saw several portraits of the art dealer Johanna Ey, and I learned about the artists she aided. She became the basis of a character.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Museo de Picasso in Malaga, Spain, which houses an interesting collection of Picasso’s works spanning his whole career. A description of one of his mid-career portraits included a quotation by the photographer Roberto Otero that struck me as fundamentally true not only about drawing, but about writing.

"Of course, one never knows what's going to come out, but as soon as the drawing gets underway, a story or idea is born. And that's it. Then the story grows...and the drawing is turned into other drawings - a real novel."

When I write, I feel like I draw a character's portrait in words and then the picture is begun. It grows, and other pictures emerge and the images join into a whole. Otero's observation reminds me how closely the creative process is mirrored in visual and written forms and how I delight in that. As Alyson Richman says in an interview on the wonderful website by Stephanie Renee dos Santos about art in historical novels, “I feel as though I’ve been able to incorporate my love of art with my love of writing.”

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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Interview: Brian Morton

Monday, April 13, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Florence Gordon, Brian Morton’s fifth novel, engages with the terrain of the other—New York Jewish intellectuals. The heroine is a professor who is embarking on writing her memoirs, after writing a number of seminal books of essays. Her time is limited and she does not suffer fools gladly—whether blood relatives or not—and lets them know her opinions.

Beth Kissileff: You write of a person as the “center of a world” in this novel. Is that why you wrote a novel about an eponymous character?

Brian Morton: I'd say it's why most of my novels try to explore different characters' points of view. The idea that each person is the center of his or her own world is always on my mind when I'm working on a novel. Emily [Florence’s granddaughter] is really the secret heroine of the book, and the moral center of the book, because she's living that idea, by trying to understand other people on their own terms. There's a moment late in the book where Florence greets Emily with even more coldness than usual, and at first Emily thinks Florence is mad at her, but then intuits that what Florence is going through has nothing to do with her at all. That moment, when Emily transcends her­self by entering into Florence's point of view, is meant to be a sort of quiet moment of climax in the novel.

Iris Murdoch, in an essay called “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” said that we judge novelists “by the quality of their awareness of others.” I think this could be a motto for fiction writers to put next to the keyboard.

BK: One of the many things you do well as a writer are the titles of your characters’ books and essays, both Florence’s and those of Leonard Schiller, the main character in Starting out in the Evening. Can you say something about that and whether she is a female version of Schiller?

BM: Thank you. I like to give the reader just a hint of what the characters have written, and I try to do that partly by mention­ing the titles of their work. Often there's no context at all—so that when someone in the book thinks of an old essay that Florence wrote called "Notes on What Just Happened," we don't know if the essay referred to the election of Ronald Reagan or to 9/11 or to the Rodney King video or to none of the above. We have no idea what it referred to. I want the reader to do some of the work of imagining her career through scattered bits of evidence, including the titles of her work. (The title of one of her essays, “Opportunities for Heroism in Everyday Life,” was the working title of the novel for a while, until I settled on Florence Gordon.)

I don’t think of Florence as a female counterpart of Schiller. They're both writers of a certain age, but she's much more energetic and more engaged with the life around her. His novels were a sort of monument to private life; she wants her books to change the world.

BK: There have been recent studies about reading fiction increasing empathy. What’s your take?

BM: I hope it does, but I'm skeptical. Don't we all know people who are both very well read and awful? I feel like it's not uncommon to meet people who've read a ton but who are as vain about it as other people are about their possessions.

BK: In all of your other books, you have a character from a previous book reappear. Why didn’t you do that this time?

BM: I thought about doing it. Florence's son and his family are subletting an apartment in the book, and for a while I thought of saying it was Leonard Schil­ler's old apartment—the writer from Starting Out in the Evening—which his daughter had held onto after his death. But finally I thought it would be better to have one book that doesn't explicitly refer to any of the others. I guess I just decided to give it a rest.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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At the Heart of It

Monday, April 13, 2015 | Permalink

Barbara Stark-Nemon is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Writing Even in Darkness fulfilled three important aspirations in my author life. It’s a love letter to a woman who influenced me more than she ever knew. It’s the fulfillment of the top item on my bucket list, which was to write a novel. And perhaps most interestingly, it represented the opportunity to write my way into an understanding of the impact my family’s Holocaust experiences had on me as a second-generation survivor.

The character Kläre Kohler in Even in Darkness is based on my great aunt, who was born in 1895, and lived her 100 years in Germany through two world wars and the Holocaust. I first met her when I was six years old during her first visit to America, an event which I dimly remember in the haze of rapid-fire German conversation, long meals, bottles of wine, and fragrant cigar smoke that characterized a lot of the time I spent at my grandparents’ home. I loved Kläre from the moment I met her, and her life in Germany seemed like a mystery. Why did she stay there after surviving the war and the concentration camp, when the rest of her family was in the U.S., Belgium and England? Why was she living with a Catholic priest?

In later years Kläre visited several more times for significant family events and I met and became devoted to the priest who is the basis for the character Ansel in Even in Darkness. I began to travel to Europe, often with my grandparents, and rarely did so without stopping to visit Kläre and Ansel in Germany or arrange for them to join us. Over those many visits I learned both Kläre’s and Ansel’s stories of childhood, war, loss and survival. They listened to my stories as well, and I found that across years, cultures, and language, each of them offered wise and astute counsel.

Only in the writing this novel about Kläre, however, did it become clear that in telling her story, I would reach an understanding of my own relationship to my family’s history in Germany and to the Holocaust. My parents had left privileged lives in Germany to escape the Nazis, coming to this country as teenagers. They had met at a German refugee group’s dance, and along with all four of my grandparents, returned to Germany shortly after the war to visit, take care of business matters and even vacation. My grandfather was an attorney who did restitution work, securing pensions and payments for Jews who had lost property, education, health and businesses.

My parents and grandparents were all practicing Jews dedicated to their temples and synagogues here, and were ever grateful to have become American citizens. However, there was no hatred of Germany or German people in our households. The adults around me frequently spoke German to each other and had many German friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. My grandfather was always proud of his service in the German army in World War I and the Iron Cross First Class that was bestowed upon him. Different members of my family couldn’t agree whether we were escapees or survivors of the Holocaust. None of this went down well with some of my friends’ families, who rejected anything and anyone having to do with Germany. Navigating these different responses within and outside my family became a subtle skillset I had to learn.

Kläre helped me. All my life, I’d heard my grandparents describe her as “lucky,” even though her life in Germany was circumscribed by two world wars, time in a concentration camp, and enormous loss. Until I had to write her through all that, and reveal how she emerged as a vibrant, loving person, I didn’t understand that her “luck” was her remarkable capacity to reinvent herself in a way that honored the past, forgot nothing, but forgave much for the sake of creating meaning out of horror. I learned to embrace her example and acceptance of those whose experiences led them to very different places and perspectives as survivors. I treasure those lessons.

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015 | Permalink

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Internal Dialogue: What's With All the Social Justice Seders?

Thursday, April 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I’m afraid to admit it, but I have little patience for Passover. Almost none. And the seder least of all.

Don’t get me wrong: I observe the holiday to the letter. I clean out the house, sell my chametz, and subsist on a standard diet of matzah, cream cheese, and eggs with the variable vegetable and odd protein for the entire week, and I not only endure but participate in both seders with my family as I have done since the good ol’ Ma Nishtana days. And I hate every minute of it.

Partly, I just don’t do well with structure. As both a product and proponent of alternative education, I struggle with the hours of prescribed “order” that we’re all forced to adhere to on this so different a night: stand up, sit down, lean to the left, say this, drink that, eat this, eat that, now sing… It feels more like a rigid second grade day school classroom than a meal, let alone a celebratory feast. And, much like that same second grade classroom, the strictly regimented agenda doesn’t yield proportionate efficiency—in fact, it feels, just the opposite.

Mainly, though, it’s the repetition that gets to me: the required regurgitation of the same story year after year. It’s gone from boring to insufferable and at some moments even oppressive—and that’s just the impatience, before the late hour or physical hunger sets in—but I bear through the retelling two nights in a row every year because that part is unquestionably essential to Judaism and Jewish identity—for, as we know all too well, in every generation one must see oneself as though they, too, left Egypt.

There are many in the Jewish community who have chosen to interpret that imperative as a summons to reflect on the events and ills of our lifetime and more recent history: college chaplains organize “freedom seders” joining Jewish and black students on campus; women convene on feminist seders and family members clash over current Israeli policies; rabbis at the pulpit bring up the uncomfortable realities of slavery in our time—on that note, if you read one other essay today, make it this one (although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t written by a rabbi).

The seder also becomes a fertile millennial arena for the social justice bender Jews in their twenties and thirties are on with renewed fervency at the approach of every holiday. This year more than any other (yet), social media housed countless queries and responses for social justice haggadot and supplements—Jewschool.com, for example, assembles their top ten picks of new social justice-themed Passover resources each year—and that’s a wonderful thing. But even with the obvious parallelable narratives of freedom and oppression, there’s something curious about an entire generation insisting on telling a multitude of other peoples’ stories on a night we’re supposed to focus entirely on our own one. Is the Exodus somehow less meaningful, less critical to Jewish history or the modern experience, if it isn’t directly relatable to the world around us and its victims? Why on this night do we continue to layer stories on top of the one we’re required to tell?

Reading The Lost Book of Mormon (it’s a Jewish book—very Jewish, I promise, bear with me here) I was inspired to think of the social justice seder phenomenon in terms of a book—more accurately, in terms of a book series, or any narrative-driven franchise. In relating new stories and new struggles to the Passover narrative, these supplements create a sequel to the Exodus. Seder participants take one of our most glorious tales and stretch it across centuries so as to continue to enjoy the original by connecting with not only to the story but the storytelling itself. As Avi Steinberg observes in in his new memoir:

Maybe our tendency to make sequels is somehow embedded in how we think. Just as we want and need a story to end, we also want and need a story to never end. We make sequels as a way of bringing our stories closer to life. As a matter of convention and convenience, stories have endings, but if we were to tell them honestly, stories would never end, just like life, whose dramas dip in and out of time and memory, are recalled, shared, stolen, reprised, recovered, revised—anything but neatly concluded. A sequel may well be a deformed kind of story, a pale likeness—as its critics have long charged—but even if it’s silly or tragic or nobly deluded or tainted by a shameless profit motive, or, more likely, all of these at one, then all the more is it like life.

Steinberg’s rumination on the sequel began with watching new episodes of The Simpsons at his laundromat and realizing that in two decades since the show premiered, nothing in the animated world of Springfield had ever changed, its denizens stuck in a bright, eternal Groundhog Day:

Sequels don’t necessarily believe in progress, but they do insist on the passing of time, or at the very least a change of place. By contrast, a serial like The Simpsons can remain in a state of animated paralysis for eternity.

Critic Terry Castle has described sequels as tragic because they are motivated by a desperate human need to reproduce the original sensation of some pleasurable experience, an impulse, a “mad hope,” she says, that is fated to miserable disappointment. But when I saw Bart still throwing spitballs at Springfield Elementary over twenty years later, that to me seemed like the tragedy of repetition: Sisyphus on a skateboard.

At the Passover seder each year, Judaism makes that same attempt to reproduce the original sensation of one of the greatest miracles ever witnessed by our ancestors: the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, by the hand of God. But the haggadic retelling isn’t a sequel; it’s a loop; it’s Bart Simpson’s same old antics week after week; it’s forty years circling the same patch of desert. We know that experience all too well—and how it can lead to communal loss of faith, rebellion, kvetching, and even idol worship [see: Golden Calf].

In finding a sequel to the Passover story—in the histories and current issues of Civil Rights, feminism, and modern social justice movements—perhaps we restore our faith by breaking out of that cycle, just enough to bring it closer to life. It reifies that the story didn’t end—that the story of the Jewish people didn’t end—with Exodus, that it is an evolving legacy rather than an outgrown or outgrowable childhood tale. We want to relive the experience of leaving Egypt without despairing of it, without growing bored, without losing appreciation for this among the narrative pillars of Jewish history.

The power of the sequel, Avi Steinberg discovered, “meant that the old biblical saga wouldn’t simply replay forever but somehow, some way, find a way out, maybe even a way forward. It boldly reentered the original and steered it in a different direction. Maybe the sequel isn’t the tragedy of repetition: it’s a solution to it.”

So maybe I just need to find my Passover sequel. Maybe one day I’ll write my own.

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Returning to Where It All Began

Friday, April 03, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Thane Rosenbaum gave us a little flashback to Miami Beach, 1972 and how E. L. Doctorow inspired his new novel How Sweet It Is! He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Nearly twenty years ago I published my first book, a novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible. It followed, in postmodern fashion, Adam Posner, a child of Holocaust survivors, who appeared throughout the book in different guises and geographic locations; even his age and occupations varied with each chapter. The story was not told in chronological order; the inversion of time and space, the fracturing of reality and imagination, were among the many contradictions that appeared with nearly every turn of page. The names of his parents were different with each story, too. The only constant was that, in each tale, they were soon to die, or were already dead.

The book received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Best Book of Jewish Fiction. Three other novels would follow. But I never got Adam Posner out of my head. For one thing, his story felt incomplete. There were other Adam Posner tales I wanted to tell; the nine chapters of Elijah Visible, a deliberate half of chai, was not enough. And since the chapters rolled out without logical coherence, the novel ended when Adam Posner was in kindergarten in Washington Heights, during a blizzard. The earlier chapters that depicted his manhood didn’t set up the story for such a stormy conclusion.

Two of the chapters stood out from the rest, however. In one, Adam Posner is a boy growing up in Miami Beach; in the other he is looking back on his childhood in Miami Beach. In both chapters the story was less about him than the more colorful and charismatic figures to whom he was exposed, and who cause him to rethink some of the assumptions he has made about his parents, their past, and the future that lay in store for the entire Posner family—provided they have the audacity to imagine a future at all.

Some of the reviews that the book received singled out these two Miami Beach tales—not just because of their scenic locale, but because the island city had a magical hold upon the Posner family. Miami Beach presented itself like a picture postcard, but behind the sunshine lurked cloud cover that revealed truths about the Posners that they were only haltingly willing to receive.

It was where the young Adam, the first man, observed the world in which he was born, and determined that despite all that had been lost, Miami Beach was a place where Jackie Gleason was right to proclaim, How Sweet It Is!

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit http://www.thanerosenbaum.com/.

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Friday, April 03, 2015 | Permalink

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Interview: Eric Lichtblau

Thursday, April 02, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Nazis Next Door by Eric Lichtblau is a compelling reminder of how quickly man’s inhumanity to man has been forgotten. Many in the FBI, CIA, the space program, and other agencies of the U.S. government teamed up with war-criminal Nazis to combat the Soviets. As World War II came to an end there were those in the government who were more concerned about the next great conflict—the threat of Communism—and saw the Nazis as yesterday’s enemy. The book delves into two issues. The first chapter in the book examines an important topic, the myth of the concentration camp liberation. The second narrative is the story of the people who worked so hard for decades to find war criminals given safe haven by the FBI, CIA, and military. Elise Cooper interviewed author Eric Lichtblau for the Jewish Book Council.

Elise Cooper: In the first chapter of The Nazis Next Door you expose "the myth of liberation." Can you explain?

Eric Lichtblau: When I started, that didn’t even occur to me as something I was going to examine, but I came to realize slowly that was an important part of the story. Not just how easily Nazis and Nazi collaborators had gotten into America, but how much difficulty the survivors had in getting out of the concentration camps. History has forgotten what happened to the survivors. There is an image that they were embraced by the Allied forces as they flooded out from the camps, given warm showers, beds, and plentiful food. It was really not like that at all. Jewish groups complained to President Truman, who did not ignore them. After an investigation there was a blistering and condemning report, lost to history, by the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Earl Harrison. This report to Truman stated, “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.” Even though conditions did improve, some survivors were kept in the DP camps for as long as five years. They were still confined behind barbed wire, under armed guard.

EC: Who was mainly behind these conditions?

EL: The blame has to go to U.S. Army General George Patton, who was in charge of the displaced persons camps. He had sort of an odd fondness almost for the Nazi prisoners, believe it or not. He believed that they were the ones in the best position to efficiently run the camps, and he gave them supervisory approval to basically lord over the Jews and the other survivors. I hope the book makes people aware of the horrific conditions of the camps and Patton’s overt anti-Semitism.

EC: Why were the Jews not allowed into the U.S. after the war?

EL: In the early months, and the first few years after the war, beginning in mid-1945, there were only a very limited number of immigration visas to get into the United States. Of all the survivors in the camps, only a few thousand came in the first year or so. A visa was a precious commodity, and there were immigration policymakers in Washington who were on record saying that they didn't think the Jews should be let in because they were "lazy people" or "entitled people" and they didn't want them in. But there were many, many thousands of Nazi collaborators who got visas to the U.S. while the survivors did not, even though they had been, for instance, the head of a Nazi concentration camp, the warden at a camp, or the secret police chief in Lithuania who signed the death warrants for people. The Displaced Person’s Act opened up visas to Jews but only four or five years after the war ended.

EC: What do you think was the main factor in allowing the Nazis into the U.S.?

EL: There was this blind spot of the benefit of having them help in the Cold War effort. Remember the Dulles quote, paraphrasing, ‘I would deal with the devil himself if it would help national security.’

EC: Who do you think was the person most responsible for the Nazis coming to America?

EL: The head of the CIA from 1952 to 1961, Allen Dulles. He had the mindset that the known Nazis could be used as intelligence assets and scientists helpful in the U.S. missile program. I do not think he was overtly anti-Semitic. I think it was mostly the Cold War mindset, which led to going morally astray. Unfortunately, the gains in intelligence were not the same as with the scientists. As I wrote about in the book, most gave information that was garbage or they turned out to be double agents. After it became clear these assets were not helpful, the information was still kept under wraps to avoid the public relations embarrassment. The CIA knowingly helped Nazi figures, intervened on their behalf, and obstructed investigations as late as 1995.

EC: What would you want readers to get out of the book?

EL: For those who lived in dire conditions in the DP camps it seemed no one cared about the survivors. I hope readers weigh the philosophical dilemma of the clear national security gains with the Nazis’ immoral background. The book was written as a reminder of why we have to be aware of genocide. I wrote it as an American Jew, but also because I thought it is an important part of history that needed to be told.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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Flashback: Miami Beach, 1972

Wednesday, April 01, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Thane Rosenbaum wrote about how E. L. Doctorow inspired his new novel How Sweet It Is! He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The time and place of How Sweet It Is! was a novel just waiting to happen. It was during that year, 1972, when Miami Beach, such an otherwise small city, might as well have been the center of the world.

Yes, Miami Beach was only seven miles long with a mere 50,000 citizens in it—many of them senior. And the city was largely fading from the glory it once possessed like a stage actor with creaky knees from having taken too many curtain calls. The hotels had grown shabby; the swingers wore toupees, the divorcees appeared more desperate than dangerous.


Flip Schulke's photograph of a "member of the South Beach Retirement Community
enjoy[ing] the sun and sea air" in the early 1970s

South Beach was there, but without the fashion models and power forwards sipping cocktails on Ocean Drive well into the moonlit night. The Heat was measured in Fahrenheit, not NBA championships, and ladies depended on Social Security. None worked for Victoria Secret.

And yet the city that was sun-baked, unworldly and generally dull was also a bastion of colorful characters fixated on tanning their faces a singular shade of vigorous brown.

And all were waiting for a second chance.

The Jewish Mafia, led by kingpin Meyer Lansky, treated Miami Beach like an assisted living facility for wise guys. The better days of his crew had long past, too—the casinos in Havana were now nationalized by Fidel Castro, a man who idealized Vladimir Lenin, not Lucky Luciano. These men with their crooked noses went to synagogue on Saturdays and prayed that Miami Beach would legalize casino gambling and save the state from the trivial jackpots and general boredom of pari-mutuel betting.

The summer of 1972 featured the presidential nominating conventions for both the Republican and Democratic parties—the first time one city had hosted delegates from the right and left, the elephants and donkeys, the Dixiecrats and the northeastern aristocrats.


Democrats and Republicans in Convention in 1972

This was all set to take place just a few weeks after the Watergate break-in. Miami Beach was incomprehensibly designated as the city that was being asked to manage all this political infighting and social upheaval—the very same turmoil that resulted in rioting in Chicago four years earlier.

Anti-war fervor was as thick as the humid summer nights. Like centipedes wearing mood rings and chanting folk songs, the counterculture trekked down to Flamingo Park for their rowdy appointment with the American ruling class. There they would camp out, tune out, and utter words such as “far out” and “fuck off” to anyone over the age of 30 who they neither trusted nor ever wanted to become. Wearing nothing but love beads they made love in the outfield of Flamingo Park, nakedly invaded its swimming pool and then spent the day in fist-pumping public protest, demanding the end of the Vietnam War.

Jackie Gleason was the city’s favorite son, a fat man known the world over as the Great One. He maintained his princely stature on Miami Beach even though his Saturday night variety show, broadcast from a theater on Washington Avenue bearing his name, had already been cancelled. His Rat Pack friends, especially Frank Sinatra, still visited Miami Beach for the booze, the weather and Gleason’s munificent hospitality, even though by that time he spent as much time at Mount Sinai Hospital as he did on the racy Collins Avenue strip.


Jackie Gleason

Miami Beach was undergoing the early stages of desegregation while Muhammad Ali sparred on 5th Street at Angelo Dundee’s gym. Isaac Bashevis Singer scribbled on notepaper in Surfside, observing the mannerisms and mating rituals of these snowbird Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. Cubans, many of whom were Jews, cursed Castro and, in retaliation, decided to turn Miami into a gleaming metropolis.

That city, during that memorable year, always had the makings of a novel. The silhouettes from that magic city just needed a little color and a splash of imagination to become real, once again.

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit http://www.thanerosenbaum.com/.

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