The ProsenPeople

Internal Dialogue: Portraits of Intermarriage

Thursday, July 31, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The findings of the Pew Research Center survey of United States Jews published last fall indicated a rise in Jewish intermarriage that perhaps did not surprise but certainly alarmed Jewish leaders, thinkers, and bubbes. In response to the ensuing hand-wringing, a new outlook emerged: Interfaith families might not be “bad for the Jews.” The Pew Research Center’s FactTank observed an increasing Jewish affiliation between generations of multi-religious offspring: “Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59% are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.” Community organizers also point to the incredible resources progressive Jewish institutions provide specifically for interfaith and conversionary families to help foster enriched and educated Jewish engagement at home—classes, support groups, family events—that remain largely unmatched for “inmarried” constituents. And such concerted efforts to retain intermarried couples and their children in the Jewish American world seem to have made a good deal of traction, according to the Pew survey.

“When those interviewed were asked why they joined one congregation over another, the rabbi’s response to their intermarriage and the word ‘welcoming’ were repeated over and over again,” Keren R. McGinity reports in Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood. These men expressed a relieved sense of inclusion not only of their families but of their own experiences, needs, and values in the community discourse—an ongoing conversation that would benefit greatly from projects like Marrying Out and Intermarried, a book of Yael Ben-Zion's photography project on interfaith and interracial couples in America.

Intermarried began as a project “triggered by a media campaign of the State of Israel that targeted Jews outside of Israel who were ‘lost’ to intermarriage,” an internet and television crusade to “dissuade Jews from marrying outside of their faith.” Bookending the project as Intermarried reached its completion, Yael notes, was the Cheerios ad in the United States that drew hateful comments for depicting an interracial family.

“One motivation for Ben-Zion’s project was to juxtapose interfaith and interracial marriages ‘to make viewers rethink their own preconceptions’ about the two,” Maurice Berger writes in the opening essay to the book. Both race and religion, Berger observes, are “subject to how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others. And just as assuredly as religion, [race] can appeal to our tribalism, our tendency to view it as sacrosanct and immutable… Whether we admit it or not, intermarriage has blurred the identities of almost every one of us—rendering race, like faith, a state of mind, and not just a physical state.”

Yael photographs and records statements by new parents of “mixed” families of all kinds: couples whose backgrounds differ in nationality, in ethnicity, in race, in religion, in culture. Admitted to a glimpse of their daily lives in the most intimate spaces of their homes, the subjects share the struggles they face—from the outside world, rather than from within—over how their families are perceived by relatives, friends, and passers-by. Among the Jewish narratives are scenes and snippets from Yael’s own home: the amalgam of Christian and Jewish holidays, French and Hebrew editions of the same children’s books, progressive television cartoons Yael and her husband, Ugo, both watched from different parts of the world in their youth.

“Although we have these different backgrounds, I don’t really feel that we are a mixed couple. If we are a couple it is because, like any other couple I assume, we are sharing the same ideas and views on what really matters to us, on what defines us as human beings, our core values, so it is hard to feel mixed.”

The subjects portrayed in Intermarried a wide representation of the Jewish intermarried experience. Kari and David received emotional support from the people around them; Jeff and Ilana’s respective Catholic and Jewish families opposed their marriage until the arrival of their daughter, Annabel, whom they are raising to be educated in both faiths: “After all, one’s religion is just an accident of birth. And her birth did not accidentally give her just one religion.”

As David and Sarah began planning their family, David grew increasingly attached to his Jewish identity and heritage. Their story is related predominantly through Sarah, who shares the difficulties she encounters as a convert to Judaism—the feeling of constant scrutiny among other Jews, the puzzlement or disapproval of friends from her past.

“Statistically, more women convert to the religion of husbands than husbands convert to the religion of wives.” In the introduction to Marrying Out, Keren McGinity points out that studies of interfaith and conversionary couples tend to focus mostly if not exclusively on the woman’s experience, and intermarried Jewish men in particular have been relegated to “the subjects of interest to sociologists, celebrity biographers, journalists, and mass media producers.”

Researching for the book required Keren to confront and constrain the widespread gender prejudices coloring her initial attitudes regarding her subjects. “Although intermarried Jewish men have not been banned from participating in organized Jewish life, prevailing assumptions—that their Judaism is not particularly important to them and that they play little role in shaping their families’ spiritual lives—likewise threaten to silence their actual experiences.” These dominant perceptions of fatherhood and male religious engagement, Keren found, did not hold water with the subjects of her study. In her interviews with intermarried Jewish men ranging “from secular to Orthodox” in background and practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Keren discovered how differently her subjects saw themselves in relation to their families, their community, their faith, and their religion from the roles to which both Jewish-American and the larger American culture ascribes them. “I came to realize that it is much harder to be an intermarried Jewish man than an intermarried Jewish woman,” Keren asserts, “because ethnic gender ascriptions assigns descent to women while simultaneously distancing men from their own heritage.”

Projects like Intermarried and Marrying Out present opportunities to address that distancing and marginalization. Through the camera lens and the written word, these two books paint a more nuanced picture of Jewish and American culture and its constituents, broadening our understanding of what a portrait is, what it can transmit, and what it can achieve by simply appearing before the viewer. Yael and Keren's respective work unearths the subtler narratives among us, opening the discussion of identity and participation to the overlooked, the quieted, and the disregarded, opening a forum in which leaders, members, and outliers of American Jewish communities should—or even must—engage.

Interested in bringing Intermarried, Marrying Out, or other interfaith family programming to your community? Please visit the Jewish Outreach Institute Directory of Outreach Programs, the Union for Reform Judaism's online Supporting Interfaith resource center, and

Related content:

  • Essays on Interfaith Complexities
  • 'Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley
  • Intermarriage & Interfaith Families reading list
  • Book Cover of the Week: Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry

    Wednesday, July 30, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    This week at the farmers market I marveled at the fresh currants currently in season: spherical crimson and blush-colored jewels on delicate, tiny green vines—as photographed for Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving by Cathy Barrow:

    Yes, the book is an excellent resource for any season, but there's something about canning summer fruits at the end of July, isn't there?

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  • Tomatoes: A Savor of the South Cookbook by Miriam Rubin
  • The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipies for a New Generation by Mollie Katzen
  • Essays on Food, Eating, and Recipes
  • Jews and Slavery: Clara Solomon and Lucy Lewis

    Wednesday, July 30, 2014 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Sabra Waldfogel wrote about Raphael Moses, one of the most eminent Jews in Georgia in the nineteenth century. She has recently published Slave and Sister, a novel about Jews and slavery in antebellum Georgia, and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council.

    Clara Solomon was a typical teenager. In the pages of her diary, she wrote about gossiping with her friends, tending to her younger sisters, yearning for pretty clothes, and fretting about her appearance. But her circumstances were far from typical. Clara Solomon kept her diary as the Civil War broke out and as the Union Army occupied New Orleans. She also wrote about the privations of the war; her worries for her father, working as a sutler for the Confederate Army; and her passionate defense of the Confederate cause.

    In 1860, on the eve of the war, the Solomons were a well-to-do New Orleans family. The family was part of the long-established and assimilated Sephardic community spread throughout the United States. Clara’s father was a merchant, worth $1,000 in personal property, and he owned two slaves, 28-year-old Lucy and her 4-year-old daughter Dell.

    Dell was the pet of the family. Her duties as a servant were light. As Clara told it, Dell occasionally answered the door; on a hot summer afternoon, she fanned Papa Solomon as he lay on the floor, to the whole family’s amusement; and she kept Josie, the youngest Solomon daughter, company as they convalesced together from the measles. She romped with Josie and was punished with her when they were naughty. When Clara’s mother bought dresses for herself and for her daughters, she bought one for Dell, too.

    Lucy’s position in the family was more complicated. Through Clara’s eyes, she was a pair of capable hands, making a delicious biscuit or skillfully arranging Clara’s hair. She was trustworthy enough to take money to the market to buy shrimps for dinner. But she could be insolent to Clara’s mother and obdurate about telling lies.

    Lucy had a life of her own, one that Clara glimpsed and commented on. Lucy had a friend named Jacksine, a free black woman, who came to visit. Jacksine brought Lucy a gift from a man named Solomon, who was “crazy to see Lucy; he thinks the world of her.” Was he Dell’s father? Could he and Lucy marry, as Clara speculated they might?

    For Clara, Lucy came into sharpest focus as all of them—Clara, her mother, and Lucy herself—contemplated the possibility that Lucy might run away to seek protection from the Union Army that occupied New Orleans. Clara put it selfishly, but she recognized that Lucy might yearn to be free: “There are many instances in which house-servants, those who have been raised by people, have deserted them, though they have received the kindest treatment at their hands; but they imagine no sacrifice too great with which to purchase freedom.”

    Lucy was “faithful,” but she was also capable of betrayal. The thought angered Clara so much that she wrote, “Should one of mine [act so], I would inflict severe punishment, and should discard them for ever.”

    Was Lucy a member of the family? Or a snake in its bosom, to be distrusted and feared? Or both?

    In 1870, Clara was back home, having been widowed after a brief marriage. Lucy had not left, either. Now surnamed Lewis, she, her daughter Dell, and her son Robert, born in 1863, were still part of the Solomon household. For all of them, it seems, the familiar bonds were too hard to break.


    The Civil Diary of Clara Solomon, edited by Elliott Ashkenazi (Louisiana State University Press, 1995), and the Federal Censuses of 1850, 1860, and 1870.

    Sabra Waldfogel grew up in Minneapolis and received her Ph.D. in American History from the University of Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Sixfold Literary Magazine. Read more about her and her work at

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    Interview: Anya Ulinich

    Tuesday, July 29, 2014 | Permalink

    by Tahneer Oksman

    Tahneer Oksman sat down recently with Anya Ulinich to discuss her first graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, published today by Penguin Books. Ulinich was a Finalist for the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her debut novel Petropolis.

    Tahneer Oksman: Is there a relationship between this book, Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, and your first, Petropolis?

    Anya Ulinich: Only inasmuch as the central characters are immigrants. Also, my characters are idiots—they're not very insightful, so the stuff that happens to them ambushes them. They don't arrive at an understanding of things naturally; it has to slap them in the face.

    TO: Both of your books tie love stories, and particularly broken ones, to the immigrant experience. What do you think is the connection?

    AU: As an immigrant, you have this sense of duty. It takes a long time for young people in general, but I think for immigrant people in particular, to figure out what it is that they really want and what it is that others have told them that they should want or that would make them happy. You have this path laid out for you. There are so many expectations. You don't have the luxury to sit around and discover yourself.

    Divorce is a little like immigration. It's a huge change. There's a physical move, but it's also a question of how you define yourself now. It's about identity as well.

    TO: Is your graphic novel autobiographical?

    AU: I would call Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel a semi-autobiography, but it is fiction. I used my experiences to inform it, but it's not the story exactly as it happened. Whatever I would tell in a memoir about heartbreak is here but it's better because I wasn't so hung up on specific people or events. My life is more boring than this. It would also be too painful for everyone to read my autobiography.

    I argue against the whole distinction between fiction and non-fiction. I would rather those labels just go away and that we just call it a story.

    TO: Your first book was all prose. What drove you to create a graphic novel this time around?

    AU: I had a personal crisis—a major heartbreak—and I couldn't write at all. So I started with doodles and drawings, and I found it was an easier way to tell stories. When I write, the writing sprawls and it never stops. If you draw a scene, and there are two people talking, you have to get everything into these bubbles and into the space of the page, or else you have to redraw the scene. Sometimes, I'm just too lazy. Drawing comics forces you, like poetry or a Facebook status or Twitter—to be focused on what you're saying. This limitation really helped me tell the story.

    TO: What was the process of drawing the book?

    AU: When I started, everything was more cartoonish. And then I went back to drawing in a more realistic way. Once I was on a roll, it was really fun, almost like a break. Writing involves constant thinking, and drawing is fairly automatic for me. I love drawing faces and hands and landscapes, but not so much interiors. I can't be bothered with details.

    Sometimes a page would start as text and sometimes it would start as an image. People always ask me, did you illustrate the book yourself? People assume that you do the writing and you hire someone else to illustrate it. But illustrate isn't the right word for it because illustration follows text. Here the relationship is more complex. Sometimes there would be an image that would call for certain text.

    TO: How did you decide on the style for your book?

    AU: I used a more realistic style for the present and the past was drawn more in caricatures. I think memory is cartoonish. When we remember things, it's usually major events or some detail really stands out, and we forget everything else. Memories are exaggerated, like cartoons. I thought that would distinguish the flashback from what happens in the present, just for narrative purposes.

    TO: Who are your major influences?

    AU: I don't have influences—I have inspirations. Reading Philip Roth always inspires and motivates me and makes me think, "I can do that." He's a motor mouth, like me. And I love Alison Bechdel's Fun Home—she's a cartoonist, with a perfect way of drawing. Every image is exquisite.

    TO: Now that you've written a novel and a graphic novel, do you find that you prefer one medium over another?

    AU: I'm a storyteller. I could just sit here and tell stories all day. The form is a vehicle more than anything. Sometimes one form just works better than another. As long as the story gets told, I'm happy.

    Tahneer Oksman is assistant professor and director of academic writing at Marymount Manhattan College. Her book on Jewish identity in contemporary women's graphic memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

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    Jews and Slavery: Raphael Moses and London Moses

    Monday, July 28, 2014 | Permalink

    Sabra Waldfogel grew up in Minneapolis and received her Ph.D. in American History from the University of Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Sixfold Literary Magazine. She has recently published Slave and Sister, a novel about Jews and slavery in antebellum Georgia. She will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council all week.

    We know a great deal about Raphael Jacob Moses, one of the most eminent Jews in Georgia in the nineteenth century. He was born in Charleston in 1812 into a Sephardic family connected with Jews all over the settled United States. He was educated and trained as a lawyer, a profession he practiced throughout his life. After a few peripatetic early years, he married his cousin, Eliza Moses, and settled in Tallahassee, where he practiced law.

    In 1850, he moved to Columbus, Georgia, where he bought a plantation in Muscogee County, which he named “Esquiline” after the hills of Rome. When the census was taken that year he owned sixteen slaves. In addition to his law practice, he cultivated peaches. He developed a method of shipping peaches that helped to commercialize the cultivation of peaches in Georgia. He prospered, and on the eve of the Civil War the number of his slaves had increased to forty-seven.

    He was a passionate supporter of secession, and when the Civil War broke out, he volunteered, despite his advanced age. He became Chief Supply Officer to General Longstreet, and he was present at several of the war’s biggest battles, including the battle of Gettysburg. By a quirk of fate, he was issued the last order of the Confederacy. He was ordered to pay $10,000 in gold bullion for unused rations. He accompanied the bullion himself from Washington, Georgia, where the Confederate government sat for the month after Lee’s surrender, to Augusta.

    After the war, Raphael Moses represented Georgia in the state legislature, as a Democrat and an opponent of Reconstruction. He remained “unreconstructed” for the rest of his life. He was buried in the cemetery near Esquiline, and his gravestone read, “Raphael J. Moses, C.S.A.”

    We know very little about London Moses, Raphael Moses’ former slave. London was the only slave mentioned by name in his former master’s memoirs. He was also the only servant who remained with the family after Emancipation. Raphael Moses wrote that he “stayed with me until he died.”

    London Moses was born in 1815, a native Georgian. His parents, born in the eighteenth century, were also native Georgians. We don’t know when he was married, but in 1870, when the census granted him the dignity of a name, he lived with his wife Margaret, born in 1816, also a native to Georgia. They had at least one child, Susan, who had been born into slavery in 1850; she and her family—her husband Harry Williams, and her daughters Peggy, 8, and Sarah, 2, and son, London, three months old, named after his grandfather—lived with him. There may have been other children, lost to death, sold away, gone to test their freedom after Emancipation, or moved away as they grew up.

    Raphael Moses may have felt gratitude for London’s loyalty, but he did not give him money or property to start a life as a free man. In 1870, London Moses was working as a farm hand, meaning that he did not own a farm, but worked for wages on someone else’s. At fifty-four, he needed the help of his son-in-law, who was also a farm hand. London Moses was still a farm hand ten years later.

    On July 12, 1867, London Moses, the faithful servant, went to the Muscogee County Courthouse in Columbus. As a free man, he was eligible to vote. Before he registered he pledged his allegiance in a way that his former master, the unrepentant Confederate, would have despised. As every Southerner who wanted to vote must do, London Moses signed the Reconstruction oath, and swore his loyalty to the United States of America.


    The best source for Raphael Moses’ life is his memoir, The Last Order of the Lost Cause: the Civil War Memoirs of a Jewish Family of the “Old South,” edited by Mel Young. The only sources for London Moses’ life are the Federal censuses of 1870 and 1880, and the 1867 Georgia List of Registered Voters.

    Read more about Sabra Waldfogel and her work here.

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    Book Cover of the Week: The Language of Paradise

    Friday, July 25, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    The microcosm encased within a glass terrarium on the book cover for Barbara Klein Moss's forthcoming novel The Language of Paradise evokes the poignant contradictions of the story it contains: nurtured wilderness, love and estrangement, caged Arcadia, Art, Science, and Theology...

    Caught in her husband's quest for the prelapsarian language in which Adam named all the creatures of the Earth, Sophy Hedge stands at the threshold of the Garden of Eden he has constructed inside a greenhouse, pregnant with their first child. Sophy must choose whether to remain in replicated paradise with her husband or escape to save her child and herself. The Language of Paradise is scheduled for release in April 2015 from W.W. Norton & Co.

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  • New Jewish Book Council Reviews

    Friday, July 25, 2014 | Permalink

    This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

    Find more of the latest reviews here.

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    7 Things You (Probably) Didn't Know about Sigmund Freud

    Thursday, July 24, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Mark Steiner

    Freud is the father of modern psychology. His pioneering work in psychoanalysis and the study of unconscious desires shaped the field for decades to come. A character as complex as his work, Freud has been studied and analyzed by dozens of writers. In this list, inspired by some of the best books on the subject, we take a look at the lesser-known parts of Freud's history and persona.

    1. He was born as the first of eight children.

    Sigmund Freud was born in a rented room above a locksmith’s home. His father was a wool merchant, and the family had fallen on tough times. Things would eventually turn around for Freud when he left to study medicine.

    Freud's birthplace and childhood home

    2.He spoke eight languages

    Sig was no dummy. He spoke well in German, Italian, French, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, English, and Greek. This allowed him to read all sorts of great works, from Darwin’s Origin of Species to the writings of Friederich Nietzsche

    3. He was a big fan of Shakespeare

    Freud loved literature. He spent much of his free time reading Shakespeare’s works, and it has been suggested that Freud’s exposure to Shakespeare’s characters may have shaped his study of psychoanalysis.

    4.He loved tobacco.

    This iconic picture of Freud features him holding a cigar, but he actually started his habit with cigarettes. Freud was a big fan of tobacco: he insisted that it helped him work better and took the place of other fixations and habits. His love for cigs ended poorly: he developed fatal mouth cancer and would ask to be euthanized in 1939.

    5. ...and Cocaine

    Freud was a doctor, and that meant chiming in on new medical developments. As cocaine began to appear in Europe, Freud became an occasional user and strong proponent. He advocated its use as an anesthetic and painkiller, and would write Über Coca, a paper highlighting its virtues.

    6. He was serious about joking

    One of Freud’s lesser known ideas was that jokes represent unconscious desires. He developed a theory on why people make jokes, and would publish Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious in 1905.

    7. He might have been a philanderer…

    Freud married Martha Bernays in 1886. In 1896, Martha’s sister Minna would move into the Freud home after her fiancé’s death. Many began to talk of an affair between Freud and his sister-in-law. A travel log signed by Freud while traveling with Minna serves as tenuous evidence of an affair.

    Freud's wife Martha Bernays

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    A Book and Its Translators

    Wednesday, July 23, 2014 | Permalink

    Arthur Allen is a journalist and non-fiction writer based in Washington DC. A former foreign correspondent, he writes about medicine, science and other topics for publications including The Washington Post, Slate, Science, and Landscape Architecture. His most recent book is The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis. He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    It was a freezing afternoon outside Warsaw in March 2012, and I was sitting in a cramped hut listening to the tinny sounds of an interview, conducted in Polish 33 years earlier and replayed on an ancient reel-to-reel recorder. It was an interview with a louse dissector.

    My friend Izabela Wagner translated while Ryszard Wojcik, who had conducted the interview as a young man in the prime of life, occasionally smiled at me and spoke a few heartfelt, unintelligible phrases in French. We were wearing sweaters and our breath was freezing on the windows. We were drinking vodka and feeling fine, if a bit tense.

    It can be challenging to research a book that is set in a country whose language you don’t understand among people who spoke another language you are just learning. Most of my book The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl is set in the city that is now Ukrainian Lviv, although it was called Lwow, or Lemberg, and was a largely Polish and Jewish city, in the period the book covers.

    For this book I needed to scour literature in French, German, and Polish for sources. Hebrew and Ukrainian would have been nice as well, but were less essential. An Israeli friend helped me with a couple of Hebrew translations, while a Ukrainian librarian directed me through some Ukrainian sources.

    The main problem was, while I can read French and German comfortably, my Polish is still pretty tentative. It would have taken me forever to go through the reams of relevant materials. I needed someone to help me find and translate those sources.

    Until recently I was a freelance journalist, and not a wealthy one. At the start of my research, I hired a very good translator in Washington DC to put a 1200-word article into English for me. She charged $600. At that rate, I figured I would need about $50,000 to locate and translate everything for the book. That wasn’t going to happen. So I made a deal.

    Actually I didn’t make a deal. I fell into a relationship, one that has turned out to be so much more interesting and enriching than simply hiring someone to do the translation.

    At the start of my research I found a 1980 article about the scientist Rudolf Weigl by a Polish journalist named Ryszard Wojcik in a rather obscure journal called Odra. It took me forever to track down Mr. Wojcik; I finally got an email address, but no one responded to a message I sent in English, German and pidgin Polish.

    In 2011 I attended a Ukrainian-Polish scientific conference outside Wroclaw at the invitation of Wraclaw Szybalski, a famous genetic researcher who is an old friend of people like James Watson and Francis Crick—the double helix guys. More importantly to my purposes, Szybalski is a native of Lviv—it will always be Lwow for him—and when World War II began, he and the rest of his family all went to work for Weigl, in a laboratory where typhus vaccine was produced for the German Army from the guts of lice that fed on the blood of thousands of Polish intellectuals and educators. (For more details, buy my book!)

    Szybalski, who is 93 today, had perhaps done more than anyone to keep alive the memory of Weigl, who was one of his earliest teachers, his hero, a Righteous Among Nations (Yad Vashem, 2003) and a beloved hero of Polish Lwow.

    We were on a bus touring Wroclaw one day when Szybalski introduced me to Izabela Wagner, a Polish sociologist. She was at the conference interviewing expatriate Polish scientists about the differences between “international” and “Polish” ways of doing science.

    Izabela and I spoke a little in French and a lot in English, and it turned out that she was very interested in Rudolf Weigl and Ludwik Fleck, the two subjects of my book. I told her that there was a man named Ryszard Wojcik somewhere in Poland who seemed to know a lot about Weigl, and perhaps she could help me find him.

    It turned out that Izabela and Ryszard lived about half a mile from each other, on the southern outskirts of Warsaw. Izabela found him easily, they became good friends, and Ryszard revealed that he had many, many reels of old audiotaped interviews of men and women who had worked for Weigl.

    He'd done the interviews in the 1970s, mostly, and he still wanted to write a book about Weigl, but didn’t have the money. A familiar story.

    Rudolf Weigl in His Laboratory [source]

    Informally, a three-way bargain was struck. For my part, I worked to persuade Szybalski, who ran a small foundation that gave grants for research on Polish culture, to provide Ryszard a small stipend to help him finish his book. He’d already written about 20 other monographs, everything from Holocaust stories to how-to guides for memorabilia fanatics who like to take their metal detectors out and collect WWII-era materiel in Polish fields and forests.

    In exchange for this, Ryszard would give the tapes to Izabela, who would translate them into English for me and use them for her own research as well. And I would help Izabela get one of her books published by an academic press in the United States by tightening up the English a bit.

    Immediately, Izabela and I began to help each other whenever we could. She found documents on Fleck, Weigl, and related characters in the archives of the Polish secret police. She helped me translate articles. And with a little effort, I managed to get her manuscript into shape well enough that Rutgers University Press accepted it for publication next year.

    That left Ryszard and the tapes. Some negotiations would be involved.

    In March of 2012 I made a madcap race through European archives. I stopped in Brussels (where the personal papers of SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Erwin Ding-Schuler of the Buchenwald typhus station had been discovered lying under a thick cover of dust behind some book shelves a year earlier ), in Munich (Peter Eyer, whose father Hermann was the German Wehrmacht’s typhus chief, generously shared many documents with me), in Paris (Pasteur archives), Freiburg, Ludwigsburg and Berlin (Bundesarchives), and in Marburg (IG Farben….).

    Midway through the trip I spent a week in Warsaw, where Izabela and her French husband Philippe hosted me at their house on the city’s outskirts, which they shared with their wonderful daughter Ania, some guinea pigs, a couple of friendly dogs and two horses (actually, the horses were next door in a barn).

    Arthur Allen

    On a cold snowy morning we drove over to see Ryszard. He came outside as we pulled into his driveway—a stout, beaming, white-bearded man of 74 who walked with a limp from recent hip replacement surgery. Then he led us into the crowded, tumbledown hobbit hole of a house that he shared with his wife Alicja.

    Every inch of space was filled with stuff—old WWII tank shells and sabers and pieces of fighter wings, piles of videocassettes and audiocassettes and cds and papers, the walls covered with home-made shelves stacked with folders and papers and more cassettes and cds. And it was cold, too, warmed only by a couple of space heaters here and there.

    We sat down, opened a bottle of vodka, and Ryszard started to tell me the story of his life. He told it mostly in Polish, with Izabela translating, but occasionally in French, a little of which he had picked up somewhere long ago and none too authoritatively. It didn’t really matter. The stories took vivid shape anyway, and I will never forget them.

    He’d been born to a peasant family near outside Lublin, in central Poland, and one of his earliest memories was the black ash of the cremated Jews of Majdanek, which fell on the thatch roof of their house like mealy snow for seasons at a time.

    He remembered that when the war ended, his mother had taken him to see what was left of the camp, and there were thousands of butterflies flitting about the trenches filled with ashes and bones. Ryszard was 7 then, and asked his mother why there were so many butterflies, and she said they were the souls of murdered Jews.

    A short time later, the new Communist government of Poland chose Ryszard to study in Moscow—he was bright, optimistic, and the right demographic, since his background was humble.

    In Moscow he learned Russian, studied journalism, and married a Jewish woman from a big family of musical gypsies. When he brought her home the neighbors shunned him. He moved to Warsaw, became a bigtime television journalist and made a series of documentaries.

    Sometimes he got along with the censors, sometimes he didn’t. He tried to produce a big story that asked why the country had never given proper recognition to Rudolf Weigl, a towering scientist whose laboratory in wartime Lwow had protected thousands of Poles from Nazi oppression.

    That was in 1980, a thaw time, but the story was too morally complex for the authorities. Weigl’s lab had made a vaccine for the Nazis. Sure, some of it was sabotaged, and some of it was smuggled into the Ghettos. But technically speaking, Weigl was a collaborator, his editors said. The program never aired.

    He made other films about Jewish survivors. Before he went to Moscow, Ryszard had never met a living Jew in his life. But he wanted to know: What happened to all the butterflies?

    The Communist regime fell, and Ryszard lost his job. He’s in poor health now, and the health system of Poland is a shambles. He had to bribe a doctor thousands of dollars to get his hip replaced, and tens of thousands to get his sister-in-law a surgery she needed.

    He and Alicja fed me big plates of creamed herring and we drank and drank, which made us merry and even a little warmer, which was good because the space heater couldn’t really fill the room.

    Finally, we got up, and embraced. I could have the tapes, Ryszard said. He was overjoyed to meet someone else who cared about the life of Rudolf Weigl. And he was happy to have a little money to finish his own book.

    He’d decided to call it, “Pact with the Devil: the Capricious Star of Rudolf Weigl.”

    It hasn’t been published yet, but I hope that it sells many copies.

    Read more about Arthur Allen here.

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