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30 Days, 30 Authors: Pam Jenoff

Sunday, November 15, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.


Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of several novels, including The Kommandant's Girl and The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach. Pam formerly served as a diplomat for the State Department in Poland working on Holocaust issues, and those experiences inspire much of her work. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children, where she also teaches law school. Pam speaks to Jewish and other groups nationwide and also loves to skype with book clubs.

  

  

Pam Jenoff on the Jews of Poland Today

Friday, August 29, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Read Part I: Living the War here and Part II: Writing the War here.

I speak to Jewish audiences across North America about by experiences and books. One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is: What about the Jewish community in Poland today? Some people are surprised that there is a community, while others want to know about what their lives are like and whether there is anti-Semitism.

Candidly, I don’t know about the current situation from a first-hand perspective. When I left Poland in 1998 there were a few thousand Jews. The first rabbi had just been brought back to Krakow. Every milestone was big – the return of a Torah, a single Jewish baby being born. Every death was a major tear in what was left of the community. (I only saw my father cry twice in his life, and once was outside the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow when they pulled him in to complete the minyan.)

It has been 16 years since I left and I know from friends and from reading that the Jewish community in Poland is stronger than at any point since the Second World War. There are multiple rabbis and a new Jewish Community Center funded in part by Prince Charles. The sense of “last Jew out of Poland switch off the lights” is largely gone. I don’t believe that Krakow will ever be Brooklyn or Cherry Hill again, but it is like a Jewish community in the Midwest or Deep South, small but enduring.

There are reasons for the Jewish community being stronger now: I credit the Jews who stayed through the dark years of communism (many of whom had the chance to leave) and organizations like the Lauder Foundation that have invested in revitalizing Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe. Important, too, was the property restitution law passed in 1997, giving the communities back their synagogues, cemeteries, and buildings (which they can use or else rent or sell and use the proceeds to help their people). I also think anecdotally that there has been an influx of Jews from points farther east where no viable Jewish community remains.

Of course, there are challenges. I believe that progress on Jewish issues stalled after Poland entered NATO and that was no longer available as a carrot. After 9/11 the world’s focus shifted away from Eastern Europe and many issues remain unresolved. And ironically the greatest struggle for the Jews of Poland today may be themselves: different groups in Poland’s Jewish community are fighting with one another over property and control of assets. (It is painful to watch these struggles among a people whom I love and adore, that should be standing strong together; it's like seeing relatives fight.)

Anti-Semitism in Poland is a harder question. I lived there openly as a Jew for 2 ½ years without incident. The Jews I knew in Poland live their lives in relative peace, without the threat of terrorism Jews face in Western Europe. As Rabbi Jonah Ornstein, Executive Director of the JCC in Krakow wrote in a recent article, “It is easier, safer, and better to be Jewish every day in Krakow. I do not know of any other community leader in Europe who can say the same about his or her community.”

I came out of my years living in Krakow with a reasonably pro-Polish view for the people and what they suffered, an occupied country that lost so many of its own of people during the war. (Not always the most popular view: an observer at one event commented that when I spoke positively of my time in Poland, the Hadassah ladies with their questions seemed intent on making me cry.) But I recognize the complicit role of Poles in the centuries of anti-Semitism that preceded the war, in atrocities like Jedwabne and in acts after like the Kielce pogrom. I also recognize that there are more Poles listed as Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem for helping Jews than any other nationality. I wonder what I might have done as an ordinary Pole: would I have been strong enough to help?

At this point in my talk, someone always raises his or her hand and tells a story of some young person on the March of the Living who encountered graffiti or a slur from a local near Auschwitz. I bite my tongue not to point out that if I saw hundreds of teenagers in blue jackets marching down the street of my small town and singing, I’d be nervous too. But in all seriousness, part of the issue is that these groups too often just visit the camps and leave. I urge people who go to meet locals and build bridges. Because we may never agree about what happened in the past, but I think that the key is to engage the younger generation.

Many Jews will never be able to make peace with Poland. But I’m brought back to an answer I once heard an Orthodox rabbi from Britain give when asked why he kept going back: “Because our people were in Poland there for 800 years and because it is our patrimony.”

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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Pam Jenoff on Writing the War

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Earlier this week we featured Part I: Living the War, which you can read here.

I came back from my years in Poland profoundly changed by what I had experienced. I knew I wanted to write a book about my time in Poland. And not just any book; I knew it would be a novel. How did I know? Because I was one of those little kids who always wanted to be a writer, scribbling down stories and showing them to anyone who would listen. And it was never short stories or poetry, always novels.

I took a course at Temple night school called “Write Your Novel This Year” (seriously) and began to write. I began with a scene of a young woman crossing Krakow’s main market square with a small child during the war. As I wrote, I discovered that she was a Jew in hiding and she was protecting this child of great rabbinic lineage.

Then the most serendipitous thing happened: I was on a train from Washington to Philadelphia when I met two very well-known Holocaust survivors, man and wife. (I’ve never publicly named them because the man has since passed on and I never got to ask if he minded.) I was telling them about this novel I was writing set during the war, and the woman said, “Surely you know the story of the Krakow resistance.” I stopped, dumbfounded. We all know the story of the Warsaw uprising. But I had just come back from two and a half years of living in Krakow, working on Holocaust issues, and I had never heard of the Krakow Jewish resistance. I went back to Poland for more research and I was amazed to discover a rich history of Jewish uprising on the very streets where I had lived and worked (a history which is largely unknown, since virtually everyone who was a party of the resistance in Krakow perished during the war.) This true story of the Krakow resistance became the inspiration for my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl.

Even after honing my topic, the actual decision to persist in writing a novel set during the war so did not come easily. I wrestled with a huge sense of inadequacy for the subject I was addressing. I remember watching Band of Brothers (which I consider the finest thing ever put on film) and there was a scene where they were liberating the camps, and I thought, “Who am I to be writing dinner parties and scenes at the symphony, when such atrocities were taking place 60 kilometers away?” Because, I concluded, such merriment really did persist during the war, and showing that is part of painting the bigger picture.

There is, of course, the larger issue of whether we should be writing stories set during the Holocaust at all. I’m often asked at talks whether by fictionalizing the Holocaust, we are feeding into the Holocaust deniers. I think just the opposite: that by not telling the stories we would be stifling the dialogue, which is exactly what the Nazis would have wanted.

Once one decides to write a book set during the Holocaust, there is the huge question of “getting it right.” This means both the details of historical accuracy (readers armed with Wikipedia will surely let you know if you haven’t) and also bigger questions of portraying different peoples and their roles.

For this latter question, there is no right answer. Take, for example, the question of the Poles during the Holocaust. In my work, I try to show the gray areas in people: the Jews in my book are flawed, the Germans are real people and the Poles are good and bad and between. As a result, I get e-mails saying I’m too hard on the Poles and e-mails saying I’m too easy on them. You get the idea.

I’ve written several novels set during the war now and it doesn’t get any easier. But I try to approach all of it with respect and dignity and I think readers respond to that. To me, each book is a love song to Jewish Poland, and the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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Faith and Fiction: This Jewish Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Novelist

Monday, August 25, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Her most recent book, The Winter Guest, is now available.

Part I: Living the War

I did not go to Poland to work on the Holocaust. A first tour Foreign Service Officer, I was sent to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland in the mid-1990s to stamp visas and passports, and help U.S. citizens who were arrested or hospitalized or otherwise in trouble. But I found myself in a unique moment in history: Poland had just come out of decades of Communism, where issues remaining from the Holocaust—important questions of anti-Semitism, property restitution, and preservation of the concentration camps—had been unresolved because open dialogue was suppressed and exchange between east and west was cut off during the decades following the war. These issues needed to be resolved for political reasons in order for Poland to join NATO and the European Union.

I’d arrived in Poland, a young woman alone in my early twenties, half way around the world and truly isolated in a pre-cell phone, pre-internet universe. So I did what any nice Jewish girl would do: I gravitated toward the surviving Jewish community; I went to shul on Friday night (and it was Orthodox, a huge education for this girl raised in a suburban Reform community) and to the rabbi’s house for cholent on Saturdays. The elderly Holocaust survivors became like grandparents to me. And the U.S. Consulate, seeing my natural affinity for the people and issues, said “You handle Polish-Jewish issues.” (We were only eight Americans; it wasn’t terribly formal.)

So for the next two-and-a-half years, that became my job. When Elie Wiesel was upset about well-intentioned Polish boy scouts putting up stars and crosses on a field at Birkenau, I went there to try and resolve the issue. When then-First Lady Hillary Clinton wanted to tour Auschwitz, I spent a week there with the Secret Service. There were many difficult conversations about who had done what during the war. But there were rewarding moments too, like seeing the first property restitution law passed and bringing together Polish and American school teachers to talk about how to teach the Holocaust to their students.

My own life in Poland was similarly conflicted: on one hand, practicing as a Jew in Poland was rewarding, defiant in the face of what Hitler had tried to do. Despite the vast shadows, I could feel the Yiddishkeit on every street. But the war was so proximate, that in order to take my car to the mechanic, I had to drive past the camp in Schindler’s List. And you may be prepared to tour the gas chamber once, but what toll does it take on your psyche when you walk in for the 50th time? For me, the constant challenge was how to live life with the appropriate solemnity for what had happened there, but not see everyday as a graveyard.

I came back from my years in Poland profoundly changed by what I had experienced and I knew I wanted to write a book about it. Not just any book – I knew it would be a novel.

In my next post, I will talk about how my years in Poland led me to becoming a novelist.

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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