Ear­li­er this week, Ellen Uman­sky recalled the com­pli­cat­ed kashrut of her child­hood home. With the recent release of her nov­el The For­tu­nate Ones, Ellen is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I loved doing research for The For­tu­nate Onesper­hap­stoo much at times. I spent count­less hours search­ing for the right book or anec­dote, some­times delay­ing the actu­al writ­ing that need­ed to get done, con­vinced that once I found the elu­sive detail, the secret of the nov­el that I was try­ing to con­struct would mag­i­cal­ly unlock and all would be solved.

Not exact­ly. And yet, doing research on worlds that I had nev­er vis­it­ed and nev­er could, such as Vien­na on the eve of World War II, was deeply com­pelling to me. When I read about the scarci­ty of panty­hose in post­war Lon­don and how women would draw lines in pen­cil on their bare legs to imi­tate the look of seamed stock­ings, the tac­tile speci­fici­ty of this fact gave me a rush. Every­thing is research, or could be, I told myself. The fol­low­ing is a list of just a few of the sources I con­sult­ed while work­ing on The For­tu­nate Ones.

Oth­er People’s Hous­es by Lore Segal

When I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent in writ­ing at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, I stud­ied briefly with Lore Segal, who taught a sem­i­nar in Jane Austen. We MFA stu­dents weren’t dis­ci­plined lot, and I remem­ber being shocked when I walked into class one morn­ing and Lore hand­ed us a pop quiz. You must take the work seri­ous­ly,” she declared in a crisp accent that I couldn’t quite place. I lat­er learned that Lore had been a child refugee, sent on a train by her­self at the age of 10 from Vien­na to live in Eng­land, where she became a great fan of Eng­lish writ­ers — Jane Austen chief among them.

I thought of Lore and her work often when I was writ­ing my char­ac­ter Rose, not only her life expe­ri­ence, but also her sharp wit and intel­li­gence. Her first nov­el, Oth­er People’s Hous­es, charts its protagonist’s flight from Vien­na to Eng­land on a Kinder­trans­port, the same jour­ney that Lore her­self under­took, and doesn’t shy away from the dif­fi­cul­ty of liv­ing among strangers. On the twelfth [of March], Hitler took Aus­tria and my moth­er called Tante Trude a cow,” Segal writes in one of the book’s open­ing lines. The nov­el is as clear-eyed and unsen­ti­men­tal and insight­ful as Segal herself.

Still Alive: A Holo­caust Girl­hood Remem­bered by Ruth Kluger

Like Lore Segal, Ruth Kluger was born in Vien­na. When she was 11 years old, she was ordered to There­sien­stadt, and lat­er to Auschwitz. She sur­vived the war, becom­ing a pro­fes­sor of Ger­man lan­guage in the Unit­ed States, and wrote this mem­oir in her lat­er years. It is a short, vital book that pul­sates with intel­li­gence and fury — at her par­ents, the act of writ­ing about the Holo­caust, the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom of the sur­vivor as hero. I recalled her argu­ments when I was con­jur­ing up Rose and her objec­tions to the way the Holo­caust gets talked about, memo­ri­al­ized, and even, as Kluger says, pret­ti­fied. These sto­ries have no end,” she writes. This mem­oir is barbed and hard and brilliant.

Into the Arms of Strangers
edit­ed by Mark Jonathan Har­ris and Deb­o­rah Oppenheimer

I turned to this film and its accom­pa­ny­ing vol­ume to glean more about the emo­tion­al sto­ries behind the Kinder­trans­port. The footage is sim­ple: inter­views with about a dozen men and women in their late 70s and 80s, who as chil­dren in the late 1930s were fer­ried out of Ger­many, Aus­tria, and Czecho­slo­va­kia to live in Eng­land. Their inter­views are inter­spersed with still pho­tographs from their child­hoods, peo­ple and places long erased by much more than time. The sub­jects speak with frank­ness, humor, and some­times bewil­der­ment about the sea of change that over­took their child­hoods. Some sto­ries are small in their dev­as­ta­tions — one woman describes how she real­ized she was Jew­ish when the vil­lage chil­dren refused to attend her eighth birth­day par­ty — oth­er anec­dotes are unspeak­able, har­row­ing: Lory Cahn was seat­ed on the Kinder­trans­port when her father, watch­ing her leave from the plat­form, urged her to open the win­dow. They were hold­ing hands when the train began to pull out, and he wouldn’t let go, tug­ging her through the win­dow and onto the plat­form. Sev­er­al years lat­er, she and her par­ents were on anoth­er train, to Auschwitz.

The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas

This mag­nif­i­cent, sur­pris­ing­ly sus­pense­ful book exam­ines the destruc­tion that Hitler wrought on Europe through the par­tic­u­lar lens of art. Lynn Nicholas fol­lows Ger­mans sell­ing art in Switzer­land in the late 1930s to pur­port­ed­ly rid the coun­try of such degen­er­ate” work, but with the added ben­e­fit of rais­ing bad­ly need­ed for­eign cur­ren­cy for the Third Reich; she tracks the her­culean effort to safe­guard trea­sures dur­ing wartime (the Mona Lisa was spir­it­ed out of the Lou­vre via ambu­lance, and tak­en to an undis­closed loca­tion in the south of France). The book is metic­u­lous in cov­er­ing the infu­ri­at­ing, heart­break­ing com­plex­i­ties of the artwork’s fate post war, when refugees who had lost far more than pos­ses­sions tried to track down the objects that were mean­ing­ful to them and right­ly theirs.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

A bril­liant nov­el about an Eng­lish­woman named Ursu­la who keeps dying through­out the book — on the night she is born, as a child who falls off the roof of her house, as a woman who gets caught in a bomb­ing raid dur­ing the Blitz — only to be res­ur­rect­ed by the author and begin anew. The con­struc­tion might sound forced or com­pli­cat­ed, but it’s a thrilling, com­pul­sive read, and its genius lies in the strength of each nar­ra­tive: in near­ly every sce­nario, it feels as if Ursu­la is liv­ing the life she was intend­ed to live. Much of the action of the nov­el takes place in the 1930s and 40s in Lon­don, dur­ing the Blitz and in the years just after­ward. I read it not only to soak up the details of that time peri­od, which she builds with­out lay­ing them on too thick, but also to learn at the feet of Atkin­son and her prodi­gious gifts. Each time Ursu­la dies, her life sto­ry is altered. I found this con­stant revi­sion com­fort­ing as I grap­pled with the writ­ing of my own nov­el; the pos­si­bil­i­ties of art remain open and can be ever changing.

Ellen Uman­sky has pub­lished fic­tion and non­fic­tion in a vari­ety of venues, includ­ing the New York Times, Salon, Play­boy, and the short-sto­ry antholo­gies Lost Tribe: Jew­ish Fic­tion from the Edge and Sleep­away: Writ­ings on Sum­mer Camp. She has worked in the edi­to­r­i­al depart­ments of sev­er­al pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing the For­ward, Tablet, and The New York­er. She grew up in Los Ange­les, and lives in Brook­lyn with her hus­band and two daughters.