We spoke to Jan Elias­berg, author of Hannah’s War, on June 10th as part of our JBC Authors at the Table series — you can watch the thir­ty minute chat here. Check out below some ques­tions we did­n’t have time for and keep the con­ver­sa­tion going. See the whole line­up for JBC Authors at the Table. For more infor­ma­tion on Jan’s research, process, or the themes of Hannah’s War, check out the web­site here.

Could you talk about the sig­nif­i­cance of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty to the char­ac­ters in the nov­el? With­out giv­ing too much away, the read­er finds out that one of the char­ac­ters is pass­ing as non-Jew­ish, and I found it inter­est­ing that in real life, Lise Meit­ner actu­al­ly con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. What were the pres­sures, in the US as well as Ger­many, to erase one’s Jew­ish identity?

Lise Meitner’s par­ents were both Jew­ish but they did not actu­al­ly con­vert to Chris­tian­i­ty, nor did any of their chil­dren. The Meit­ners were enlight­ened and pro­gres­sive, and it’s more like­ly that they didn’t feel much kin­ship with Judaism as prac­ticed by more recent immi­grants from East­ern Europe. They embraced Ger­man cul­ture, val­ued edu­ca­tion, and felt assim­i­lat­ed into Vien­nese soci­ety. Philipp was a lawyer and being Jew­ish didn’t stop him from get­ting involved in the pol­i­tics of the time. I sup­pose you could say that they erased” their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty sim­ply by not embrac­ing it. It was a pas­sive shrug­ging off rather than an active attempt to deny. This was also true of many upper mid­dle class Ger­man Jews; they were so assim­i­lat­ed that they iden­ti­fied as Ger­man rather than Jewish.

I want­ed to explore the point of view of Jews who loved Berlin, who loved Ger­many, and had won­der­ful lives and want­ed to stay. For Han­nah, as for Lise Meit­ner, work­ing at the Kaiser Wil­helm Insti­tute was a dream; it was the best research insti­tute in the world. In her let­ters and diaries, you feel the con­flict — she had a once-in-a-life­time oppor­tu­ni­ty, work­ing in that great insti­tute, on the verge of a world-chang­ing dis­cov­ery, with a col­lab­o­ra­tor of over twen­ty years. Every time there was a rea­son for her to leave, she would talk her­self into stay­ing because of the work. She couldn’t imag­ine being able to work at the lev­el to which she’d grown accus­tomed to any­where else in the world. After the war was over, she admit­ted in a let­ter addressed to Otto Hahn, but nev­er sent, that she had blind­ed her­self to what was being done to the Jews because to admit it would have meant leav­ing much ear­li­er than she did. The Nurem­berg laws were insid­i­ous in that way; they very, very grad­u­al­ly chipped away at Jew­ish rights. It’s akin to the fable of the boil­ing frog. If a frog is put sud­den­ly into boil­ing water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then slow­ly brought to a boil, the frog will not per­ceive the dan­ger and will be cooked to death.

If Ger­many is too often por­trayed as a dark, ter­ri­fy­ing place filled only with anti­semites and Nazis, I feel that Amer­i­ca is too often por­trayed as an impos­si­ble ide­al, the shin­ing city on the hill. As I was research­ing, I dis­cov­ered more and more overt signs of anti­semitism in Amer­i­ca. The indus­tri­al­ist and auto­mo­bile mag­nate Hen­ry Ford pub­lished a series in his news­pa­per The Dear­born Inde­pen­dent. Appear­ing on the front page every week a col­umn enti­tled The Inter­na­tion­al Jew: The World’s Prob­lem” which exam­ined a pur­port­ed con­spir­a­cy launched by Jew­ish groups to achieve world dom­i­na­tion. The basis for the arti­cles was an ancient and noto­ri­ous forgery, The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion, an anti­se­mit­ic hoax, first pub­lished in Rus­sia in 1903. That was the tip of the ice­berg of the lev­el of anti­semitism in Amer­i­ca. Just as I describe in Hannah’s War, in 1939 a Nazi ral­ly took place at Madi­son Square Gar­den, orga­nized by the Ger­man Amer­i­can Bund. More than 20,000 peo­ple attend­ed. There were Jew­ish quo­tas at all the Ivy League col­leges (except for Cor­nell); there were entire sec­tors of busi­ness com­plete­ly closed to Jews — bank­ing, Wall Street, white shoe law firms, and even advertising.

I think as a writer, and per­haps as a per­son as well, I’m always in search of the moral ambi­gu­i­ties, the gray areas;” I want to chal­lenge rather than affirm people’s bias­es so I was as inter­est­ed in Amer­i­can anti­semitism as I was in that of the Germans.

Han­nah is unique in both Ger­many and the US — she’s a woman, she’s Jew­ish, and she’s also a for­eign­er in both places. All of those traits make her sus­pi­cious in the eyes of her cowork­ers and peers. Could you tell us about the chal­lenges she would have had to over­come in order to accom­plish what she does in the novel?

Many of the chal­lenges Han­nah had to over­come in Ger­many were tak­en from the real­i­ty of Lise Meitner’s life. She was, in fact, giv­en a lab in the base­ment of the Kaiser Wil­helm Insti­tute where the jan­i­tors kept their mops and clean­ing sup­plies. Her name was left off the pub­lished papers on the work that she and Otto Hahn did togeth­er which is one (although far from the only) rea­son that only he was award­ed the Nobel Prize for their col­lab­o­ra­tive dis­cov­ery. She did not have a fam­i­ly or chil­dren (although she loved chil­dren and was extreme­ly close with her nieces and nephews); I think it would have been extreme­ly dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble — even as it is for con­tem­po­rary women — to mix work (which was clear­ly her pas­sion) and fam­i­ly. In 1945, at a din­ner for the Women’s Press Club, Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man hon­ored Meitner’s accom­plish­ments with this back-hand­ed com­pli­ment, So you’re the lit­tle lady who got us into this atom­ic mess!” Such sex­ism and con­de­scen­sion weren’t new to Meit­ner. She’d endured them patient­ly and with­out protest since the day she gave her inau­gur­al speech as the first female Uni­ver­si­ty Lec­tur­er and the press jok­ing­ly report­ed the top­ic of her speech as Cos­met­ic Physics” instead of Cos­mic Physics.”

I was known as the woman the all-male chem­istry depart­ment did not want to hire,” Meit­ner wrote, Under such cir­cum­stances one becomes, and remains, a feminist.”

Do you have any advice for peo­ple writ­ing their debut nov­els, espe­cial­ly if they’re com­ing from a dif­fer­ent field?

So many writ­ers offer wis­dom about writ­ing debut nov­els that I’m not cer­tain what I have to offer is earth-shat­ter­ing. I would say, how­ev­er, that what­ev­er you are doing in your dif­fer­ent field” is worth­while and impor­tant to your growth. I would not have been able to struc­ture Hannah’s War as tight­ly and made it as ten­sion-filled as it is had I not direct­ed taut thrillers and action movies. Nor would I have learned how to write good dia­logue were it not for work­ing with actors and under­stand­ing on a vis­cer­al lev­el how bad dia­logue will stick in an actor’s throat, because it feels inau­then­tic. What­ev­er work you’re doing will have val­ue when it comes time to write your debut nov­el — whether it’s sim­ply the idea of being account­able and work­ing with­in a struc­ture where you must pro­duce on a sched­ule, or the specifics of a world you want to explore in writ­ing that you can only write about because you’ve lived it. The great thing about writ­ing is that noth­ing in your life goes to waste because it’s all in the ser­vice of a good story.

Wasn’t Stal­in also devel­op­ing a nuclear weapon? There were two poten­tial sets of ene­mies that were the focus or jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for deter­rence. Also, Japan could have sur­ren­dered pri­or to being tar­get­ed. Some­one who learned that Hitler was not get­ting atom­ic weapons could have been receiv­ing disinformation. 

By 1945, the Amer­i­cans cer­tain­ly believed that Stal­in was engaged in try­ing to pro­duce a bomb; that’s one of the rea­sons the ALSOS team (the team Jack worked with under the orders of White Russ­ian, Colonel Boris Pash) was so intent on find­ing the Ger­man sci­en­tists — not only to deter­mine whether the German’s had the bomb, but also to ensure that the Ger­man sci­en­tists did not go over to work for Stal­in and Rus­sia. The Amer­i­cans, how­ev­er, were shocked by how quick­ly Stal­in det­o­nat­ed a viable bomb — for all their obses­sion with spies at Los Alam­os, they didn’t catch the three Amer­i­can spies who stole U.S. atom­ic secrets between 1940 and 1948, shar­ing that infor­ma­tion with the Sovi­ets. The spies actions fast-tracked the U.S.S.R’s devel­op­ment of nuclear weapons and set the stage for the Cold War. The three spies known for bring­ing atom­ic secrets to the Sovi­ets from Los Alam­os were David Green­glass, Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall. And in fact, there was a fourth spy, recent­ly revealed — Oscar Sebor­er, code-name God­send” — who also hand­ed over atom­ic secrets to Sovi­et intelligence.

Amer­i­ca has long used Japan’s refusal to sur­ren­der” as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for drop­ping the bomb on Hiroshi­ma. But this jus­ti­fi­ca­tion has been dis­put­ed and, I believe, proven false. The com­mu­niqué I ref­er­ence in Hannah’s War from Gen­er­al Cur­tis LeMay is based on his­tor­i­cal research. LeMay direct­ed a mas­sive bomb­ing cam­paign at every major indus­tri­al city in Japan: six­ty-three cities and hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil­ians were destroyed by the war’s end. Sus­tained, mas­sive­ly destruc­tive bomb­ing of Japan­ese cities was rou­tine by August 1945. Only Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki were left untouched. It seems clear to me — and many his­to­ri­ans agree — that the bomb was dropped more to warn Stal­in that we had this weapon of mass destruc­tion and were ruth­less enough to use it, than to force Japan’s surrender.

To address your state­ment about dis­in­for­ma­tion,” the ALSOS team’s mis­sion was to dis­cov­er how close Ger­many was to hav­ing the bomb — so that was valid and desired infor­ma­tion, not dis­in­for­ma­tion at all.

So many nov­els out in the past year or two are set in the frame­work of WWII. I am delight­ed to hear that your nov­el is about a Jew­ish woman but not set in the con­cen­tra­tion camps or par­ti­san groups. How impor­tant do you think it is for us (as Jews) to show Jew­ish women out­side of Ger­many, Poland, Rus­sia, etc.? As a Jew­ish woman in the Deep South, I am real­ly con­cerned with how we are viewed.

I agree with you com­plete­ly; I had no inter­est in adding a sto­ry to an already flood­ed mar­ket about Jews in con­cen­tra­tion camps or Jew­ish women in par­ti­san groups. I believe, unless you tru­ly have a new per­spec­tive or extra­or­di­nary new research, there’s very lit­tle that hasn’t already been explored extreme­ly well in the lit­er­a­ture of the Holo­caust. What appealed to me about Hannah’s War was the sto­ry about Los Alam­os, and the way Hannah’s expe­ri­ence in Berlin affect­ed the way she viewed what was hap­pen­ing at Los Alamos.

With­out giv­ing too much away, my next book is going to be set in the south and is about an aspect of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence that is vir­tu­al­ly unknown. I would also rec­om­mend a book by Jonathan Rabb called Among the Liv­ing. It fol­lows the sto­ry of Yitzhak Goldah who arrives in Savan­nah, Geor­gia, in 1947, two years after being freed from the Nazi camps where he lost his entire imme­di­ate fam­i­ly and his fiancé. He has come to the U.S. to live with Abe and Pearl Jesler, his only remain­ing fam­i­ly. At just thir­ty-one, he is eager to over­come the trau­ma he expe­ri­enced dur­ing the war but finds him­self over­whelmed by the expec­ta­tions of those around him. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing book that explores Judaism in the south and, specif­i­cal­ly the deeply-root­ed com­mu­ni­ty of Sephardic Jews in Savan­nah, Georgia.

With­out giv­ing away too much of the sto­ry, can you speak to the char­ac­ter of Sabine— why you felt the need to have her part of the sto­ry — and why her jour­ney leads where it does? Is she based on a real per­son, as Han­nah is? Is there anoth­er book you are plan­ning? Is there a thread in Sabine’s jour­ney that you think is impor­tant to the main char­ac­ters here?

The char­ac­ter of Sabine is entire­ly fic­tion­al, although I did use infor­ma­tion about Sophie Scholl, the Edel­weiss Pirates, and oth­er resis­tance groups led by teenagers to flesh out her sto­ry. Since the char­ac­ter of Han­nah was so care­ful, so guard­ed, so mea­sured and so intent on try­ing to stay in Berlin with­out ful­ly tak­ing in what was hap­pen­ing around her, I felt I need­ed a char­ac­ter who was the oppo­site: a fight­er, emo­tion­al, impul­sive and proac­tive. Since I also need­ed a Sabine” to be the recip­i­ent of the mys­te­ri­ous post­cards, I made Sabine into Hannah’s cousin (so close as to almost be like a lit­tle sister).

I want­ed to tie up Sabine’s sto­ry, as well as Hannah’s uncle Joshua’s sto­ry in that last Field Note because I knew read­ers wouldn’t be com­fort­able with too many loose ends. When peo­ple start­ed to read the man­u­script there was so much inter­est in what hap­pened to Sabine that I did actu­al­ly research and out­line a new book — a com­pan­ion piece to Hannah’s War, fol­low­ing Sabine’s jour­ney from the moment Hannah’s leaves her (under her new name, Gisel­la Proust) with Lotte Scheer. I don’t think that will be my next book as I’m quite excit­ed about my book set in the Amer­i­can south. But I believe I will come back to Sabine/​Gisella — as I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by the role of the Mossad in the found­ing of Israel, and the involve­ment of the Amer­i­cans — specif­i­cal­ly the CIA — with Nazis after the war was over.

Dur­ing your 10 years of research — were you doing oth­er cre­ative writ­ing? Was it dif­fi­cult to stay focused on the research and not jump into writ­ing the novel?
In those ten years of research not only was I writ­ing screen­plays for Hol­ly­wood stu­dios, but I was also direct­ing numer­ous episodes of tele­vi­sion, as well as rais­ing my daugh­ter — so I was extreme­ly busy cre­ative­ly. Also I didn’t know what form all that research was going to take; I wasn’t sure whether it would be a nov­el or a screen­play so I wasn’t tempt­ed to jump into writ­ing it as I knew I wasn’t ready. The sto­ry real­ly had to per­co­late, tak­ing on lay­ers and lay­ers before I was ready to write it. I’m a believ­er in the idea that sto­ries take their own time and often take dif­fer­ent forms: I had embarked on a per­son­al sto­ry that was intend­ed to be a nov­el that I end­ed up adapt­ing into a screen­play. And anoth­er one that became the pilot for a tele­vi­sion series. Often sto­ries have to find their own way into the world and, as a writer, your job is to intu­it where the sto­ry belongs and nev­er give up on the essence of the sto­ry. It’s not about the form, it’s about the con­tent and the characters.

Jan Elias­berg is an award-win­ning writer/​director. Her pro­lif­ic direct­ing career includes dra­mat­ic pilots for CBS, NBC, and ABC, such as Mia­mi Vice and Wiseguy; count­less episodes of tele­vi­sion series, includ­ing Bull, Nashville, Par­ent­hood, The Magi­cians, Blue Bloods, NCIS: Los Ange­les, Super­nat­ur­al, and dozens of oth­ers; as well as the fea­ture film Past Mid­night, star­ring Paul Gia­mat­ti, the late Natasha Richard­son, and Rut­ger Hauer.

Elias­berg also has a sto­ried career as a screen­writer, writ­ing films dri­ven by strong female leads, includ­ing Fly Girls about the Women Air Ser­vice Pilots in WWII for Nicole Kid­man and Cameron Diaz at FOX 2000, among many others.