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 communique 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.