This week, Anne-Marie O’Con­nor, the author of The Lady in Gold: The Extra­or­di­nary Tale of Gus­tav Klimt’s Mas­ter­piece, Por­trait of Adele Bloch-Bauer blogs for The Post­script on edit­ing her book and the descrip­tions of shtetl life that had to be cutThe Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs dis­cus­sion and a read­er’s under­stand­ing of how the book came togeth­er. 

To host” Anne-Marie at your next book club meet­ing, request her through JBC Live Chat

The chap­ter I most regret cut­ting from my book was the sto­ry of a girl named Rose Lessure, who grew up in one of the shtetls fic­tion­al­ized by Sholom Ale­ichem that were pop­u­lar­ized in Fid­dler on the Roof,” the musi­cal on the pre­car­i­ous joys of life in the shtetls out­side Kiev. 

Rose grew up in the shtetl of Stavisht, which was cupped like a bowl in a ring of forest­ed moun­tains; a place where yel­low sun­flow­ers stretched to the horizen in the sum­mer like an end­less sea of gold.
Here, klezmer musi­cians made peo­ple dance with joy at wed­dings, and when the daugh­ter of one of the most pros­per­ous men in the shtetl eloped with a klezmer play­er to Amer­i­ca, they became a town leg­end.
Itsikl the Meshugen­er,” the crazy guy” of Stavisht, led the shtetl’s wed­ding toasts, and made every­one laugh by say­ing things every­one was think­ing but nev­er dared to speak.
In the prayer hous­es, intel­lec­tu­als argued about world affairs, drank tea, talked of lib­er­a­tion in the land of Zion — any­thing but pray – while the pious Ortho­dox frowned on the Zion­ists.
The shtetls out­side Kiev were a cra­dle of mys­ti­cism, where Hasidic schol­ars believed in the trans­form­ing pow­er of words to enlight­en and heal, and the divine mys­ter­ies of the Kab­bala. These were the blessed mag­ic real­ist shtetls of Cha­gall.
But life was pre­car­i­ous indeed. As Jew­ish fam­i­lies attained suc­cess, they drew the envy of pogrom­chiks, who sacked the unde­fend­ed shtetls. The fear of pogrom vio­lence was always in the back­drop of the col­lec­tive psy­che.
Rose, a grain merchant’s daugh­ter with mass­es of wavy red hair, grew up wan­der­ing behind her adored big broth­er Her­schel, 11 years old­er; a boy with a broad, kind smile, who looked up from his stud­ies and lift­ed Rose to his knee, or picked her up and spun her like a bird.
Rose loved to lie in the straw and hug her pet calf, or curl up on the earth­en­ware stove with the cats, drowsi­ly lis­ten­ing to her moth­er and Her­schel talk.
A schol­ar rent­ed a room adjoin­ing their house, and Rose watched the stream of peo­ple come to his door, ask­ing him to write let­ters, or read let­ters from a son of Stavisht who was a pro­fes­sor at the Marie Curie Insti­tute in Paris; or from fam­i­ly in Amer­i­ca.
Rose’s father couldn’t per­suade her moth­er to go to Amer­i­ca. She couldn’t imag­ine leav­ing a place where one person’s trou­ble was everyone’s prob­lem, and a wid­ow could expect friend­ship soci­eties to help her and her children. 
Then came World War I.
One day the Ger­mans marched through Stavisht. Itsikl the crazy guy made a satire of the sol­diers, and they shot him. When the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion broke out, horse­men rode through the town, demand­ing mon­ey to spare their lives, and killing towns­men to show they were seri­ous.
Dur­ing one pogrom, Rose’s fam­i­ly fled to a near­by town that was filled with crowds of fright­ened peo­ple from the shtetls. The crowd pressed around, Rose, 10, and she lost her fam­i­ly.
As dusk fell, some­one called her name: Her­schel, who had been look­ing for her all day, spot­ted Rose’s red hair. Her­schel went back Stavisht to help their father sal­vage any­thing of val­ue. On the way, he saw pogrom­chiks had seized a teenage girl from the shtetl. Her­schl tried to res­cue her, but the pogrom­chiks beat him to death.
Rose’s fam­i­ly pinned up her heavy red-gold hair, hid­ing mon­ey and jew­el­ry in her fiery locks, for the long jour­ney through East­ern Europe. The fam­i­ly was final­ly going to America.

I was very reluc­tant to cut this chap­ter because it detailed the rich his­to­ry of small-town Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe, as well as the cycles of anti-Semit­ic vio­lence that would cul­mi­nate in the Holo­caust. Rose Lessure was the grand­moth­er of Pam Schoen­berg, the wife of the attor­ney, Ran­dol Schoen­berg, who won the Klimt col­lec­tion back from Aus­tria. I dis­cov­ered Rose Lessure’s Ellis Island inter­view on an oral his­to­ry data­base, and Pam gave me a mem­oir that had been pub­lished by Rose’s neigh­bors in Stavisht, who had man­aged to flee to Israel before the shtetl was wiped out. One ques­tion that remained for me: was life in Stavisht real­ly as idyl­lic as their accounts? Some peo­ple sug­gest­ed these mem­o­ries were soft­ened by nos­tal­gia. Per­haps. Yet the paint­ings of Cha­gall, and the sto­ries of Sholom Ale­ichem, sug­gest that the col­lec­tive lives shared in these lost shtetls had a tru­ly lus­trous, won­der­ful quality.
Anne-Marie O’Con­nor is a vet­er­an for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, war reporter and cul­ture writer who has cov­ered every­thing from post-Sovi­et Cuba to Amer­i­can artists and intel­lec­tu­als. O’Con­nor attend­ed Vas­sar and the San Fran­cis­co Art Insti­tute and grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, where she and fel­low stu­dents co-cre­at­ed an award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary on the repres­sion of mur­al artists after the 1973 mil­i­tary coup in Chile. She cov­ered the wars in El Sal­vador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala as a Reuters bureau chief in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca; the Shin­ing Path guer­ril­las in Peru, coups in Haiti and U.S. inter­ven­tions in Haiti and Pana­ma; and cov­ered Cuba and Haiti for a news­pa­per chain. At the Los Ange­les Times she chron­i­cled the vio­lence of Mex­i­co’s Arel­lano-Felix drug car­tel, U.S. polit­i­cal con­ven­tion; and pro­filed such fig­ures as Nel­son Man­dela, George Soros, Joan Did­ion, John McCain, and Maya Lin. Her sto­ry on Maria Alt­man­n’s effort to recov­er the fam­i­ly Klimt col­lec­tion appeared in the Los Ange­les Times Mag­a­zine in 2001. She has writ­ten for Esquire, The Nation, and The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor. She cur­rent­ly writes for The Wash­ing­ton Post from Jerusalem.