“I’m here today and alive because my grandmother knew to play dead,” a man said. “Her village was obliterated in a pogrom. She hid in the rubble.”
“My grandfather hid in a coffin,” a woman in the row next to him said.
We were in Israel, sitting in a sweltering room with a broken air conditioner. The windows were open but there was no breeze, only the sounds of kids playing in the park. Glasses filled to the brim sat on the back table: water or vodka, or both. We were gathered to talk about my new book, A Bend In The Stars. At its core, the novel is about survival. Brother and sister, Miri and Vanya, are Jews living in pre-WWI Kovno. They are caught in the rising wave of antisemitism and to survive they make plans to flee to America. In order to introduce these characters, and to talk about why I created them, I told the group about my great aunts. These two women were towering figures of my childhood. Like Baba in my novel, they came from a Russian family and were as wide as they were tall; they offered advice when I wanted it, and when I didn’t. Many times, they pulled me to them and said, “You have to always be ready to run. Do you know where your parents keep your passport and the emergency money?” I nodded every time because of course I knew where it all was and no matter how much I wanted to squirm away from their herring breath, I didn’t dare.
“How will I know when it’s time to run?” I asked when we had this conversation.
“You’ll know,” they said. And as I repeated those words to the group in Israel, they all nodded. When I told the same story a week later to another Israeli group, they nodded too, and jumped in with even more stories.
“I’ll never forget the face of the Swedish sailor who pulled me out of the boat. I knew, finally, I’d live,” one man said.
“I was on the Kindertransport,” another said. “Strangers took me on a train. They were good people.”
“How will I know when it’s time to run?”
These conversations in Israel shook me in a way no other conversation ever has. Perhaps it was because I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect these groups to relate to my novel in that way, let alone share their darkest moments couched in such casual comments. But the more I had the opportunity to talk about A Bend In The Stars with Israeli audiences, the more stories I heard, and the more I realized what shook me so hard was how familiar the experiences were. Not only that, what grabbed me was the sheer number of people sharing these stories and nodding as others spoke.
I had the honor of presenting to groups who spoke English as a second, third, or fourth language. They’d been raised in Hebrew, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Danish, and more, and while on the surface that might have meant the people gathered to hear about my novel had little in common, the fact was their bond was as strong as any bond can be. At some point their parents, grandparents, or they themselves thought they would die for being Jewish. But they survived. Each and every one had a story that involved some sort of smarts, cunning, and luck — or all of that combined. Most important of all, they’d pushed themselves and their families to make a new life, a better life.
Writing this in the wake of Tisha B’Av — the holiday during which we mourn the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem — I can’t help but think about the generations upon generations of Jews raised to be aware of the signs, to always have their ‘passports’ and emergency money at the ready. It is a narrative and a lesson that has been passed down from generation to generation and the narrative is not about suffering. It’s about wanting to live — about looking for more.
It is a narrative and a lesson that has been passed down from generation to generation and the narrative is not about suffering. It’s about wanting to live — about looking for more.
In A Bend In The Stars, I divide the book into sections by the Hebrew months, and preface each with a description of the meaning and symbol of the moniker. I write that while Av is a time for mourning, life is a cycle and no sorrow is all-consuming. The beginning of the month is marked by sadness and the end is said to be designated for finding one’s bashert—one’s soul mate. The saddest days are followed by the happiest and this is what I saw in Israel. The audience around me talked about their saddest moments but then, by sitting there freely and openly as Jews, taking time from their day to talk about a book, they were also celebrating their happiest — the fact that they had survived, that they had families, children and grandchildren. And by being in that sweltering room, they were celebrating the fact that they now had the luxury of being able to appreciate and discuss literature and ideas.
I modeled my character Baba after my great aunts and like them, she kept going because of a fierce belief in a better future. As Baba says in Bend, better days will come. This belief is what I wanted to capture, but there’s something else, too. By the time we hear or read about the ending, a person brave enough to run has already encountered so many twists and turns that it’s almost impossible to trace their way back to the beginning and know where they started.
I read an article in Scientific American in 2014 marking the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s pursuit of the Russian eclipse, a pursuit he thought would prove his theory of relativity. He’d already published the idea, broadly speaking that light is bent by gravity. The only piece he was missing was physical proof to convince the world he was right. That proof, a photograph of light bending, could only be taken during a total eclipse. He sent a team to Russia to capture the photograph but troops stopped them at the border. It was a good thing too, because at the time, Einstein, revered now as the greatest genius to ever live, had the math wrong. He later corrected his equations, but in 1914 he was wrong.
It was a good thing too, because at the time, Einstein, revered now as the greatest genius to ever live, had the math wrong.
The most famous photos of Einstein depict an older professor living comfortably in Princeton, NJ — but this was the backend of his life. War — chance — kept him from potentially ruining his career. What if his life, or his 1914 expedition, took a different turn? Similarly, what if the Swedish sailor hadn’t seen the man’s boat? Or the woman’s grandfather hadn’t thought to hide in a coffin?
The middle of the journey is what makes us human and why I focused Bend on Miri and Vanya and their flight from Russia. It is why the audiences in Israel who shared their desperation — the middle of their journey — gave me hope. Like my great aunts, they survived with a belief in a better tomorrow. This is the greatest gift they can share — the lesson that we always need to keep fighting because life will get better. These stories, these lives, gave us the future and continue to give us the future. L’dor va’dor.
Rachel Barenbaum’s debut novel, A Bend In The Stars, was named a New York Times Summer Reading Selection and a B&N Discover Great New Writers Selection. Rachel’s second novel, The History of Time Travel, is forthcoming from Grand Central. Rachel writes for the LA Review of Books and DeadDarlings. She is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator and has degrees from Harvard in Business, and Literature and Philosophy. She lives in Hanover, NH with her husband three children.