Monday, April 7, 2014

The Forger: An Extraordinary Story of Survival in Wartime Berlin by Cioma Schonhaus, translated from the German by Alan Bance, edition in English published in 2007

"In the vast literature devoted to the Jewish experience under the Nazis, Mr. Schönhaus’s slim book deserves a special place, as much for its tone as for the remarkable events it records: a catalog of hairbreadth escapes, clever ruses and brazen coups." from a review by William Grimes in the New York Times 1/23/2008

The Forger is fascinating to read. Although it is about Cioma Schonhaus’ distressing story of surviving in Berlin during World War II, the memoir is full of dark, absurdist humor which reflects the personality of the author. Many times observations he makes and the jokes he tells are quotes from his father who lives on in his memory and who serves as a beacon in dangerous times. The humor is undercut by the stressful set of circumstances he finds himself in and by the fact that his father is gone. Schonhaus was only nineteen years old and an only child when both his father and mother were deported.

Schonhaus avoids being deported because he knows people who know people who get him work in a factory that is deemed vital to the war effort. When they finally force him out, through his contacts he joins the resistance where he works as an invaluable graphic artist altering identity cards and passbooks for fellow Jews.

In the course of his work he alters documents for his own use, fashions multiple identities, lives in a series of rooms and apartments, and is constantly inventing and reinventing his life story in order to navigate as safely as possible in the world populated with potential German informers and Nazis. He tries for a bit of normalcy, often eating in restaurants off-limits to Jews, and enjoying the company of women.  His intelligence, his high tolerance for danger, and his luck contribute to his surviving the war.

A very interesting and a large part of the story he tells is about the importance of a number of Protestant clergy and their parishioners who worked in the resistance movement as members of the Confessing Church. In doing so they risked their lives to save many Jews, and, in fact, some were caught and were shot; others were jailed. He explains that parishioners handed in their identity cards which they then reported as lost. These documents were then handed over to Schonhaus so that he could alter them. Everyone involved in the process was impressed with his skill.

He also writes about a number of incidents where German citizens, not connected to the resistance movement, protect him. It is clear that, based on his experiences, he wants his readers to know that not every German was out to rid the nation of its Jewish residents. But eventually his identity becomes known, and he escapes by bike to Switzerland despite having been told by any number of people that it would be just about impossible to do because of the thicket of border patrols. Again, due to ingenuity and luck, as well as determination and stamina, he manages to escape into Switzerland. He settles in Basel where he starts a business, marries, and raises a family.

The last chapter consists of a list of many of the people he had known and worked with in Berlin and their ultimate fate.

To watch a thirty minute film interview with Cioma Schonhaus called Oifn Weg, click here.

Family
Enta Marie Berman
     Fanja Berman – daughter of  Ente Marie; married Boris Schonhaus
             Samson (Cioma) Schonhaus – son of Fanja and Boris
    Adi Berman – son of Ente Marie
    Meier Berman – son of Ente Marie; married to Sophie

Friends and Acquaintances
Michael Kestinger
Walter Majut
Ludel Frank
Jonny Syna
Wolfgang Pander
Gunther Heilborn
Lotte Windmuller
Curt Eckstein
Walter Prager – married to Nadja
Julius Fliess
   Dorothee Fliess – daughter of Julius
Det Kassriel
Karl Wiesner
Paul Levi
Eva Goldschmidt
Gerhard Lowenthal
Ruth and Werner Schlesinger
Walter Heyman
Friedrich Gorner
Manfred Hochhauser
Franz Kaufmann
   Angelica Kaufmann – daughter of Franz
Ludwig Lichtwitz
Werner Scharff
Hanni Hollerbusch
Stella Goldschlag
Lotte Blumenfeld
Leon Blum
Ernst Hallerman

Places
Minsk, Belarus
Berlin, Germany
Rishon LeZion, Israel
Bielefeld, Germany
Basel, Switzerland
Biel-Benken, Switzerland
Majdanek Concentration Camp, Poland
Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Czech Republic
Basel, Switzerland
Biel-Benken, Switzerland

Monday, March 17, 2014

Traveling Heavy: a memoir in between journeys by Ruth Behar 2013

"The writing is emotional, nostalgic, thoughtful, heavily spiced with Spanish, and peppered with black and white photographs." from a review posted on The Jewish Book Council blog by Miriam Bradman Abrahams

Ruth Behar, anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and recipient of a
MacArthur Award, has written an interesting memoir that focuses on her sense of identity as a Jewish Cuban immigrant in America. Her father’s family was originally from Turkey and her mother’s family was from Poland. She explains that the marriage between a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi in Cuba was considered a mixed marriage and was not common.

Behar focuses on the geography of her life – seen through the lens of an anthropologist. She writes about her life in the United States where she arrived after a short detour to Israel once her family fled Cuba at the time of the revolution. She spent a childhood during which she felt most painfully robbed of her language which is such a large part of identity. She also writes of her life as an academic in Ann Arbor where she has put down roots in American soil.

One of the most interesting and entertaining sections of the book is one that deals with the author’s Sephardic family name: Behar. In 2004 when she receives an invitation from a man named Iako Behar, a Jewish Bulgarian living in Mexico, to a “Behar Summit” in Bejar, Spain, she decides to attend. All those named Behar, Bejar, Vejar, Bejarano, Becherano that the organizer can find have been invited and over sixty attend from all over the world. The town, which has a former Jewish section, is like many other small towns now devoid of Jews, and trying to link any Behars with the town and with each other is the subject of many conversations. In addition, a Mexican Jewish genealogist, Alejandro Rubenstein, who was invited to speak, presents more food for thought about the origin of the family name – a thought-provoking lesson in naming for anyone interested in genealogy.

Interested in her Ashkenazi roots, and in possession of an original handwritten copy of the Yizkor book from her grandmother’s town, she visits Poland and in some ways has an eerily similar experience in the small town of Goworowo to the one that she had in Bejar, Spain. Whether expelled or killed at the time of the Inquisition in Spain, or rounded up and killed by the Nazis in Poland, Jews who had inhabited these towns were invisible ghosts, barely acknowledged in the towns, though a Jewish museum was being built in Bejar.

Behar’s ties to Cuba are strong, despite the fact that she left when she was quite young, and she returned as early as 1979 as soon as scholars were given an opening to travel there. Much of her anthropological work has been based in Cuba and she has taken student groups there. She gives an interesting overview of living conditions in Cuba today which she contrasts to the way she lives in the states. She also  writes about the Cuban Jewish community which was the subject of another book (the subject of an earlier post - see below) that she published in 2007.

To read an earlier post of Ruth Behar's book about The Cuban Jewish community, click here.
To read an article from the New York Times about reclaiming Spanish citizenship, click here.

Ruth Behar has respected the privacy of many family members by not citing their names. In some instances she states she changed their names.

People
Family
Alberto Behar
    Ruth Behar – daughter of Albertico; married to David; author
       Gabriel – son of Ruth and David
    Morris Isaac Behar – son of Alberto
Abraham Levin – author’s maternal great grandfather
Hannah Gallant – author’s maternal great grandmother

Friends and Acquaintances
Gedale and Hannah Grynberg – Goworowo, Poland
    Yitzhak Grynberg – son of Gedale and Hannah
David Melul – Barcelona, family from Morocco
Jose Levy

Those whose names she met that the author met at the Behar summit:
Iako Behar – Bulgarian Jew living in Mexico; son Mario, grandsons Moris and Yaakov
Yakov Behar and son Ronen – Canada
Craig Behar – Arizona
Bob Behar – Washington
Marco Bejanaro – Israel
Yehuda Behar – Israel; married to Anat
Eugenia Behar – Mexico; niece Mayra; nephew Ezra Bejar, California
Caroline Behar – Paris
Andrew Behar – Los Angeles; grandparents from Ankara, Turkey
Richard Behar – New York City; cousin of Andrew; grandparents from Ankara, Turkey
Leon Behar – Colombia, now South Africa; married to Marta; son Alberto
Claudia Behar – Paris; parents from Egypt

Places
Queens, NY
Canarsie, NY
Miami Beach, Florida
Silivri, Turkey
Miami Beach, Florida
Agramonte, Cuba
Havana, Cuba
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Goworowo, Poland

Monday, March 3, 2014

My Dear Hindalla, Remember Me: Letters from a Lost World, May 1937 – January 1940 by Marlene Englander 2012

"A moving and beautiful true story of love and friendship unfolds through letters written between two young people." from a review by Leslie Shafran in the Cleveland Jewish News 11/1/2012

This large format paperback book consists mainly of a series of 28 letters, reproduced in Yiddish and translated into English (by the recipient), written by Nachum Berman to Hinda Zarkey. Having grown up in the small town of Widze, which was then in Poland but is now in Belarus, Hinda Zarkey relocated to the larger town of Seduva in Lithuania in 1935 when she was twelve years old to attend junior high school. It was there, where she lived with her mother’s sister and her family, that she met Nachum Berman who was a young pharmacist working in her aunt’s pharmacy.  In 1937 she immigrated with her aunt’s family to Cleveland, Ohio. Berman stayed behind, continuing to work in the pharmacy.

Berman wrote regularly and Hinda Zarkey responded, but only his letters to her survive. The letters are part of an ongoing conversation between the two. Berman tells her what books he’s reading, what plays and movies he’s seen, how work is going, how he hopes to spend his vacation. He makes suggestions to her about what she might like to read and he encourages her in her studies. He also chats about people he’s seen who send their regards and asks her questions about life in America. But as time moves on his letters take on, first a melancholy tone, and then one of desperation. For example, he writes early on about the pleasure he receives from a radio he’s bought, but then later he writes about being glued to the radio in order to follow the awful news. He is looking for a way out and knows it’s not going to be easy.

Marlene Englander, Hinda Zarkey Saul's daughter, has created this book out of Nachum Berman’s letters to her mother to which she has added a lot of ancillary material. She and her mother annotated the letters which are included as endnotes.  She also included many family photos as well as introductory material explaining her motivation for working on and publishing the book. She also gives the readers some background material on towns that play a major role in the story as well as an abbreviated family history. Crucial to Englander’s immersion in her mother’s story is a “roots” trip she took in 2010 where, most significant  to her, she visited Widze and Seduva. Back home she tried to find more specific information about the fate of her mother’s family who stayed behind in Widze and the fate of Nachum Berman. She includes facsimiles of documents filed at Yad Vashem and an extensive list of the sources she consulted for her research.

This book has an immediacy not often found in Holocaust memoirs because it includes letters in the original Yiddish as well as in translation. The everyday discussions in the letters bring the 1930s to life in Nachum Berman's corner of the world which is enhanced by the accompanying photos.

To read an article about the Holocaust in Lithuania click here.

People
Family
Zvi Hirsch Kagan – married Doba Himmelfarb
    Chana Kagan – daughter of Zvi Hirsch and Doba; married Alchonan Zarchi
         Hinda Kagan – daughter of Chana and Alchonan; married Jack Saul
             Marlene Saul – daughter of Hinda and Jack; married Jon Englander
              Kenneth and Howard Saul – sons of Hinda and Jack
         Gita Kagan – daughter of Chana and Alchonan
    Goda  Kagan – daughter of Zvi Hirsch and Doba; married Samuel Bardon
         Yvette Bardon – daughter of Goda and Samuel; married Shale Sonkin
     Rachel, Isaac, Joseph Kagan – children of Zvi Hirsch and Doba

Leib and Lifsha Zarchi – parents of Alchonan Zarchi
Rachmiel Gordon – his mother was Zvi Hirsch Kagan’s sister
     Ralph and Gloria Gordon – children of Rachmiel

Friends and Acquaintances
Faiva and Freida Berman
     Nochum Berman – son of Faiva and Freida
Aron Bank
Shlomo and Liuba Brett
     Milke Brett – daughter of Shlomo and Liuba
Moshe Bret – son of Shlomo and Liuba
Zalman Davidowitz
     Sioma Davidowitz – son of Zalman
Velvel Feifert
Yudel Friedlander
     Elke Friedlander – daughter of Yudel
Nechama Hak
Malke Kaplan
Freidele Mel
Shaya and Chava Mellman
      Lola Mellman – daughter of Shaya and Chava; married Myron Friedman
      Ania Mellman – daughter of Shaya and Chava
Raisa Payim
Shulamit Rabinowitz
Bassia Ulfskyer
Herschel Ulfsky – brother of Bassia
Shlomo and Liuba Brett
Gnessa Yosem

Places
Ponevezh, Lithuania
Widze, Poland (now Vidzy, Belarus)
Seduva, Lithuania
Cleveland, Ohio
South Euclid, Ohio
Shaker Heights, Ohio
Gary, Indiana

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century by David Laskin 2013


David Laskin (b.1953) has woven together a tapestry of engrossing stories about his large extended family, starting with his great-great grandfather Shimon Dov HaKohen, a torah scribe, and his wife Beyle Shapiro who lived and raised their six children in Volozhin in Belarus. In the course of the book, Laskin follows their descendents along three geographical paths: Eastern Europe, America, and Israel.

Even though Laskin grew up in the New York City suburbs near his immigrant grandfather and some of his grandfather’s siblings, he knew nothing about their early lives, neither in Eastern Europe nor in America where they immigrated over the course of the first decade of the 20th century. When he got old enough to make decisions for himself, he distanced himself from his Jewish heritage and the world represented by his immigrant relatives. A call to Israel at the suggestion of his mother to ask a cousin to verify the accuracy of a family "legend"  piqued his interest in his family’s history and started him on a quest to learn everything he could.

What’s truly satisfying about reading The Family is being able to follow Laskin’s highly readable prose where he integrates history from many sources and places his relatives in the context of history. In the metropolitan New York area, where the bulk of Laskin's family originally settled, we read about the businesses they established and how they lived out versions of the American Dream. For example, he gives us many interesting details about the oldest sibling, his great aunt Itel Rosenthal, who founded and ran the Maidenform Bra company along with her husband. But before we learn about her great successes as a capitalist, he fills in details about her early life in Eastern Europe, sketching in the political climate, the growing restrictions on Jews, and her risky, active membership in the Bund.
 
The most moving sections are those having to do with his relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. He is shocked to find out he had relatives who had been murdered and wondered why no one had ever talked about it. He is aided in researching their stories because the cousin he had originally contacted in Israel had in his possession almost three hundred letters in Yiddish sent to his mother, Sonia, who had immigrated to Palestine in 1932. Many of the letters, some of which are reproduced, were from Sonia's two sisters who were stranded with their families and their mother in Eastern Europe. To learn as much as he could about their end, Laskin embarked on a multi-year project which involved two trips to Israel to meet with Sonia’s surviving children, and a “roots” trip to Belarus and Lithuania with some of those relative as well as others. He also did archival research, trying to track down whatever he could find about those who had been murdered.

One of the strengths of this book is that Laskin’s family members are fleshed-out individuals, but they are also stand-ins for many others: the waves of Eastern European immigrants who, like them, settled on the overcrowded Lower East Side of New York and worked their way “up” to other parts of the city and the suburbs. In narrating Sonia and her husband Chaim’s life as early pioneers in Palestine, he provides historical background about the British Mandate as well as the physical conditions of early settlements to help readers understand what it was like to be an early pioneer.

And in investigating the murders of his relatives during the Holocaust he sketches in the geography and politics of World War II as it impacted on his relatives in Volozhin, Rakov and Vilna, including in great detail the Nazi plan for wiping out the Jewish population in Vilna where one of Sonia’s sisters and her family lived. He describes in detail the Vilna ghetto, the forest at Ponar, the Einsatzgruppen, and the slave labor camp at Klooga.

The Family: Three Journeys into the heart of the Twentieth Century has much to offer. Laskin has recreated his family in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

This book contains a family tree with dates of birth and death, many family photos, a two-page glossary of "foreign" words, extensive notes which include sources he consulted keyed to text pages and an index.

To read about the history of the Jewish Lower East Side, click here.
To look at interesting photos from the Jewish cemetery in Seduva, click here.

People
Author’s mother’s paternal line
Chaim HaKohen
    Shimon Dov Hakohen, - son of Chaim; married Beyle Shapiro
         Avram Akiva Kaganovich (Abraham Cohen) – son of Simon Dov and Beyle; married Gishe Sore (Sarah); married
             Itel Kaganovich (Ida Cohen) – daughter of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Wolf (William) Rosenthal
                  Lewis and Beatrice Rosenthal – children of Ida and William
             Ettal Kaganovich (Ethel Cohen) – daughter of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Samuel Epstein
                 Bernard, and David Epstein – sons of Ethel and Samuel
                 Inda Epstein – daughter of Ethel and Samuel; married Irving Goldfarb
                        Gail Goldfarb – daughter of Inda and Irving; married Richard Cohen
             Hersch Kaganovich (Harry Cohen) – son of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Sallie Bodker
                 Melvin Cohen – son of Harry and Sallie
             Shmuel Kaganovich (Sam Cohen) –son of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Celia Zimmerman; 2nd marriage to Gisri Sore Galpierjn (Gladys Helperin)
                 Dorothy and Sidney Cohen– twin children of Sam and Celia
                 Lester Cohen – son of Sam and Celia
                 Marvin Cohen – son of Sam and Celia
                        Gary Cohen – son of Marvin; married to Lori
                 Leona Cohen – daughter of Sam and Gladys; married Meyer Laskin
                        Robert Laskin – son of Leona and Meyer; married to Sue
                               Isaac and Gabriel Laskin – sons of Robert and Sue
                        Daniel Laskin – son of Leona and Meyer
                        David Laskin – son of Leona and Meyer; married to Kate O’Neill; author Emily, Sarah, and Alice Laskin; daughters of David and Kate
                        Jonathan Laskin – son of Leon and Meyer
           Chaim Yasef  Kaganovich (Hyman Cohen) – son of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Anna Raskin
                Barbara Cohen – daughter of Hyman and Anna; married Morton Weisenfeld
           Chana Kaganovich – daughter of Avram and Gishe Sore
            Leie Kaganovich (Lillie Cohen) – daughter of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Joseph Salwitz
   Yasef Bear Kaganovich (Joseph Cohn) – son of Shimon and Beyle; married
to Ethel
                       Devorah Bayer – great-great granddaughter of Yasef Bear and Ethel
            Shalom Tvi Kaganovich (Sholom Kahanowicz) – son of Shimon Dov and Beyle; married Beyle Botwinik
                Shula Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle
                Doba Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle; married to Shabtai Senitski     Shimon and Wolf Kaganovich – sons of Doba and Shabtai
                Etl Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle; married to Khost Goldstein
                      Mirile and Doba – daughters of Etl and Khost
               Sonia Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle; married to Chaim Kaganovich
                      Leah Kaganovich – daughter of Sonia and Chaim; married to Avi
                            Galit Kaganovich Weise – daughter of Leah and Avi
                     Arie Kaganovich – son of Sonia and Chaim
                     Shimon Kaganovich – son of Sonia and Chaim; married to Riki
                     Amir Kaganovich – son of Shimon and Riki
                     Benny Kaganovich – son of Sonia and Chaim; married to Orna
                             Rotem Kaganovich – son of Benny and Orna
               Feige Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle
     Arie Kaganovich – son of Shimon and Beyle; married Leah
          Chana Kaganovich – daughter of Arie and Leah; married Meir Finger
          Yishayahu Kaganovich – son of Arie and Leah; married Henia
                     Leah Kaganovich – daughter of Yishayahu and Henia
          Chaim Kaganovich – son of Arie and Leah; married Sonia Kaganovich (first cousin; see above
                     Shlomo – son of Leah and second husband
     Leah Golda Kaganovich – daughter of Shimon and Beyle; married Shmuel Rubenstein
          Rose Rubenstein Einziger – daughter of Leah Golda and Shmuel
                     Laurie Einziger Bellet – daughter of Rose
                     Betty Rubenstein – daughter of Leah Golda and Shmuel
                     Sol Rubenstein – son of Leah Golda and Shmuel
                            Susan Rubenstein Schechet – daughter of Sol
          Louis Rubenstein – son of Leah Golda and Shmuel
    Herman Kaganovich (Cohn) – son of Shimon Dov and Beyle; married Libbie
          Leonard and Seymour Cohn – sons of Herman and Libbie

   Zelig Kost – nephew of Gishe Sore Kagan (see above); 2nd marriage to Shoshanna Buckerman
     Esther Kost – daughter of Zelig and first wife
     Estelle Kost – daughter of Zelig and Shoshanna
Moses (Moe) Rosenthal – brother of William Rosenthal(see above)
Masha Rosenthal Hammer – sister of William Rosenthal (see above)
Harry Raskin – brother of Anna Raskin (see above)
Tsipora Alperovich – a relative of Beyle Botwinik (see above)
Hayim Yehoshua Botwinik – brother of Beyle Botwinik; married to Esther
Yitzchak Senitski – brother of Shabtai Senitsky (see above)
Cousins of author – exact connection not clear: Sallie Cohen, married to Michael; Lenore Cohen, married to Marvin Sleisenger; Jeff Cohen; Dick Salwitz, married to Kathryn; Jay Epstein; Adrian Epstein; Rochelle Rogart; Chuck Cohen and son Laurence; Bert Cohen

Friends and Acquaintances
Jack Zizmor
George Horn
Harry Miller
Joe Feller
Al Siegel
Yitzhak and Leah Cohen
Israel Helprin
Jacob Gens          

Places
Voloztin
Rakov
Smargon
Krasnicki
Vilna
The forest at Ponar
Foehrenwald Displaced Persons Camp
Hoboken, NJ
NYC
Brooklyn
The Bronx
Lower East Side
Bayville
Kvutza Har Kinneret
Moshava Kinneret
Hertzliya
Kfar Vitkin
Tel Aviv
Stamford, Conn.
New Haven, Conn.
Seattle
Portland
Palm Beach, Florida

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert 2013 (a novel)

"The Lion Seeker is a captivating story, offering at times page-turning thrills and at others a painful meditation on destiny and volition."  from a review by Ellah Allfrey on National Public Radio 11/7/13

This vivid novel, although not autobiographical, focuses on a Jewish family from Dusat, Lithuania whose family members settle in Johannesburg as the author's family did. 

We readers follow the main character, Isaac, as he moves as a youngster from the old country and tries to make his way in the new. To some extent he has the same problems many children of immigrants have: parents set in their old ways whose expectations for their children create conflict between parents and child that culminate in anger and guilt. During their struggles we learn about the opportunities, the geography, the ethnic groups, divisions in social class, the politics, and the anti-semitism that confronted the Jewish immigrants in Johannesburg.

Bonert’s novel covers the years from 1924 when his fictional family immigrates to South Africa and takes us a few years past World War II. It also includes flashbacks to life in Dusat, including a devastating progrom when his mother was a teenager. A good part of the plot deals with World War II, especially with the plight of Isaac’s mother’s sisters and their families stranded back in Lithuania as the war is heating up.

Bonert creates a last chapter devoted to Isaac’s sister Rively that takes place in Israel after the war where Rively now lives. She meets a woman who had immigrated from Dusat who shows her the Jaeger report, written by a Nazi functionary,  that includes statistics of how many Lithuanian Jews perished.

Besides his deftly grounding his story in the realities of life in South Africa and the realities of World War II, one of the great pleasures of the novel is the author’s use of language. Throughout the novel we hear characters speaking Yiddish, Yiddish inflected English, English interlaced with South African slang, Afrikaans and indigenous tribal languages like Zulu.

This novel should be satisfying reading for anyone whose family immigrated to South Africa or who might want to learn about a Jewish immigrant family in Johannesburg, South Africa. In  his acknowledgements Bonert honors his grandmother who had immigrated to South Africa from Dusat. He also lists the sources he consulted including oral histories that have been collected from members of the Dusat Jewish community as well as the Jaeger Report.

To read an introduction to the Jaeger Report click here.
To read the Jaeger report click here.
To read an interview with the author click here.

People
Koppel and Hannah Raizel Bonert
   Pasey Bonert - son of Koppel and Hannah Raizel; married to Avril
         Kenneth Bonert - son of Pasey and Avril; author

Places
Dusat, Lithuania
Johannesburg, South Africa
Doornfontein, Johannesburg
Greenside, South Africa

Monday, January 20, 2014

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman, 2012 (a graphic novel)

"The book is a sweetly sad story, illustrating the difficulty of life in the early 20th century as seen through the narrow eye of a specific subculture." from a review in City Paper by Laura Dattaro 3/28/12

This graphic novel, whose dedication page says “For New York,” dramatizes the lives of twin sisters with chapters marked by dates that denote significant moments in the lives of the sisters. The first, 1905, introduces us to Esther and Fanya, and their family, residents of the Lower East Side. In the last chapter, 1923, they are still in New York, and although their paths had diverged, they reconnect.

It is easy to see why the author has dedicated this graphic novel to New York. She sketches the intensity of life in the streets and life behind closed doors. She does not romanticize the lives of early immigrants. She catches both the turmoil in the crowded streets with their pushcart markets, and the turmoil of tenement homes where the children often slept two to a bed and where babies were born at home. She has scenes in houses of prostitution and in theaters where burlesque shows were performed.

Her immigrants, who speak in Yiddishized “broken” English and sometimes speak in Yiddish, are all struggling, trying to find a way to survive. She builds her story around many of the problems they encountered: poverty, adultery, arranged marriages, illegal abortions, out- of-wedlock children, and religious, ethnic and class bias. Constructing different lives for the two sisters illustrates the possibilities and the pitfalls they both encountered.

This graphic novel is a useful introduction to Jewish immigrant life in New York in the early twentieth century, a place and time to which many in the American Jewish community can trace their roots.

To read about the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, click here.
To read about the Eldridge St. Synagogue, now a museum, click here.
To read an interview with the author, click here.

People
Leela Corman - married to Tom Hart; author
Gene, Lizette and David Corman - relationship to author unclear

Places
New York City, New York
Gainsville, Florida

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Secrets of the Notebook by Eve Haas

"[I]f you like history and enjoy finding out how difficult it actually is to discover the truth about your past, this is a good book to read." from a review posted by a reader on the Goodreads website

When Eve Jaretzki Haas and her family, Jewish refugees from Germany, were living in England during World War II, her father showed her a small, very old book that had been in the possession of her great-great grandmother. He told her that her great-great grandmother, Emilie Gottschalk, had been married to a Prussian prince. He also told her that she would inherit the book, but it didn’t actually come into her possession until many years later after both of her parents had died.

This memoir is about a very interesting family history that the author uncovered after many years of research and travel. The first problem, when she started her serious inquiries in the early 1970’s, was that she was told that the records relating to the Prussian Hohenzollern family would be in the East German archives where it was dangerous to travel and she was advised that bureaucrats there would stand in the way of her research. She was persistent and gained entry, but many other problems familiar to genealogists surfaced. She found information that did not fit into the vague outlines of the family story she had been told by family members, and often information she uncovered didn’t seem to fit with other facts she came across. The story became more and more puzzling.

After many years of searching she succeeded in putting the pieces together and coming up with a more than plausible family narrative for many reasons: she was persistent, she got more and more knowledgeable and experienced as the search progressed, she kept studying the documents she had - looking for more clues, she kept going back to family members with new questions, and she won over archivists who were intrigued with her story and became eager to help her. It also didn’t hurt that both she and her husband spoke and read German so that she was able to scrutinize primary sources.

All in all, this memoir can serve as an inspiration to amateur genealogists. The author had a daunting task ahead of her and could have easily given up. It is interesting to follow both her progress and lack of progress – the brick walls she encountered and how she worked around them and through them which included constructing theories that did not always bear fruit. But because of all her work eventually she succeeded in uncovering lots of information and reconstructing her lineage and a narrative that explains the documents she found.

Click here to read about the history of the Kingdom of Prussia.

Family
Emilie von Ostrowska – married to Prince August (Hohenzollern) of Prussia
     Charlotte von Ostrowska (Gottschalk) – daughter of Emilie and Prince August; married Sigmund Baumann
           Anna Baumann – married Samuel Jaretzki
                Hans Jaretzki - son of Anna and Samuel; married to Margarethe Jacoby
                      Claude Jaretzki – son of Hans and Margarethe; married to Inge
                      Eve Jaretzki – daughter of Hans and Margarethe; married to Ken Haas; author
                             Anthony, Timothy, and David Haas – sons of Eve and Ken
                Freddy Jaretzki – son of Anna and Samuel; married to Lotte ; second marriage to Alice
                     Marlies Jaretzki – daughter of Freddy

Frank Jarett (Jaretzki) – relative of author; exact relationship not clear
       Norman Jarett – son of Frank
Thomas Jarrett – married to Doris; cousin - exact relationship not clear
Alex Jarret – married to Pat; cousin – exact relationship not clear
Fridl Jacoby – sister of Margarethe

Friends and Acquaintances
Meno Burg
Isadore Gottschalk

Places
Berlin, Germany
Wannslee, Berlin, Germany
Charlottenburg, Germany
Breslau, Poland
Prague, Czechoslovakia
Reichenberg, Czechoslovakia
Theresienstadt

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding 2013

"Le Carré is quite correct. The last section of Harding’s book does indeed read like a gripping thriller, no less so because we know how the pursuit of Höss is destined to end." from a review in the Spectator by Miranda Seymour, 9/21/2013

Thomas Harding, grand-nephew of Hanns Alexander, has written this highly readable and thoroughly researched book to honor Alexander who was part of the British War Crimes Investigation Team which was assembled to find Nazis who had fled at the end of World War II. The author knew nothing about his uncle’s service during the war, only learning about it at his funeral.

Harding constructs his narrative by alternating chapters. He writes a chapter about Hanns Alexander and follows it with a chapter about Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess), an important figure in the building and administration of Auschwitz who Alexander was charged with capturing. The book starts at the beginning of both of their lives in Germany, recreating the culture, atmosphere and circumstances out of which they emerged and follows both to their deaths.

Harding describes in interesting detail Alexander’s life as a member of an affluent Jewish family who lived in very comfortable circumstances in the Jewish section of Berlin. His father was a highly regarded doctor who had in his possession what became known as the Alexander Torah commissioned in 1790 by Hanns’ great great great grandfather. Hanns Alexander's mother came from two prominent Jewish families: the Picards and Schwarzchilds. Notables like Albert Einstein came to their house for dinner.

After establishing the family’s background, the author then narrates the rise of Hitler and how incremental restrictions affected German Jews. Luckily, all of Hanns Alexander’s immediate family eventually escaped to England in the late 1930’s when he was a young man. When the war broke out Hanns enlisted, wanting to fight against Germany, a country he had loved but whose ruling party he hated. He was not happy when the British would only take him into the Pioneer Corps, a division which had been recently created for Austrian and German refugees. They were not allowed to have rifles. But once he proved himself more than capable and certainly loyal, he was asked to join the War Crimes Investigation team. The fact that he spoke fluent German helped him immeasurably.

Harding takes us through Alexander’s suspenseful capture of Hoess, the interrogation, the Nuremberg trials and Hoess’s trial in Poland to where he was transported because Auschwitz, where he had committed crimes, was on Polish soil. Throughout, the author describes post-war Europe  - its physical devastation, but especially the scrambling that went on, with very few resources, to set up a system to bring Nazis to justice. His great-uncle Hanns Alexander was an important part of that process. Alexander’s getting Hoess to confess was crucial as his testimony provided information needed to prosecute other perpetrators.

Having conducted interviews with family members and having access to family papers helped Harding flesh out the character of his great uncle. Documents in the public domain that Harding consulted add to the reader's understanding of what Hanns Alexander contributed to the post-war effort to bring Nazis to justice.

This book includes many photos, maps, useful endnotes, a family tree, an end note on Research Sources and an annotated Bibliography.

To see photos of the Alexander family's torah go to the author's website here.
To watch a short video of Rudolf Hoess's testimony at the Nuremberg trials, click here.

People and Places
Moses Alexander – married Sophie Neustein
     Herman Alexander – son of Moses and Sophie; married Bella Lehmaier
     Sophie Alexander – daughter of Herman and Bella; married Albert Simon
     Paula Alexander – daughter of Herman and Bella

                       Alfred Alexander – great-great grandson of Moses; married Henny Picard
                             Bella Alexander – daughter of Alfred and Henny; married Harold Sussmann; 2nd marriage to Julius Jakobi
                                  Peter and Tony Sussmann – sons of Bella and Harold
                                  Julian Jakobi – son of Bella and Julius; married to Fiona
                                  Stephen Jakobi – son of Bella and Julius
                             Elsie Alexander – daughter of Alfred and Henny; married Erich Hirschowitz (Eric Harding)
                                  Frank Harding – son of Elsie and Eric
                                           Thomas Harding – son of Frank; married to Debora;  author
                                                   Kadian and Sam Harding – children of Thomas and Debora
                                           Amanda Harding – daughter of Frank
                                  Michael Harding – son of Elsie and Eric; married to Angela
                                  Vivien Harding – daughter of Elsie and Eric
                            Hanns Hermann (Howard Harvey) Alexander – son of Alfred and Henny; married to Ann Graetz
                                   Jackie and Annette Alexander – daughters of Hanns and Ann
                            Paul Alexander – son of Alfred and Ann (twin of Hanns); married to Elisabeth Heymann; 2nd marriage to Tamara Lesser
                                   John and Marion Alexander – children of Paul

Family of author’s paternal great-grandmother
Moritz Lazarus Schwarzchild – married Clementine Schwab
Lucien Picard – married Amalie Schwarzchild
      Henny Picard – daughter of Lucien and Amalie; married Alfred Alexander (see above)
Cacilie Bing – great-aunt of Hanns Alexander; exact relationship not clear

Author’s great-uncle Hanns Alexander’s wife Anneliese's family
Sarah Graetz
     Paul Graetz – son of Sarah; married Kate
            Anneliese Graetz – daughter of Paul and Kate; married Hanns Alexander (see above)
            Wolfgang Graetz (Grey) – son of Paul and Kate; married Antonia

Friends and Acquaintances
Edmund Dreyfus
Robert Serebrenik
Anita Lasker
Lucille Eichengreen
Bernard Clarke
Karl Abrahams
 Stephen Abrahams – son of Karl
Gustave Gilbert
Leon Goldensohn
Leo Genn
Herbert Levy

Places
Thalmassing, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Wilmersdorf, Berlin
Neue Synagoge, Berlin, Germany
Frankfurt, Germany
Gross Glienicky, Germany
Basel, Switzerland
Sachsenhausen camp
Treblinka
Belsen
London, England
Belsize Square Synagogue, London

Monday, December 2, 2013

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson 2013 (fiction)

"Ben Solomon's tale is gripping . . . Balson's first novel is hard to put down." from a review by Miriam Bradman Abrahams posted on the website of the Jewish Book Council

This engrossing novel, focusing on the intertwined life of a Polish Jew and a Nazi, was privately published in 2010 and sold 120,000 copies. Because of its popularity, St. Martin’s Press has published what is described as “a different version,” probably a reworked version, of the novel.

Set in Chicago in the year 2004, Ben Solomon is convinced that the philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig, also a resident of Chicago, is really Otto Piatek who grew up with him in Zamosc, Poland and who later became a Nazi officer. The bulk of the novel, though anchored in 2004, takes place in the years 1933 through 1944 where we read about the lives of Ben Solomon and his childhood friend, Otto Piatek.  Has Otto Piatek disguised himself as Elliot Rosenzweig? What are the clues? What is the evidence? Are Solomon and his lawyer going to be able to put together a convincing case and expose him?

The chronological history of the Holocaust in Poland is no mere background in this suspenseful, highly readable novel. In order to construct a historically accurate novel, the author, a lawyer who has made a number of trips to Poland, has included a lot of conscientiously researched material about World War II and about what happened in Poland, in particular. It is clear that Balson is attempting to reach out to a broad audience to educate them about the Holocaust that goes beyond a familiarity with Anne Frank and Auschwitz.

One literary strategy Balson uses is to make Ben Solomon’s lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, a non-Jew which creates an opportunity for the author, through his character Solomon, to explain many terms that he assumes she and many readers may not know, like Judenrat, Aktion Rheinhardt, kapo, the Nuremberg Laws, and the Anschluss. Sometimes he has Lockhart ask questions for clarification which prompt informative answers. For example, Solomon explains what ghettos were really like; he differentiates between slave labor camps, transit camps, and exterminations camps; and he creates scenes that involve the theft of property, the means of escape and the geography of escape routes, the existence and strategies of the Polish resistance, the danger in encountering informers, and the presence of helpful Catholic priests and nuns. Balson also introduces readers to the complications inherent in post-war prosecutions of Nazis and the strategies lawyers use to litigate these cases.

Although, as stated above, this is a suspenseful novel and is easy to read, it does feel a little like the plot is contrived to teach a history lesson. Balson deserves credit for having succeeded in presenting a number of aspects of the Holocaust, and in doing so he provides a useful and credible overview of the plight of Jews in Poland. However, Balson is less successful in the area of character development – his characters are not complex. That being said, the novel is a worthy addition to stories about the Holocaust. Interestingly, it joins Michael Lavigne’s Not Me in its shocking premise. In each novel the author imagines a Nazi posing as a well-respected Jew. Whether this is just a literary device or has its roots in reality is not clear.

To read an interview with the author in the Chicago Tribune, click here.
To read an article about Poles who have been honored for helping Jews during World War II, click here.

People
Family
Ronald Balson - married to Monica; author
     David and Matthew Balson- sons of Ronald
Linda Balson - sister of Ronald

Friends and Acquaintances
Rabbi Victor Weissberg

Places
Zamosc, Poland
Krasnik, Poland
Poland