Monday, May 4, 2015

The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace by Alexander Stille

"It is Mr. Stille’s determination to use his skills as a reporter to flesh out his family’s history that lends this book its depth of field and emotional ballast." from a review by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times  3/21/2013

Alexander Stille’s intention in this interesting memoir is to explore how geography, history and culture shaped each of his parents individually and how their different backgrounds contributed to their volatile marriage and to his upbringing. The author, a journalist, is the son of Mikhail (Misha) Kamenetzki, also a journalist, whose family had fled Russia in the wake of the Russian Revolution and settled in Italy, only to have to flee from Italy to the United States as Europe became immersed in World War II.  Mikhail Kamenetzki took the name Ugo Stille, shared with a journalist friend, so he could continue as a journalist in Italy when Mussolini was in power. When he finally got to New York he kept the pen name and continued as a journalist, working as a foreign correspondent reporting to Italy from the U.S.

Among the most vivid scenes in the memoir are those that take place in Italy. The author uses his skills as a journalist to recreate the historical moment and his family’s precarious position – his grandfather used every means possible to find their way out and get to America. Like many other Jews, he sensed doom if he didn’t try everything. But unlike many, he was successful, partly because he had some resources, he was resourceful, persistent, and lucky. A distant relative in the United States never responded to his plea to sponsor them. But as luck and trial and error would have it, a total stranger whose name he plucked from a phone book agreed to sponsor them. It took two years, many days spent on line at the American Embassy, but eventually he was able to leave with his wife and two children.

After the author fills us in on the background of his Protestant  mother and her family and her move to New York, he writes about how, unhappily married to her first husband, she finds herself at the same party as Misha Kamenetzki, one in honor of Truman Capote. In some ways it was an example of the adage “Opposites attract.” Most likely her American character as well as her good looks attracted him. Something of a rebel, she was perhaps attracted to his “otherness,” certainly to his worldliness and his ability to attract a following of literati and other intellectuals. 

Through Stille’s chronicling of their marriage, old age and death he fleshes out their personalities. He also spends some time exploring his father’s ambivalent relationship to his Jewishness. His father had never told his wife that he was Jewish before they married and it seems he would have been just as happy to not reveal that fact at all. That being said, there are times when he acts and reacts to situations that acknowledge his Jewish roots.

That his father was quite an interesting character is quite clear. That he was shaped by “The Force of Things,” as expressed in the title, is a large part of why he was so interesting. That the author has been shaped by that history as well goes without saying.

To read an article about Italian Jews during World War II click here.
To read an obituary of Ugo Stille click here.

Author’s father’s father’s family
Israel Kamenetzki
    Ilya Kamenetzki – son of Israel; married Sara Altschuler
             Mikhail Kamenetski (Michael, Misha U. [Ugo] Stille) - son of Ilya and Sarah; married    Elizabeth Bogert
                     Lucy Stille – daughter of Mikhail and Elizabeth
                    Alexander Stille – son of Mikhail and Elizabeth; author
   Myra Kamenetzki – daughter of Israel

Author’s father’s mother’s family:
Moses Altschuler
      Rosa Altschuler – daughter of Moses
      Sara Altschuler – daughter of Moses; married to Ilya Kamenetzki (see above)

Mir, Russia (now Belarus)
Riga, Latvia
Moscow, Russia
Formia, Italy