Book-Brunch

Looking Back

by

Lev Raphael

Note from Lev Raphael 12/22/12:  This interview is a fitting way to close out my time at BilbioBuffet, where Nicki was the ideal editor and Lauren the ideal publisher. The book tour Nicki Leone mentions in her introduction was unfortunately arranged by a publishing intern who had never set one up before, and it was filled with problems of all kinds. Looking back, some of my misadventures make for great, comic anecdotes, but at the time, I was truly miserable at the level of basic comforts, even while Germany was becoming a place of deep fascination for me. Luckily, I went on to tour Germany three more times after that, and each tour was more successful, more fun, and more comfortable than the one before. I spoke in many more German cities, had some SRO crowds, did surprising sightseeing described in My Germany, and made some lifelong friends. Most remarkable of all, given where I’d begin, I did quite a few readings in German. And on my most recent trip in 2011, reading from the German translation of the book in a town north of Frankfurt, I actually felt so connected to the text that it was as if it had always been written in German. A fitting way to end a tour, and an evening that I will be musing over for a long time to come.

* * *

Back in September of 2005 I received a rather desolate-sounding email from my friend Lev Raphael, who was on a book tour in Germany for Das deutsche Geld (the German edition of his novel The German Money): “Sick of tiny hotel rooms,” he wrote. “Sick of being alone. Sick of German breakfasts. Sick of beer.” I responded as my grandmother and mother would have done. I offered to send him sweet-potato pecan bread when he returned home. Because the natural response to any complaint in my family was “here, eat something.”

Looking back, I’m a little embarrassed at what must have seemed to Lev to be a rather glib response to what had been a very stressful trip for him. Little did I know that the seemingly inauspicious trip would be the beginning of a journey that would lead Lev here, to this book. I don’t think he knew either. At least, not at the point when, after a nightmare flight home, he wrote me and said “I want to hide in bed for days.”

Lev and I have been corresponding for seven years now, although we have only met in person once. I call him my “literary pen pal” because he is one of the very few people on the planet who dares to recommend books to me, a career reader and bookseller. If you had asked me last month if I thought I knew Lev well, I would have said “sure, pretty well.”

Yet I was surprised by the man I met in Lev’s new memoir. His account of his return to Germany, his determination to discover what happened to his parents during the war, was relentless, honest, and often agonizing. I wasn’t surprised by the writing—I have always known Lev to be a fine, fine writer. But there are things in his memoir that I never imagined possible, and I was surprised, awed, that he had the strength to persevere in the task he set for himself, to trace his parents from concentration camp to concentration camp. Indeed, the first question I asked him in the following interview is one that simply burst out of me quite early when reading his story. “How could you go on?” How did he manage to keep looking, when each new discovery was horror after horror?

So yes, I’ve known Lev Raphael “pretty well” for quite awhile. But what I didn’t know, until I read this book, was how brave a man he really was.   –Nicki

Interview with Lev Raphael

On the publication of his new memoir, My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

Nicki: I made it to page thirty-four—the end of your mother’s brief letter—and I actually had to put the book down for a day because I couldn’t stand to read more. How were you able to bear going on with the research after reading your mother’s account of what happened to her in the Vilno Ghetto? Was there any point where you thought “I can’t go on with this?” Conversely, was there ever a moment when you found something that made you think “discovering this makes it all worth it”?

Lev: The letter/memoir my mother published in 1945 about the liquidation of the Vilno Ghetto in 1943 was a stunning discovery for me on many levels, and of course it was also something to be decoded, in a way, because my Yiddish has never been very good so I went through it very slowly. And then I had to do outside research to explicate some of its references.

But even when something I found while researching and writing My Germany gave me pause or surprised me or just stopped me dead in my tracks, I was pulled on by wanting to know more, and needing to write about it. It’s what Don DeLillo says in his novel Players: “To put it in words is to see the possibilities emerge.” Writing is often a voyage to a place you had no idea you’d wind up in, and with this book that was true metaphorically and literally.

I was ultimately glad to learn so much about my parents’ lives before, during and after the war.

Nicki: Why do you think your mother kept her concentration camp uniform? 

Lev: I don’t know for sure. My speculation is that she wanted to remember what it was like to be a slave one day and free the next. I think it was also the only thing she possessed at the end of the war, given that everything she owned had been stolen from her or even destroyed. And so, it was something to hand down to her children.

Nicki: It seems odd that although the Holocaust was so little spoken of in your house, there was this constant, very tangible presence hanging in the closet. Did you wonder about that uniform as a child? Did you ask about it? 

Lev: I did, and was only told what it was: end of discussion. I was young, and unfortunately in life, when you discover the right questions to ask them, your parents might be unable to answer.  My mother did speak about certain aspects of the war, sharing some anecdotes, but it was always unexpected, which made it doubly hard for me as a kid to know what to say. These terrible stories would come out of nowhere and return there.

Nicki: There is something you quote from essay your mother wrote, about the last time she saw her mother: “I was on one line, she was on the other.” By simply being put in a different line, she was not murdered that day. Your parents seemed to have survived—because of their strength of will, but also because of mere chance—because they boarded a train or didn’t; because an officer had the same name as your father, and so decided not to shoot him. You and I wouldn’t be talking except that an officer was too lazy—or too cruelly whimsical—to deliver a punishment. Most people’s lives never have a single “life or death” moment. Your mother and father walked with death. Did the arbitrariness of their suffering and survival ever make you feel that life was futile? That cruelty will always be there, ready to be visited at a moment’s notice? Did your parents feel that way, do you think? How do you overcome that?

Lev: I think there are warring or at least contradictory impulses in me: at one level I know that our lives can change in an instant, that the world can grab us in its fist and squeeze us into dust—or it can feel that way. Look at the collapse of America’s economy, look how sudden that’s been. The Polish writer Antoni Slominski described it really well: “Behind the stage of our life, concealed in the wings, great factories of suffering are at work that will visit us one day.”  So I really resonated as a kid to the ranting in Portnoy’s Complaint, especially where Portnoy cries out against oppression of the Jews, “it’s all written down in history, what they have done, our illustrious neighbors who own the world and know absolutely nothing about human boundaries and limits.”

And yet my closest friends will tell you that I have a comic vision of life and can usually see the hilarious side of almost anything and I enjoy comedies as much as anything else, maybe more so. Some of the stories about troubles on my various book tours are very funny, at least now, anyway! I guess that ability to see the comedy in almost anything is part of my personality, something I was born with, something that withstood the knowledge that I inherited of life’s potential cruelty. It’s why I had to write my comic mystery series; because I needed a venue in my writing for my sense of humor. As for my parents, they loved telling jokes and funny stories (which is very Eastern European), but they were not surprisingly often depressed and angry people, and my mother especially could fall into a deep funk about most anything.

Nicki: When you went to Germany the first time—each time—were you afraid? 

Lev: You know what? I was afraid of being afraid. That’s why I made my first trip just a long weekend on the way to Brussels and Amsterdam. I didn’t think I’d be able to bear it; I thought being in Germany would feel like a nightmare. And the book charts how remarkably at home and comfortable I felt. Of course, I was lucky to have found a distant relative who I stayed with the first time, and I went with my partner. My relative helped plan my time there and make it as efficient as possible, but even without that, I felt surprisingly relaxed on tour in Germany, except for the inevitable tour fatigue that you feel in the U.S., too, which was exacerbated by being so far from home and by the constant dislocation. That was eased on the second book tour where I had three days in Munich, three in Berlin and two in Braunschweig and wasn’t as stressed.

My only really anxious moments were on a local train going to Bad Arolsen on my second trip, the home of the Red Cross International Tracing Center which has millions of Holocaust-related documents, knowing that there would be nobody there to meet me, that I’d have to navigate the cab and the hotel by myself and eat alone. It was in the middle of nowhere and that felt eerie. But the town and hotel were so charming and welcoming that I relaxed when I got there. And then something funny happened when I hailed a cab from my hotel to the Tracing Center and it turned out to be only a few blocks away and when I got out of the cab I could even see my hotel. I could have walked! A New York cabby would have said, “Are you kidding?” The German cabby just did what I asked.

And then there was a time on the S-Bahn in East Berlin, where I was speaking English with the guide my publisher had hired for my time in the city. Some guys who looked like thugs, and were drinking beer, were clearly unhappy we were speaking English, or that he was because he was obviously German. I was momentarily paralyzed even though they were just muttering, but my guide ignored them. He said afterwards they wouldn’t have done anything, it was just weak posturing. I wasn’t afraid as a Jew, but it was definitely creepy.

Nicki: At the time you were traveling, there was a lot of anti-American sentiment because of George W. Bush’s foreign policies. Do you think their hostility was related to that? Those policies seem to have fueled an alarming rise in ultra right wing nationalist (and often racist, anti-Semitic) feeling. Did any of the current political unrest color your attempt to discover the past?

Lev: That’s certainly a possibility. But when I queried my guide further, he said the guy was likely an “Osti,” someone from the former East Germany who felt culturally inferior post-reunification. Hearing English spoken by a German shamed him, reminding him of his relative cultural deprivation.

Nicki: As you talk about your trips to Germany, you sound somewhere between surprised and relieved and even curious; the inns were cozy, the food was good, the wine was great, the country beautiful, the people were friendly. Was it the hospitality that overcame your fear of the country? Or was it something as simple as being there to see all was not ruins and darkness and frozen-featured faces? 

Lev: I grew up in a household where everything German, even the language, was taboo and radioactive, so to encounter anything at all that was positive while I was there was mind-blowing. The hospitality definitely made a difference, and so did seeing a country different from what I’d imagined, and really, in the end, seeing myself differently. Seeing how far I had come emotionally because being there roused my curiosity at every level. It was as much about me and my reactions, or more so, than it was about the country or the people. I felt very American, very much a tourist. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they treat writers there with real respect, as cultural figures, and ask serious questions. You’re not just author #1,007 on a conveyor belt being moved from one Barnes & Noble to another. I spoke at book stores (where they served sparkling wine!) and a museum, schools, German-American cultural centers and other different venues—and that also made the experience richer for me, not run-of-the-mill.

Nicki: I sometimes think that the surest way to eradicate racism and fear in our lives is to have everyone sit down together to dinner. It is hard not to feel connected to someone who has just passed you the pecan pie. 

Lev: Too true! That’s why meals play such a role in the book, because of the conversations they facilitated. And the reflections they inspired. Think of it: my mother was a slave laborer in Magdeburg for nine terrible months at the end of the war, and there I am some sixty years later, a successful author having a drink in a beautiful café after a crowded reading. It’s a scene packed with meaning.

Nicki: Was the research for this book difficult? Your sources are often obscure documents buried in files in repositories located in remote German towns. “Google” could only take you so far. Did you have to develop new research methods?

Lev: I had to be very patient. The research went in fits and starts and there were lots of dead ends where something that seemed significant by its catalogue listing turned out not to be helpful when I actually received photocopies of the documents or got PDFs of the photos. Google actually was helpful, but only to a point. Trying to find something my mother had published in a Yiddish journal in 1945 soon after the war, I got nowhere with a major Yiddish library-archive in New York until I realized I had the wrong journal title. They still didn’t have it, but I happened upon a Yiddish library in Paris; I wrote to them in French, which I’d luckily learned in school, and they had what I needed. As any researcher will tell you, happenstance is a large part of your success.

I also had to write to archives in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, too, and have replies translated for me when I got them. At one point, someone gave me a chapter of an out-of-print Yiddish book completely unavailable anywhere I looked, but I can’t recall now how I found this person. A lot of it was throwing out a wide net on listservs of survivors and children of survivors, running queries in newsletters, etc. I looked everywhere in every way I could imagine to find what I needed. I think writing mysteries helped me because I felt very much like a detective poring over clues and unraveling mysteries: dogged, determined, though sometimes defeated.

Nicki: I was incredibly moved at the part of your account when you described finding the record that your mother’s friend, Frieda, gave birth to a son in the Buchenwald camp. It is one of the most painful parts of the book, a short life reconstructed from a few forms and brief notations on official documents. And it struck me that most of our questions about what happened in the camps have their answers implied in these coldly laconic notations. It takes a certain empathy and imagination to see a blank inventory card and understand what it implies—for example that the person it documented owned, and therefore wore, no shoes. How hard was it to learn to “read” these forms, identity cards, inventory lists and other documents and reconstruct the person they described? 

Lev: It took a while, and part of the time involved was translating what the German terms meant, especially if they were abbreviations. Each time I studied something like that, I went deeper into the reality they were cataloguing, or to use a term students of the Holocaust employ, the “irreality,” a kind of hallucinatory parallel reality. How else do you describe my mother being asked, as she’s being “processed” into a concentration camp, what her address in her home city was, what her educational background was? If she’s married? What are the whereabouts of her husband? And more such questions, and then having to sign at the bottom, attesting to the fact that everything she’s answered is correct, and if she’s discovered to have lied, she will be punished.

You can read all you want about the Holocaust, but to hold one of these documents in your hand and to study it takes you there in a much more powerful way. Seeing these cards also put things together for me in a new way. For the first time, and thanks to German efficiency, I had a very specific set of dates listing when my mother was brought to which camp. This helped me place her in the larger context of the war.

Nicki: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about your parents in your research? 

Lev: My father was a lot wilder as a young man, and a lot more fortunate than I had realized.  And of course, I didn’t know that my mother had actually published a short memoir about some of her wartime experiences. Learning so much about them—like in detail how my father escaped death three different times--gave me infinitely more compassion for them.

Nicki: Was there ever a point where you didn’t recognize the woman your research uncovered as your mother? Did she seem like a stranger to you, or was there always something familiar about her? 

Lev: Do any of us feel like our parents in their late teens and twenties, if we can find something out about them, are the same people who brought us up? To me, their war years and their years in Belgium after the war were two different lives, lives that may have cast deep shadows on our home in America, but were definitely quite alien. Both my father and my mother emerge for me as individuals I never knew, couldn’t have known, obviously, but certainly never knew from what little they shared about the Holocaust and their lives before it. I was especially fascinated to discover what my father’s life was like before the war, how impoverished, and also the timeline and details of my father’s adventures during the war.

Nicki: How important was learning the language in helping you come to terms with the country?

Lev: Extremely. I learned enough German (and picked up more while there) to be able to get on and off of trains, buy things in stores, order meals in restaurants, read signs and schedules, understand questions at readings, and even chat with strangers. And I introduced all of my talks in Germany with some brief remarks in German which nobody expected and everyone appreciated, and that made me feel more grounded. In the U.S. I might tell a joke before speaking at a college or library or museum, but humor doesn’t always work cross-culturally, so I knew I had to do something else to not start the reading cold. At my first reading in Munich, people actually applauded my intro, which was very cool.

Nicki: Could you have written this book if you had decided not to embrace your Jewish heritage? Are there Second Generation Jews who remain secular, divorced from their Jewish identities, and still manage to come to terms with the Holocaust?

Lev: I don’t think I could have. This book comes after a few decades of questioning, exploring, and embracing being Jewish—and thirty years of publishing fiction and non-fiction about the Second Generation. I do think, however, that being a secular Jew is just a different way of being connected to one’s Jewish identity since Judaism is a culture as well as a religion. For me, though, I had to have both, or explore both.

Nicki: At the end of the book you talk about meeting Jews for whom keeping the memory meant never moving on from the past. Is that your role as a Second Generation writer? To make a way to move on? Is it the role of the Third Generation? How many generations does it take to recover from genocide? Do you see it ever happening? 

Lev: I think the Third Generation isn’t so caught up in suffering and trauma. You know, even though it didn’t happen to them, the children of survivors feel marked by their parents’ experiences. For the grandchildren, however, learning about the Holocaust is important, but it’s also about family history and the history of their people: it’s history.

I can’t claim that I’m clearing a path for those who can’t move on—or that it’s been my aim. Not consciously, anyway. I do think this book can help foster reflection and dialogue for the second generation and many others. The head of a Midwestern group of survivors and children of survivors said she thought everyone in the Second Generation should read it to see the kind of journey I had taken in my life.

The Holocaust will always be a part of Jewish memory, but once the survivors are all dead, it will have entered history just like the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Inquisition and other disasters that have befallen the Jews. Right now, it’s still part of our lived experience since the survivor witnesses are among us.

Nicki: You discuss some of the Holocaust memorials you’ve visited. Do you think they fulfill their purpose? Is their purpose to document? To witness? To evoke? Which is the most important function to you? Which memorial made the biggest impression on you? 

Lev: The memorials do both, and they also share information for all the people who haven’t encountered the Holocaust. The one that moved me the most was the giant memorial in Berlin which is hundreds of grayish slabs of stone laid out in a grid that form a kind of maze, in that the deeper you penetrate the memorial, the less city noise you hear, the fewer people you see, the taller the stones are, the more disorientated you get because the paths are off-kilter, you’re below ground level, and people cross your field of vision quickly and disappear. It’s just a taste of having your reality twisted, of being isolated and maybe even abandoned. You can feel hopeless and trapped there.

Nicki: Describe what you meant when you said your trip was performing tikkun olam.

Lev: Tikkun olam is the mystical concept in Judaism of repairing a broken world by the actions we perform. In a different sense, Hart Crane wrote about how he “stepped into the broken world/to trace the visionary company of love” and my book is an act of love, offered to all kinds of readers, Jewish and non-Jewish, fans of memoirs, readers of travelogues, people interested in contemporary Germany, all baby boomers dealing with a painful family past.

Nicki: The Holocaust is a European legacy, but genocide is a world legacy. Do you think we will ever live in a world without genocide?

Lev: I don’t think the human animal can ever reach that kind of perfection. And the growing food shortages connected with climate change don’t point to a peaceful future.

Nicki: My Germany feels like the book you had to write, no matter what. Does every Second Generation Jew have to go through this process? Not write a book, per se, but do something equivalent to allow the past to rest? Do they each have to make at least a metaphorical trip to Germany to reclaim it? 

Lev: Actually, I never expected to write it! It was going to Germany that made me see there was something there to write about, and the first thing I wrote was an article that became the preface, where I contrast riding into Magdeburg as a successful American author with my mother being brought there in a cattle car some sixty years earlier, to perform slave labor in a munitions plant.

I think everyone in the Second Generation has his or her own path. I wouldn’t force any kind of trip to Germany on anyone, real or imaginary, and I know Jews and non-Jews alike who would never go there. My book isn’t prescriptive, it’s descriptive. It records what I had to do, or found myself having to do.

Nicki: When a reader asked you how you could be sure that you had changed, moved on, you answered that your subconscious was no longer driving you in the direction of the Holocaust. You could write about other things. You could look at a tourist brochure of German castles and feel only a tourist’s curiosity. But while you might be able to visit medieval fortresses, aren’t there still parts of Germany that will be forever closed to you? Could you live, for any extended time, for example, in Magdeburg? 

Lev: Magdeburg has the advantage for me of being the home of people I know, and it’s close to Berlin and Dresden, so if circumstances took that turn for whatever reason, yes, I could imagine spending a longer time there. Ideally, I’d most love to spend more time in Munich, which I found fascinating on many levels. And for me, being in Germany would be part and parcel of the joy of learning more of the language. It wasn’t until I got there that I really starting reflecting on having grown up in a heavily German-Jewish neighborhood in New York, and how the sound of that language is actually part of my childhood.

Nicki: You say at one point that you felt “glad to be the son of survivors rather than the son of actual or possible perpetrators.” Did you ever speculate on what might have happened if you came across someone whose parents or grandparents were directly involved in your mother’s or father’s torture?  

Lev: That  never crossed my mind, because it would have meant I was focusing on vengeance and that wasn’t my frame of mind when I went to Germany or when I wrote the book. However, friends in Europe, especially Holland, tell me it’s much harder growing up there as a child of Holocaust survivors, because the people who might have betrayed your family or even been involved in your persecution could actually be living right down the street.

Nicki: You say it isn’t your place to forgive. And yet you are often asked if forgiveness is possible, especially by Germans. What is really possible if Germans need the forgiveness that the Jews are unable to grant?

Lev: Well, some Jews can forgive, some can’t, but I don’t know how many Germans actively seek Jewish forgiveness per se. I do think many Germans have been working very hard to assimilate their terrible history through education and memorials and films and books. I’ve seen it. I think that’s having its effect despite the recrudescence of anti-Semitism there and elsewhere in Europe. So I think a lot is possible. But as I said in the book, whom would I forgive and how? How could I speak for my parents, and are the people who perpetrated evil on them even alive today? Where I have felt a connection is talking to Germans my own age or thereabouts  whose parents were in some way guilty during the war and who have lived with a terrible inheritance.

Nicki: What do you think your mother would have thought about My Germany?

Lev: Sadly, she became ill just when I started publishing books, but she was proud of my writing, from my first story in second grade about a letter’s trip around the world. Her reading to me when I was little, her own voracious reading, her encouraging me to borrow as many books as I could from the library every week, and her never saying that a book was too mature for me are gifts that will last a lifetime. Without them, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today and I never would have written My Germany. And without my father opening up to me about how terribly he suffered during the war and how he survived, and letting me interview him many times, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the journey I undertook when I started this memoir.

Books mentioned in this column:
The German Money by Lev Raphael (Leapfrog Press, 2003)
My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped by Lev Raphael (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009)

 

Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-six years along with a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of twenty-two books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he's seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can't identify, and he's done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His latest book Pride and Prejudice: The Jewess and the Gentile is his second e-book original. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.

 

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