Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.

 

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ coming to a big screen near you

Ten years ago, Diane Ackerman brought the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski before the public in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Next Friday, March 31, the heroics of the Zabinskis will receive even greater exposure as the film The Zookeeper’s Wife comes to neighborhood theaters. I’ve been a cheerleader for the book for all ten years. It combines narrative nonfiction, nature writing and a little-known story of genuine heroes of the Holocaust in one tight package.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see the film as yet. Those who have seen it in preview have found it moving and frightening – both reactions completely appropriate to the subject at hand. The book is based in large part on Antonina’s journals.  Jan Zabinski was the head of the Warsaw Zoo when the Nazis invaded Poland. He and his young family lived on site, taking care of the animals as conditions worsened. For scientific reasons, several Nazi officers were keenly interested in the animals and spent considerable time at the zoo.

Of greater note are the extraordinary lengths Jan went to secreting Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and hiding them within the zoo. Jan was the head of a cadre of resistance members that moved more than 300 Jews, partisans and other opponents of the Nazi regime out of and through Warsaw to safety in the countryside.

As is often the case, the screenplay for this movie was written by someone other than the author. Books and movies have very different ways of treating the same story.  When a screenwriter takes on the task of turning well-written nonfiction into a film the most important thing should be whether the truth remains in the telling. The cast for the film, headed by Jessica Chastain, is international and should help capture the range of people that were caught up in Warsaw during the war.

Make no mistake, this film will not gloss over the horrors of the war and just show cute animals. As in the book, there will be moments of humor and tenderness. It should also show the individual and collective depravity of the Nazi regime.  For this reason, it is rated PG-13. Anyone considering taking somewhat younger children who have had exposure to Holocaust material before should keep in mind that there may be very different reactions to pictures and sounds than to words on a page.

Without broad critical reactions, it is hard to know if the movie will have a wide distribution. If you can, see it.  Regardless, both the story Ackerman has to tell and her writing would make reading The Zookeeper’s Wife time well spent.

 

A delicate balance in historical fiction

  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (Ballantine Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Ravensbrück and the medical experimentation there are among the lesser known atrocities of WWII. Kelly’s book tells of the female doctor charged with doing these experiments and an American socialite who supported the Free French and brought the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück to the US in 1958.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York, Paris, Poland, Germany
  • Time: 1939 – 59
  • Read this for a skilled portrayal of the horrific and little-told events of Ravensbrück during WWII.

Caroline Ferriday was an exotic creature in New York on the brink of WWII. A socialite and former actress, she was a true francophile, volunteering her efforts to aid French citizens seeking entry to the US and orphaned children sheltered in French convents. In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly aptly captures her vivacity and generosity of spirit, as well as the differences between her and many of the other upper-class young women in New York at that time.

The selflessness of Ferriday is contrasted in the other real women portrayed in Lilac Girls. The Ravensbrück labor camp was a model facility for the Nazis. Primarily populated by Polish political prisoners, it quickly became a showpiece for the Red Cross and the laboratory for horrific experimentation into the effects of untreated wounds and infections. Herta Oberheuser was completing her medical training as the war broke out and was the only woman doctor assigned to the medical staff at Ravensbrück. Initially assigned to minor ailments, she wanted to use her surgical training. Already set apart from the male doctors, she was the perfect choice for a clandestine project to infect and maim healthy young women to simulate battlefield infections and wounds. Over 70 young Polish women became test “rabbits”, intentionally untreated and reinfected to see the course these injuries and illness would take.

Herta Oberheuser was joined in her mistreatment of prisoners by a sadistic matron-like figure and an assistant out to get her. Wherever possible, Kelly has used actual names and information, made possible by the extenisve recorkeeping of the Nazi regime. After the war, Dr. Oberhauser was one of few women brought before the Nuremberg tribunal. Found guilty, she excaped execution and was imprisoned, only to be released after about 5 years.

Although the names of many of the “rabbits” are known, Kelly chose to create fictional women and in doing so provides rich backstories and intricate relationships among the sisters she has highlighted. The complex mix between real and fictional characters begs the reader to search out more about the people and Ravensbrück.

There is a vast continuum of titles that fall under the historical fiction genre. Historical figures make cameo appearances in fictional stories, and well-reasearched narratives have augmented dialogue to move actual events forward. In telling the stories of Ravensbrück and of the hardships of the Free French, Martha Hall Kelly has broadened the understanding of those beyond the Jews who were subjugated and often killed by the Nazis. If fault lies in the telling of the story, it is the conflation of Caroline Ferriday’s deeds with a love story involving her with a fictional French actor. This thread is a major element in the novel though it does not seem to have any historical basis. It does enrich the reader’s connection to Caroline and provides a view into what did occur in France during and immediately after the war. I would have preferred to see Caroline’s strength shown on her own.

Many readers I know have no interest in reading any more books, fiction or nonfiction, on the Holocaust. Though the events portrayed are horrific, there is benefit to reading the lesser-known stories. Martha Hall Kelly has done a great service by bringing to light the tragedy of Ravensbrück. And Caroline Ferriday should not be relegated only to archives.

 

A Pop-Up City and Women Helped Win WWII

  • imgresThe Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (William Morrow, 2007)
  • In 40 words or less: In 1943, part of the Tennessee Valley was transformed into a top secret factory town to support the Manhattan Project. Denise Kiernan’s narrative captures the little-known story of the women, predominantly non-scientists, who were responsible for the machinery that created the fuel for the atomic bomb.
  • Genre: Narrative history
  • Locale: Oak Ridge, TN
  • Time: 1943 – 45
  • Read this to learn about an extraordinary military and social experiment that created a 70,000 resident city from scratch for a single purpose.

While working on another project, Denise Kiernan saw a 1944 photo of women working in front of large machines in Oak Ridge, TN. James Edward Westcott, a government photographer, documented the building and operations of the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW), the “business” portion of the city built for the war effort in the Tennessee Valley.

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Out of nowhere, government officials evicted families from their homes and farms with often less than 2 weeks to move and limited compensation. Kiernan details the massive physical labor involved in building a city from nothing and the lengths required to provide labor to meet needs from construction, manufacturing, quality assurance, human resources, commissaries, medical clinics and everything else for an “instant city” of almost 70,000. But it wasn’t all work, the community had bowling alleys, tennis courts, and movie theaters. Hard to imagine that those inside never talked about their work with their co-workers and neighbors, and those outside the gates knew nothing at all.

Focusing on a number of women whose letters and interviews give flavor to the history, Kiernan parses the hierarchical society that was built. The workers came from those that were displaced, people that worked the cotton fields and coal miners from Pennsylvania and West Virgina. Women educated as scientists often worked in administrative positions while lesser educated men supervised. Both because it was accepted and to placate the political figures in Tennessee, discrimination against African Americans was particularly egregious. While other married workers were provided housing options for the family, African American husbands and wives were separated and lived in single-gender huts. Their children were not permitted, in part because a separate school system would have been required.

Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Any infractions were severely punished, often with summary dismissal. The lack of information about the undertaking created great resentment in Knoxville, the nearest large community. People could not understand how train and truckloads of material continuously entered the facility but nothing ever came out.imgres-2

Interwoven with the accounts of the growing community and its work is information about the raw material, Tubealloy, that was THE SECRET. The layers of secrecy surrounding the decisions and those involved is seen in the shadowy information available even seventy years later. The key figures of the Manhattan Project periodically are mentioned early on. Those living and working at CEW were completely unaware of the scope or magnitude of the combined effort.

Key to bringing this project to life are the photographs of Ed Westcott, whose sole responsibility was to provide a photographic record of the entire project. He alone had access to everything from the operating facilities to the hospital to the garbage collection trucks.  His work is maintained in the National Archive and on a website, The Photography of Ed Westcott.

In my view, there is magic in uncovering untold history. If you have ever wondered how the US pulled off the development of the atomic bomb, here it is. And the story that is told about the women and men who operated in total secrecy “to help end the war” really is important in understanding the war being fought on the homefront in the later stages of WWII.

 

Incredible heroism in wartime Warsaw in two versions

  • unknown-14Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo (Gallery Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker, developed an extensive network that saved 2,500 Jewish children and countless adults, under the eyes of the Nazis. An extraordinary narrative look at the individuals and their actions from interviews, diaries and documents.
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: World War II; limited material through her death in 2008
  • Read this for an intimate look at Irena Sendler, and those she recruited, their extraordinary actions and the obstacles they overcame. Not a canonization, this book portrays Irena and others as people with personal motivations and failings.
  • unknown-13Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo, adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Pulling no punches, the Young Readers Edition focuses on the events in Warsaw during the war and the actions Irena Sendler took to save thousands of lives.
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: World War II
  • Read this for a clear narrative of Irena Sendler’s life and actions from 1939 through 1944. Note, while the language and presentation are suitable for readers 10 and older, adult guidance is strongly recommended because of the disturbing information presented.

Please bear with me. Neither these books nor the author fits the mold of usual Holocaust histories or biographies, if there is such a thing. Tillar Mazzeo is a cultural historian and professor, brought to the reading public through her books about Madame Cliquot (champagne) and the history of Chanel No. 5, arguably the world’s most famous perfume. Her path to writing about Irena Sendler was far from obvious.

In 2009, Mazzeo visited family posted to Krakow, Poland, with the State Department. She noticed a wide expanse of open parkland adjacent to a forested area near the international school where her sister worked. Mazzeo wondered why the land was left to go wild. Her sister told her the trains to Auschwitz traveled through there and it remains a reminder, coming to life on November 1 when the local citizens come with candles and flowers to memorialize all those lost. Offered the chance to visit Auschwitz, Mazzeo declined, but when her sister told her about Irena Sendler a few years later she decided it was important for her story to be told.

Within the last decade, Sendler’s extraordinary actions to save approximately 2,500 Jewish children and countless other persons persecuted by the Nazis in Poland during World War II have become better known. Though recognized at Yad Vashem in 1965, her story was little known previously for many reasons – she sought no recognition, Poland came under Soviet control after World War II, her actions and motivations were not consistent with Poland’s government’s interests, she wanted a “regular” life, and she was a woman.

Irena Sendler was a young social worker in Warsaw when the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939. The daughter of a doctor who died as a consequence of tending patients in the most difficult circumstances, she became a dedicated Socialist, pursuing her principles through the university and in her profession. Her circle included a mix of social action-oriented Catholics, Socialists and Jews, doctors, nurses and other social workers among them, who became the foundation of an extensive lifesaving and resistance network.

Irena Sendler and her compatriots took advantage of the extensive system the Polish/German government to provide false documentation and secure medication for those in the Ghetto. Sendler took complete responsibility for maintaining information on each of the children taken from their parents and placed in homes, orphanages and other locations. Through a combination of extensive planning, lucky breaks and many people looking the other way, Irena Sendler avoided arrest until late in 1943. As the lynchpin of the network, her capture endangered the safety of the resistance network and all the identity information about the children. Her escape on the day slated for her execution was purchased by the resistance.

Mazzeo’s research and writing and Farrell’s adaptation are both strong additions to the canon of Holocaust literature. While it is at times difficult to keep track of the many individuals involved in the rescues, in hiding, and providing assistance, those details provide a sense of the magnitude of the undertaking. So why two versions? The original version delves deeply into the personal life and motivations of Irena Sendler. Her personal and family relationships were complicated. At times she ignored her family to their detriment while attending to her network. It also contains extensive footnotes documenting the narrative.

The Young Reader Edition focuses on the events and actions of Irena Sendler and her network. Since it is intended for those with less knowledge or exposure to the history, there is context and background provided. The language, while appropriate to the audience, is far from juvenile. This version would be ideal for intergenerational book groups. While it includes a great deal about many aspects of Sendler’s life, there are personal relationships and familial issues that are omitted. While they may have influenced her choices, they do not change what she did.

I read both and I would recommend both wholeheartedly.