This month, I will have the great honor of hosting the Jewish Book Carnival on this site. If you are not familiar with the event, let me tell you a little bit about it. Each month, a host welcomes links and posts from a myriad of other bloggers who are promoting works of Jewish content. It is an incredible format that allows us to share in rich and varied topics ranging from Children’s literature to Adult fiction and everything in between.
Barbara and I met like many people do these days; that is to say, we met online. In preparing for the Carnival, Barbara contributed a link (don’t forget to visit this site on April 15th!) and also shared some information with regard to her new book. I had the pleasure of reading her latest work; and while it is not a subject that I normally lean towards, it is an important topic and is sure to have a long-lasting impact. Without further ado, please join me in welcoming today’s guest, Barbara Krasner~ author, blogger, and historian extraordinaire!
Host: Barbara, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book. I found the format unique and unexpected. It pulled on my heartstrings; but more importantly, it brings up a subject that often is neglected. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop now and allow you to tell the audience about your newest release.
Guest: Thanks, Mirta, for having me. I’m always interested in talking about Jewish historical fiction! My new book, 37 Days at Sea: Aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939, is a middle-grade novel in verse. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons, traveling with her parents and nearly 1,000 other German-Jewish refugees bound for Cuba. But the ship is not allowed to land, and the captain receives orders to return the ship to Germany. Ruthie and her friend, Wolfie, take action to help minimize the despair.
Host: From reading your blog page, I see that you are a historian, linguist and an author. Your list of accomplishments speaks to the love for your heritage and dedication to your craft. Tell us what intrigued you about this particular period in time?
Guest: My mother told me something about the St. Louis growing up. I decided to explore it in 2010 and read Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie’s Refuge Denied, which determined the fate the passengers after the ship landed in Antwerp in June 1939. I contacted Scott and he gave me the names of survivors who lived in the New Jersey-Pennsylvania-New York area. One by one I contacted them and interviewed them in their homes during 2010. The narrative actually started as nonfiction, then transformed to poetry for adults, then poetry for kids, ultimately fictionalized.
There are many time periods I’m interested in: Jews in early America, the mass immigration period, the postwar period (Displaced Persons). The Holocaust period, for me, takes precedence because these stories must be told to remember and honor those who perished and to keep warning the world about the loss of human rights and genocide.
Host: I understand that you are specializing in Holocaust & Genocide Studies. The scope of such a curriculum must be daunting, to say the least. Have you always been a great reader? Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?
Guest: I am currently a doctoral candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College outside Philadelphia. I’ve always been attracted to historical fiction even as a young reader and loved Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series about a Jewish family in the early 1900s in New York City.
Host: Yes! That was one of my childhood favorites as well. As an immigrant myself, I found it to be highly relatable in so many ways. The focus on identity, assimilation, and pride in heritage was powerful for this young Argentine Jewish girl, trying to understand her place in the world.
With regard to the MS St. Louis, and the general understanding of America’s position towards Jewish refugees at the time, I feel that the history has been downplayed to the detriment of our society. Given your professional experience in this genre, I would assume you are accustomed to the grim and the tragic aspects attributed to the subject matter. What did you learn, while doing your research, that particular affected you?
Guest: I spent days researching the St. Louis at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee headquarters in New York City as well as several days at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. I interviewed about eight survivors who had been aboard the St. Louis as kids. What struck me most was the resilience of these people. I noticed in one survivor’s home all the Judaica that hung on the walls. He said, “Hitler did not survive. We did.”
Host: That, indeed, is a poignant statement. Resilient. The word is applicable to Ruthie Arons. Her innocence, hope, and courage touched my heart. How did this character resonate with you?
Guest: Ruthie’s character is a composite of people I interviewed and then some. Writing in verse helped me better understand her character and how she would respond to situations.
Host: I found the verse format to be compelling. It painted a singular picture of the situation; and though the story is told through a child’s eyes, it is not childish. I was completely engaged. Barbara, tell us a little about some of the places you have visited and their connection to your books.
Guest: In 2008 I traveled to my grandparents’ “shtetlekh” in northeastern Poland to research a historical novel. While that manuscript is still in the drawer, standing on the same ground as my grandparents was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My grandmother’s hometown of Ostrow Mazowiecka felt like my hometown.
Host: I had a similar experience when I traveled to Argentina and visited the Jewish colonies in the pampas~ the land that adopted my Russian grandparents. I felt like a time traveler. Talk about research! I would love to hear more about this manuscript, stashed away in the drawer. Will it come out soon or are you working on something else?
Guest: I have a few projects I’m working on now that I guess one could characterize as Jewish historical fiction. Too soon to talk about them in detail, but both take place in America during the Cold War.
Host: I can relate…Stories take on a life of their own; and sometimes, books understand timing better than we do! Even so, I wish you all the best with this project and in your future endeavors. It is important work. Kol hakavod! Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: Thank you, Mirta, for this opportunity. For more information about me, readers can check out my website at www.barbarakrasner.com and my blog, The Whole Megillah, at http://thewholemegillah.wordpress.com