By filling in the gaps in her parents' stories, an author writes novels that aim to create new witnesses to their nearly forgotten history.
My dad was 15 when he and his parents immigrated to the United States from Vienna, Austria. That was in 1938. After a brief stay in New York, they settled in Columbus. My mother arrived at Ellis Island with her parents in 1947 at the age of 24; they came from eastern Poland, land that is now part of Ukraine. Her family settled in Atlantic City, but Mom moved to Columbus to live with relatives and attend Ohio State. Her aunt and uncle made the introductions, my parents married the next year, and my sister was born a year and a half later, with me following four years after that.
As a young girl growing up in the Midwest in the late ’50s and ’60s, I didn’t think about the challenges my parents might have faced when assimilating into American life. I also didn’t know about the religious persecution that drove them out of their countries. I didn’t know about their individual journeys to America or their determination to begin anew.
What I did know then was that my family was different from most everyone around me. My dad had already lived half his life in Columbus by the time I was born on the last day of 1953, but my mom’s heavy accent still marked her as a foreigner. “W” came out as “V” so “was” became “vas” and “want” was “vant.” She wore her thick, dark hair long, parted in the center. She was high-strung, a worrier. They spoke German when they didn’t want my sister and me to understand what they were saying. My grandparents seemed old-world and ancient, even though they were then the age I am now.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Family lore slowly inserted itself into my consciousness. There was the older cousin on my mother’s side who died in the war, the grandmother on my father’s who was left behind. My mother would tell idyllic stories about her tiny village in Poland, complete with a stable and barn and horses and cows. One day when we were looking through old photographs, she pointed to a picture that showed her and her classmates. Without skipping a beat, she told me she was the only one who survived. More reticent, my father offered that he finished college on the GI Bill and that he’d fought in World War II. He often mentioned a man he never knew who provided him and my grandparents with affidavits that allowed them to escape. I was left with pieces of my parents’ lives that I tried to fit into my growing understanding of history, loss and consequence. Over the years, I carried my family’s history with me like a weighty knapsack.***
Not long after I earned a graduate degree in journalism in the late ’70s, armed with several years of experience writing for magazines, I assumed the role of family historian with great fervor. I gave myself the assignment of interviewing both my parents to ensure that my children and grandchildren would understand where they came from. Most of all, I needed to understand my heritage. I audiotaped these conversations, hoping that an objective approach with prepared questions would finally connect the dots of my family history. My parents shared what they remembered. But as I tapped their words on my IBM Selectric, I still ended up with gaps and, much later, thought of all the questions I could have asked. I also realized that there likely was trauma embedded in these memories, and that forgetting might have been a useful way for my parents to move forward.
For many years, my typewritten facts remained in a drawer.***
Family memory is precious because it gets thinner as time passes. These witnesses of our history will eventually disappear unless we learn about their stories and pass them on. The act of remembrance, through the retelling of very human stories, creates new witnesses.
For each of my parents, I had the basic facts of their childhood and young adulthood, but I couldn’t know their feelings and reactions to the events as they happened. I didn’t experience their relationships or hardships. Fiction writers often come to the page with gnawing questions. Mine had to do with understanding my parents’ survival of their unique and extraordinary circumstances, and their journey from one homeland to another. In my first historical novel, “Tasa’s Song,” I created a character who, like my mother, experienced war as a teenager and lived in an underground bunker to survive. My mother’s story is filled with dramatic and traumatic touchpoints that I incorporated into Tasa’s story. In writing this book, I sought to understand how one survives such trauma. By telling my mother’s story through fiction, I was able to find greater truths about the power of the human spirit to rise above the atrocities brought on by war and misfortune.
My father shared with me, generally, details of his early schooling in Vienna, the growing tension his family experienced in Europe and his subsequent immigration to America. I knew that his mother wanted to live in a city with a university and that prompted them to move to Columbus, where my father graduated from Central High School and attended Ohio State.
I learned that within five years of escaping to America, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and, thanks to his understanding of the German language and culture, he joined thousands of young, mostly Jewish men like him who became known as Ritchie Boys. They were trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland and worked undercover in intelligence on the European front to help the Allies win World War II. There was much I didn’t know about what my dad encountered as he went from Vienna to New York, from Ohio to Maryland, and then to war-torn Europe. I could only imagine these things and, in “A Ritchie Boy,” I did so through a character named Eli Stoff. Eli, like my dad, is an immigrant who becomes an American military intelligence officer. I had to imagine the people and circumstances that shape Eli, yet I think his journey, like my father’s, represents thousands who have arrived on our shores, and continue to arrive, as they contribute to our collective freedom and well-being.***
The interplay of truth and invention is often at work in historical fiction. In “A Ritchie Boy,” my use of the Columbus setting illustrates this best. All immigrants at that time arrived through Ellis Island, as my dad and grandparents did. Many settled in a New York City borough or suburb, but my grandmother—and Lila Stoff in the novel—wanted to be in a city where they could assimilate and where there was a university. She wanted to live in a neighborhood with trees and lawns. So, in truth and fiction, a social worker from the Hebrew Aid Immigrant Society provided the Stoffs, as well as my grandparents, a list of cities that included Columbus.
Lila says to her son, Eli, and her husband, Bart: “They gave me a list of cities in the Midwest—St. Louis, Chicago, Columbus. I think Chicago is too big.”
In fact, I don’t know why they chose Columbus, but I enjoyed drawing on local and international history to imagine how that happened in my fictional telling. In 1936, African American sprinter Jesse Owens captured world attention breaking Olympic records and winning four gold medals at the Olympic Games held in Berlin, the headquarters of Hitler’s Nazi regime. He was hailed as a hero—the one who showed Hitler that the Aryans aren’t always the best. It was well known that Owens attended Ohio State University, so it seemed logical that my fictional Eli Stoff would think of Owens and tell his mother that Columbus is where they ought to live.
I even inserted James Thurber into the story as the decision to move to Columbus drew near. My fictional Lila reflected on some pictures she had seen in back issues of The New Yorker drawn by Thurber. She’d learned he was born in Columbus and also attended Ohio State. She then bought a used copy of “My Life and Hard Times” at a nearby bookshop before leaving New York. I have no idea if my dad had known about Jesse Owens or my grandmother read all about James Thurber. But the facts helped in the telling of a fictional story.
Probably the most memorable story my dad shared with me had to do with the Jewish American retailer who, in 1938, just after Germany took control of Austria, signed the affidavit securing my father’s safe escape from Vienna. In reality, my dad could never locate this man to personally thank him. In my novel, I got to make that happen, seizing a satisfaction that eluded my father. My dad used to say he learned the value of giving back to others because of this man’s generous and altruistic act that changed his life.***
I grew up with a cultural heritage marked by persecution, family love, resilience and survival. It is what I have been most curious about and what I have chosen to explore in my writing. In my fiction, I have sought to offer a larger truth based on imagined characters and actions and relationships. This connective tissue has become part of human stories that allow readers to experience, and be present in, noteworthy narratives. As a result, those readers can become a witness to important parts of our collective history.
Linda Kass is the founder and owner of Gramercy Books in Bexley. She is the author of “Tasa’s Song” (2016) and “A Ritchie Boy,” to be released in September.