What Would You Have Done?

whatwouldyouhavedone

Jenna Blum offers a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

Featured Book: Those Who Save Us (Harvest Books, 2009)

When Those Who Save Us begins, it is 1939, and Anna Brandt is 18. In her hometown of Weimar, Germany, where relationships between Germans and Jews are outlawed, Anna and the man she loves are committing the crime of race defilement. When Anna is forced to flee the home of her father, a Nazi sympathizer, she takes refuge in a bakery owned by a Resistance member. Soon Anna is making pastries for the officers of nearby Buchenwald while also making “special deliveries,” risking death to bring bread to the camp’s inmates. Then she is noticed by one of Buchenwald’s highest-ranking officers. And everything changes. Five decades later, long after Anna has emigrated to Minnesota, she still refuses to speak of her wartime experiences. Anna’s daughter Trudy has only one clue as to what they might have been: a family photograph featuring Anna, Trudy and the Obersturmführer.

Why did you want to tell the story of a Jewish woman in your book? Is it something you set out to do as a mission or were you just writing from what you know?

Confession: As you can tell from the book’s description, my novel’s heroine, Anna, isn’t Jewish! Her daughter Trudy is half Jewish but doesn’t know it, and Trudy’s voyage of self-discovery forms half of the novel’s arc. I’m Jewish on my dad’s side and part-German on my mom’s, so I must have inherited my interest in writing this novel from my schizophrenic background.

Do you consider your book a “Jewish” book or is it a book in which the lead happens to be Jewish?

This year I had the great privilege of attending the 2008 Hadassah convention in Los Angeles, where I sat on a panel with my fellow winners of the Ribalow Prize, awarded by Hadassah magazine for excellence in Jewish-themed literature. One of our questions was, “What makes your novel a Jewish novel?” You can imagine the agonies I suffered, given that my novel features a German heroine! But I said, “I believe my novel’s moral center qualifies it to be a Jewish novel.” For me, one facet of Jewish literature is that it poses moral questions, which, as Elie Wiesel’s rabbi pointed out in Night, possess a power regardless of whether or not they can be answered. I hope that, by forcing us to re-examine our preconceived notions of others by putting ourselves in their shoes, Those Who Save Us encourages what are, to me, particularly Jewish qualities of intellectual curiosity and discussion.

What inspired you to write your book in the first place? What excited you about the idea?

In 1993, my mother and I visited Buchenwald and, afterwards, when we were on the road to nearby Weimar, I asked her, “What would you have done if you’d lived in Germany during the war?” As a half-Jewish girl, I would have been sent with my dad to the camps. But my mom, as an “Aryan,” would have had different choices. She said, “I don’t know. I’d like to think I would have been brave enough to help my Jewish friends and neighbors, but the price of being caught was death, and if I had you kids to care for… well, I can only hope I would have been brave enough.” That’s when my character of Anna was born: an ordinary German woman forced by a crucible of circumstance to make really horrible decisions. I determined to tell Anna’s story as a microcosmic reflection of what civilian German women might have endured during the war, a position historians have overlooked.

What do you hope that Jewish women readers will take away from your book? Is it different than what you hope all readers will take away?

I’ve been blessed with speaking before Jewish audiences nationwide, and the reaction I’ve heard most is, “We’re so grateful to have the chance to look at the Holocaust from a different perspective in your novel.” Understanding promotes tolerance, even if it’s an understanding of a person on “the other side” from you, somebody you might otherwise find loathsome. It’s my hope that Those Who Save Us continues to make Jewish women say to themselves, “Huh, maybe not all Germans are inherently bad,” because that stereotype is as dangerous as any other! And I hope Those Who Save Us makes all readers say, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”(And always get the facts before ye judge!)

Do you have a favorite book with a Jewish lead, fiction or nonfiction, and why that book?

One of my favorite books of all time is Susan Isaacs’s Shining Through. Linda Voss, the heroine, is a plucky half-Jewish secretary from Brooklyn who signs up to fight the Nazis. I love Linda’s bravery, humor, and go-get-em chutzpah. And the novel so wonderfully demonstrates that who we revere as heroes are actually ordinary people with extraordinary spirit.

What kind of books would you like to see written for Jewish readers (or readers who are just interested in Judaism). Are there voids or topics you’d like to see tackled?

Writers often say they write the books they want to read. Jewish or non-Jewish, I love novels in which people in recognizable domestic situations have to make difficult moral decisions. That’s what I aspire to write, and that’s what I love to read, no matter the author’s background.

When, in general or specifically, do you feel most Jewish in your life?

Since I was raised in an agnostic household, my mom being a recovering Lutheran and my dad Jewish in culture only, I don’t currently practice any religion, though I do consider myself spiritual. And since most of my dad’s side of the family passed away, I didn’t have much connection to the Jewish side of my family… until I began promoting Those Who Save Us. I wrote about this experience in the summer 2008 issue of Hadassah magazine: the unexpected blessing of reconnecting with the Jewish community. I feel most connected to my Jewish background when I’m standing in front of a Jewish audience. And I love what one Jewish reader told me during a signing in the Berkshires: “It doesn’t matter what you practice one day a week,” she said, “it’s how you act all seven that counts.” I think my dad would agree.

What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it? Anything you want to say about it?

Thank you for asking about my second novel! It’s called The Stormchasers and it’s tentatively due out sometime in 2009. It’s a contemporary book set in Minnesota, as Those Who Save Us is, and it features twins, Charles and Kady Hallingdahl, who are both fascinated with severe weather. Charles, a professional stormchaser, is bipolar, and his TV meteorologist sister Kady is his caretaker. When Charles’s disorder spawns a terrible event, the twins struggle to shoulder a devastating shared secret. As the novel follows how the twins’ bond twists and changes, The Stormchasers explores the question of how much we owe our siblings… and at what cost to ourselves. Although The Stormchasers doesn’t revisit the Holocaust, it shares with Those Who Save Us the moral question at its core and the theme of personal responsibility. A Brandeis event organizer recently invited me to speak about The Stormchasers, giving me hope that the Jewish audience who has supported Those Who Save Us will love this second book too!

What question do you wish a journalist would ask you, and what is your answer?

Nobody ever asks what my poor, neglected black lab suffers so I can write. I’m writing on his behalf: his name is Woodrow, and as a master of Jewish guilt, he would like you to know how patient he is all day while his mom types on her mysterious little machine.

About the Author

Jenna Blum
Jenna Blum has been writing professionally since 1986, when she won Seventeen magazine’s National Fiction Contest. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in dozens of national periodicals, ranging from the Kenyon Review to the Boston Globe. Her debut novel, Those Who Save Us (Harcourt, 2004), called “the little book that could” in Publisher’s Weekly, won Hadassah magazine’s 2005 Ribalow Prize and has been on the New York Times paperback bestseller list since October 2007. Jenna earned her BA at Kenyon College and lived for five years in Minneapolis, where she worked for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, interviewing Holocaust survivors. Jenna’s home is now Boston, where she earned her MA from Boston University. She teaches for Boston’s Grub Street Writers, speaks locally and nationally about Those Who Save Us, and is at work on her second novel, The Stormchasers, forthcoming from Dutton/Penguin. Please visit Jenna at www.jennablum.com.

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