Fans Keep Asking Me, “Which is Your Favorite Book?”

I get that question all the time at readings.

The answer doesn’t pop up immediately, because I’ve published in so many genres: memoir, mystery, literary novel, short story collections, psychology, biography/literary criticism, historical fiction, Jane Austen mash-up, vampire, writer’s guide, memoir-essay collections.

I love them all, or I wouldn’t have written them, but my 19th book My Germany has a special place in my writer’s heart. It’s more deeply personal than my other books, and it’s also the one I struggled with most.

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I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, and the book is a combination of history, family history, travelogue, mystery, and a coming out story.  The thread that connects it all is my exploration of the role that Germany–real and imagined–played in my family while I was growing up and in my own life as an adult and an author.

It wasn’t an easy set of stories to tell. It took me more than five years to figure out the book’s structure and to let go of trying to force it into a specific mold. I finally realized that I could blend genres, and that set me free to follow the advice the poet Sir Phillip Sydney’s muse gave to him: “Look in your heart, and write.”

My Germany is also the book that garnered me the most speaking gigs of any book in my career: somewhere between fifty and sixty.  That included two book tours in Germany where I spoke in over a dozen different cities, and sometimes even read from it in German, which I had started studying in night classes.

Unexpectedly, I felt comfortable the moment I got to Germany and I remembered something I’d somehow completely forgotten: I grew up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where thousands of neighbors were German refugees from the Nazis.  I’d been hearing German in the streets, in stores, in our building’s lobby and elevator since childhood.  So suddenly plunging into a German-speaking environment wasn’t strange; it was comforting, it made me feel at home.

That was one of the many surprises connected to writing My Germany, and it made clear to me the power that memoir has to connect you to your own past in new, revelatory ways.  I was changing, which is why I had to write that memoir, and writing it changed me even more.   A colleague once said that writing is a process of discovery; well, that book opened up new worlds for me, and having just taught an online memoir writing workshop this past month, I’ve seen memoir do that for my students, too.  It’s thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

I’m Grateful To Know More Than One Language

 

New stories about people being harassed and threatened because they’re not speaking English are a sad sign of how xenophobia is becoming normalized in the country.  And they disturb me personally.

I grew up with Eastern European-born parents who spoke at least ten languages between them. They used English with me and my brother, but more often than not spoke Yiddish to each other whether at home or in public. Russian, too, if they had something snarky to say about someone, or if they didn’t want me and my brother to know what they were discussing.  Likewise, arguments when they escalated went to Russian, which both my parents had spoken since childhood.

The apartment building I grew up in was filled with immigrants. Most of them spoke German, though there was some who spoke Russian or other languages.  Way before I traveled anywhere, I felt the world was at my doorstep because of this linguistic richness.

I found the ability to shift back and froth from one language to another simply wonderful.  I envied the ability to be private in public, to have not just one “secret Language,” but a handful of them.  And I was often delighted when one of my parents would realize a store owner, for instance, was from some country whose language they spoke but I never heard at home–like Romanian.

I studied French in school and did well, thanks to having a francophone mother, and it’s helped me in Canada and Western Europe.  I went on to study German and learned it well enough to do use it for introductions and readings on book tours in Germany.  When it looked like I might be teaching in Sweden not so long ago, I plunged in and had a ball learning the language, and learning about the people and culture.  Now I’m studying Dutch because I want to write about Flanders in perhaps more than one book.

Studying a language opens doorways you didn’t even know existed. But harassing people who aren’t speaking English is the sign of a closed and fearful mind.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of the travelogue/memoir My Germany and 24 other books in many genres.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Please Don’t Call Me A Survivor

As one of the first American authors to publish fiction dealing with the experience of children of Holocaust survivors, I’ve been invited to do hundreds of talks and readings across the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and Israel.

I’ve appeared at a wide range of kinds of venues: colleges and universities, libraries, book fairs, synagogues, churches, and writers’ conferences.  For my memoir/travelogue My Germany I did between fifty and sixty presentations alone.  Being invited to be a speaker has been tremendously satisfying because sharing my experience as the son of two Holocaust survivors through my work has been a mission of mine for many years.  It’s my personal tikkun olam, the term derived from Jewish mysticism which means healing the world.

Hearing myself introduced is often a humbling experience. Sometimes, though, I have to gently correct the person who’s introduced me–and it’s something I will work into the Q&A so as not to embarrass anyone. Why do I need to do that? Because I’ve been called a “second generation Holocaust survivor.”

That label couldn’t be more wrong. My parents survived the Holocaust. I did not. They lost their homes and their countries, and dozens of members of their family were murdered.  My mother was in a slave labor camp at the end of the war–but before that she was in a ghetto and a concentration camp.  My father was a slave laborer for the Hungarian army and wound up near the war’s end in Bergen-Belsen.  Each one witnessed and survived horrors that are staggering to contemplate.

Many children of Holocaust survivors, known as the Second Generation, cope with a difficult legacy.  Growing up with parents who survived horrific events is very complicated because it can feel like living in a minefield.  Your parents may or may not want to talk about what they endured, but either way, it’s easy for you to say or do the wrong thing and enrage them, or make them cry.  While their own childhoods were normal, their childrens’ aren’t because their  parents are coping with mammoth trauma and loss.

Psychologists have studied the Second Generation and found many of us have problems ranging from anxiety, depression, and a predisposition to PTSD, as well as issues with relationships, self-esteem, and identity.

I’m proud to have keynoted several international conferences bringing together children of Holocaust survivors, child survivors of the Holocaust, and their allies.  And I’m glad that there’s been an international audience for my work.  But if I labeled myself a “Second Generation Holocaust survivor,” I would be blurring important distinctions.  I would be elevating any personal trauma I grew up with and making it equal to what my parents suffered.  It isn’t.  It never will be.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the memoir/travelogue My Germany.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

 

American Soldiers Saved My Father From The Nazis

In early April 1945, my father was packed into a train with 2,500 other prisoners from Bergen-Belsen as the Nazis insanely tried to keep British and American troops from rescuing them. The train was made up of 45 cars with their doors sealed shut; the crowding was horrific and of course there was no food or water.

In the chaos of war, this hellish train wandered for a week and finally stopped not far from the Elbe because the commander couldn’t get clearance to move across that river with communications so disrupted. He fled ahead of the American troops he knew were coming and the remaining guards escaped when two American tanks appeared on April 13th.

Frank W. Towers, a first Lieutenant of the 30th Infantry Division, reported that the stench when the locked cattle cars were opened “was almost unbearable, and many of the men had to rush away and vomit. We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought it was propaganda and exaggerated. As we went along [in Germany] it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true.”

(Frank Towers in France, 1944)

The troops that had found this train were racing to the Elbe because it was the last barrier to their advance across Germany. Now they had a totally unexpected burden of some twenty-five hundred prisoners to house and provide for. The answer was about nine miles to the west. American troops had just captured several hundred Germans at the Wehrmacht base and proving ground in Hillersleben where tests had been conducted for giant railway guns manufactured by Krupp.

It was an ironic place for Jews to be sheltered, cared for, and brought back to life. But then what place in Germany wouldn’t have been?

This verdant military setting with clean, heated quarters for officers and soldiers was a virtual paradise for people who had been treated like animals for years. That’s where my parents met and fell in love. My mother was in Hillersleben because she had escaped from a slave labor camp in Magdeburg 16 miles away and been brought there by American troops now using it as a temporary Displaced Persons camp.

She and my father had each lost everything in what would come to be called the Holocaust: home, families, countries. There wasn’t any time to play pre-war games. “Do you like me?” he asked. She did, and as my father tersely put it years later, from that moment on, “She was mine and I was hers.” My mother moved in with him that night, beginning their fifty-four years together.

I’ve had the honor of meeting Frank and shaking his hand. On Memorial Day, with the survivors of the Holocaust and their saviors dwindling faster and faster, it’s more important than ever to remember these heroes.

The account in this blog is drawn from My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped.