On Alternative History and Historical Amnesia: MysteryPeople Q&A with Simone Zelitch

Molly Odintz of Mystery People recently sent me a list of questions– pretty darn complicated ones at that!   I did my best to answer them.   Here’s the resulting interview.  

9780765382962Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reading Simone Zelitch’s Judenstaata brilliant and complex merging of the strange histories of Israel, East Germany, and Birodbidjan (Stalin’s bizarre attempt at a Soviet Jewish state). Judenstaat takes place in the late 80s, in an alternative history where post-WWII, the Soviet Union has created a Jewish state in the German region of Saxony. Zelitch was kind enough to take some questions about the book and its inspirations. 

Molly Odintz: Judenstaat brings together threads from the history of several regions and peoples – you weave together the history of East Germany, Birobidjan and Israel/Palestine for a many-layered alternative history of Saxony as a Jewish state. How much did you draw on real history for your narrative? How did you create a story that functions on so many different levels? 

Simone Zelitch: Probably the one thing that weaves all these histories together is the way that nation-states tell stories—and what gets left out of those stories.  In the case of Judenstaat, my own reading about Zionism and my time in the Peace Corps in post Cold War Hungary led me to think about the way that “narratives” are constructed, but as I pursued the idea of a Jewish State in Germany, I was lucky enough to find some books that complicated my own preconceived ideas and really enriched the novel.   Three books that come to mind are:   Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All a marvelous account of the history of Jews in Germany, Nora Levin’s two-volume The Paradox of Survival: the Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917, and Mary Fulbrook’s The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker.  They all made me consider a specific legacy (Jews in the tradition of the very German Moses Mendelson), a specific dilemma (how Jews survived or didn’t survive in Stalin’s Soviet Union and the countries under its domination), and a specific location (a German state which—much like East Germany– constructs its own origin story as a response to fascism, with its borders, and, of course, its wall).   I think these different layers do challenge readers, particularly as I overlay an imaginary history.   My hope is that my focus on Judit, the archivist, and her own struggle to make sense of all these layers, gives readers a chance to struggle along with her.

“But here’s the real key to Judenstaat:  Nineteen-Eighty Four.   I recently wrote that my novel is Orwell Fan Fiction.   I borrowed Orwell’s structure—from the Ministry of Truth where history is rewritten, to a Leon Trotsky-like bogey-man who challenges the Great Leader, to the hidden, secret book/manifesto.”

MO: I’ve been on a bit of an alternative history kick lately – would you say Judenstaat is in conversation more with history, or with other alternative histories? Who were some of the writers you went to for inspiration? 

At some point in my life, I read The Man in the High Castle, but actually didn’t re-read it until after I’d finished Judenstaat.   I was somewhat startled by the way it had insinuated itself into my consciousness (the character of the Stasi Agent Joseph Bondi owes a lot to Joe) but I feel compelled to say that I only saw the TV adaptation after Judenstaat was published; maybe they stole the film-footage idea from me.   Also, I’d started Judenstaat when Michael Chabon published The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.   I felt like jumping off a cliff.   I read it, of course, and admire it, but the only influence it had was this:   I changed my ending because it was too close to his own ending, and in the process, changed the structure and philosophical direction of the novel for the better.  Thanks, Chabon.

But here’s the real key to Judenstaat:  Nineteen-Eighty Four.   I recently wrote that my novel is Orwell Fan Fiction.   I borrowed Orwell’s structure—from the Ministry of Truth where history is rewritten, to a Leon Trotsky-like bogey-man who challenges the Great Leader, to the hidden, secret book/manifesto.   I stole a line verbatim at a crucial point.   See if you can find it.

MO: Your vision of cultural dismantling in a Soviet-controlled Jewish state feels frighteningly real. Can you give us some background on the Soviet attitude toward ethnicity and religion? 

I’m not a historian, just a novelist.  I do know that in the Soviet Union’s early years, there was a tension between internationalism (as represented by Trotsky who ultimately was villainized and died in exile) and nationalism (as represented by Stalin who remained in power from 1929 until his death in 1953).   Did you know that Stalin wrote some early—and admired—pieces on nationality?   Yet the recognition of nationality was always on Soviet terms.   Take Birobidjan, the only country in history where the national language was Yiddish, but a Yiddish stripped of any words of Hebrew origin, a kind of secularized Yiddish.   Ultimately, and inevitably, many of the Jews in Birobidjan were victims of  Stalin’s political purges.

In terms of my imaginary country, Judenstaat is clearly useful to the Soviets—both as a way to punish Germany and also, initially, as a way to create trade connections with the west.   Yet my novel reflects the early Soviet tension between nationalism and internationalism.   Under Stalin’s influence, Judenstaat conducts several purges of its own:  anti-cosmopolitan campaigns. A cosmopolitan is at home in any country, and has no particular loyalty to one.  Thus, in Judenstaat, a political enemy is a cosmopolitan, a follower of my Trotsky-figure, Stephen Weiss, who, like Trotsky, is exiled.

Under Stalin, the term “cosmopolitan” was really a code-word for Jew as well as a follower of Trotsky who was a Jew himself.   Full disclosure:  my husband’s a Trotskyist.   He isn’t Jewish, though.

 “I don’t think we ever really forget anything.   What we can’t bear, we bury.”

MO: I thought your story was a brilliant critique of the political use of historical memory in the Soviet Union and in Israel, without being too allegorical. Can you expand on the use of memory, personal and historical, in Judenstaat? 

A Czech academic, Karl Deutsch, defined a nation as a group of people who agree to lie about the past. That’s generally true, but this selective memory feels most pointed in certain countries.   Obviously, the two places I had in mind when I wrote Judenstaat were post-Cold War Eastern Europe, and Israel.   I spent two years in the Peace Corps in Hungary between 1991-1993, and watched old Soviet monuments being dismantled, street signs changed, and languages like Russian quite literally un-learned.   Israel, a country very consciously built on ethnic continuity, makes a point of leaving Arab villages off maps; to be fair, Palestinians do the same thing in reverse.  What are they afraid of?   Anything that complicates the story.  When Judit creates the documentary about Judenstaat, she’s chided by the ghost her her dead husband, part of Judenstaat’s Saxon minority.   What does she leave on the cutting room floor?

On a personal level, of course, we also leave things on our cutting room floor, because otherwise, we become paralyzed with anger or regret.  Judit can’t move on from her husband’s death.   She can’t let go of who they were together.   As she pieces together the story of her country, she also pieces together her personal history, and we discover certain memories have been suppressed.   I don’t think we ever really forget anything.   What we can’t bear, we bury.   Turning to Orwell again, like Winston Smith, at the book’s end Judit will eventually face what—to her—is the worst thing in the world, and it will come out of one of those buried memories.

MO: Judenstaat combines the genres of alternative history, mystery, espionage, and thriller for a reflective yet action-packed read. What drew you to genre fiction, and how did you bring together such disparate genres? 

I’m not a big reader of mysteries, and absolutely not of thrillers.   On the other hand, my novels do usually have plots (I hope) and a classic plot is this:  there is a question that needs to be answered by the end of the story.   I recently met Ben Winters, the author of Underground Airlines, another “alternative history thriller” about an America where the Civil War never took place, a book with some structural similarities to Judenstaat. We both agreed that writing a mystery allows for good world-building.   Detective work allows a writer to include plenty of expository detail.   I do need to say, though, that a few years ago, I sent an earlier draft of Judenstaat to an editor who said he liked it but found it “too ruminative, and not visceral enough.”   In response, I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a novel with a heroine almost as alienated as Judit.   It helped, I think.

MO: What are you working on next? 

I had an old friend—and I mean old, like 95 — who needed to find a safe, comfortable place to spend his last few years, and not long afterwards, I also searched for options for my own mother, and I became fascinated by the culture of fancy retirement communities where smart, frail, cranky people are surrounded by soft colors, advanced technology, and euphemisms. The result seems to be a book modeled on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, his philosophical novel about pre-WWI Europeans at a TB sanatorium.   In my case, the book’s The Hill, and like Mann’s characters, my old folks are obsessed with their bodies, represent contemporary trends and types, and live in isolation from a world on the brink of catastrophe.   Also, of course, it’s a novel about how we perceive time.  Sounds like a bestseller, huh?

I recently met Ben Winters, the author of Underground Airlines, another “alternative history thriller” about an America where the Civil War never took place, a book with some structural similarities to Judenstaat. We both agreed that writing a mystery allows for good world-building.   Detective work allows a writer to include plenty of expository detail.

MO: You’ve talked about this in other interviews, but if you don’t mind, tell us how your travels influenced your narrative. 

Of course, I traveled more than once to Israel and former East Germany, but by far, the most influential trip was to Vilnius, where I studied in the Yiddish Institute.   It was there that I decided that Yiddish was too inherently subversive to be the language of any country.   Also, more to the point, I met the Yiddish Institute’s ex-officio director Dovid Katz who was a one-man campaign against Lithuania’s Holocaust obfuscation.   Because Lithuanians suffered under the Soviets, they don’t admit their culpability and collaboration with the Nazis, which included the murder of 100,000 people, 70,000 of them Jews, in Ponar.   With Dovid Katz and Fania Brantsovsky, a survivor and ghetto fighter, we participated in a semi-secret tour of the Jewish Partisan camp—secret because those anti-Nazi partisans were Communists who welcomed the Soviets and liberators.   It was in Vilnius that I had my face thrust into historical and national amnesia in a real way.   It was there I found a way to express some of the most important things I wanted to say in my novel.

MO: Judenstaat explores the tension within the Jewish community between religious practice and assimilationist norms, a tension alive and well in American Judaism today. As a tattooed, Bat Mitzvah-ed millennial who mainly engages with her culture by reading books with Jewish themes rather than bothering to go to synagogue, I related to Judit, and her complicated relationship with Jewish history and the “blackhats.” This might be a huge question, but what do you think is the future of Jewish identity? 

Here’s a short answer to a complicated question:   I believe that the future of Jewish identity must lie in defining our Judaism in ways that aren’t grounded in Israel and the Holocaust.   That doesn’t mean we can’t feel ties to Israel, and it certainly doesn’t mean Holocaust denial, but we need to recover other ways of being Jewish—affirmative, compassionate, international, and deeply subversive. I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of your tattooed comrades in West Philadelphia, and to my great delight, they’re learning Yiddish, and more than a few identify as Bundists, Jewish internationalist-socialists who believed in the concept of Doykeyt, which can be translated as “Here-ness.”   We are a nationality without national borders, and we make change where we are.

I recently wondered:  do I believe in justice?…I don’t know the answer to that question.   I do know that we can insist on acknowledging each other’s history, each other’s memories, each other’s suffering.   That’s part of recognizing each other’s humanity.   That’s a beginning.

MO: Tell us about your portrayal of the Saxons. How much did you want the alternative history of Saxony in your novel to function as a critique of the here-and-now?

When I wrote Judenstaat, of course Israel was on my mind, but Saxons in my Jewish state are not intended to be stand-ins for Palestinians.   For one thing, as Germans, Saxons carry collective responsibility for the murder of the Jews.  Thus, Judenstaat’s Saxons are, by turns, obsequious and angry because they have something real to bear and to deny.   It’s no coincidence that only Judit’s Saxon husband Hans transcends his history because has no knowledge of his parents, and no real tie to the past.

The history of a Jewish state in Palestine and the role of Palestinians in that history is less straightforward.   Zionism’s religious implications, the European-Jewish settlers who arrived in a series of increasingly well-organized waves, the battles between visions of ethnic cleansing (think Jabotinsky) and coexistence with Arab neighbors (think Buber) —none of that’s in my book.  I dedicated Judenstaat to my old high school history teacher, and he read it, and was disgusted at the country’s compromises and obfuscations, and demanded:  “Where’s the voice of opposition?”   In short, there’s no Jewish voice in Judenstaat calling for justice for Saxons, as there certainly was for Palestine’s Arabs in Zionism’s early years, and as there is in Israel now —a faint, marginal but genuine Jewish voice against home demolitions and detentions and collective punishment of Palestinians.

Last summer, I went with an interfaith delegation of the Christian Peacemaker Team to Israel and the West Bank.   It was mind-blowing, particularly our time in the old city of Hebron.   I published some of my observations in Jewish Currents, and given the frustration that seemed to radiate from almost every Palestinian I met, I was in no way surprised at the series of stabbings that began later that year—not an uprising, but the actions of people who have nothing left to lose.

Early in my novel, Hans, Judit’s Saxon husband, tells her that he doesn’t believe in justice.   Maybe if he did—given the complicated history of Germans and Jews—he couldn’t function at all.   I recently wondered:  do I believe in justice?  More to the point, in terms of the landmass that constitutes Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, is justice possible?

I don’t know the answer to that question.   I do know that we can insist on acknowledging each other’s history, each other’s memories, each other’s suffering.   That’s part of recognizing each other’s humanity.   That’s a beginning.

You can find copies of Judenstaat on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

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