The history behind “The Clearing in the Autumn”

Two young girls, one from Ukraine and one from Germany, meet in an mysterious, magical forest glade a day before World War I breaks out, and swear eternal friendship.

“The Clearing in the Autumn” may be the first story that appears in The History of Soul 2065, but it was one of the last to be written. Along with “The Clearing in the Spring,” it’s among the few stories written specifically for this book, and it introduces the two girls whose lives begin this intergenerational saga: Chana and Sophia.

Chana knew her mother well enough not to say so, but somewhere inside herself, she hid the hope that one day she would meet a real ghost child.

The Clearing in the Autumn

Chana is loosely based on my mother’s mother, whose name was actually Chana (later changed to Anna after she came to America). My grandmother had four older brothers and a younger sister, and was well educated for a girl in those times — her parents were well off enough so they could bribe the local officials to let their daughter into the regular schools.

As I recall her (she died when I was 21), my grandmother was a sturdy, strong, intelligent, opinionated, radical woman. She was a nurse in Russia during WWI, and also lived through a revolution, pogroms, and the chaos that followed. She and her family (including her new husband) emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1920s, just before the the Immigration Act of 1924 slammed the door on Eastern Europe Jews and other “undesirables.”

Sophia — at least, at this phase of her life — is completely fictional.

The glade where the girls meet has its origins in my own experience. Back when I was an early teen, I went to a sleep-away camp for disadvantaged kids where there was little real supervision, and where I was badly bullied by several others in my cabin. There was a small wooded area on the grounds of the camp, and I found a clearing there where I felt hidden, and could sit and read my books without having to deal with any of the other campers.

Lviv (previously known as Lvov or Lemberg) sits near the border of Poland and Ukraine. After WWI ended, it was claimed by both countries, resulting in a small war (as if WWI wasn’t enough). There was a large Jewish population living there whose members declared their neutrality, and then organized their own militia in defense of the country. However, when the Poles (who suspected that the Jews were actually supporting the Ukrainians) occupied the area in November of 1918, they disarmed and interned the Jewish militia. Several days of violence followed. Accounts of the number of people killed and injured vary widely.

The history behind “Sabbath Wine”

Rabbi with wine casks
Photo courtesy The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life

Note: This is story is posted on the Mythic Delirium website in a slightly different version, and can be read there for free. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

A radical must find a bottle of now-illegal wine during the first year of Prohibition when his young daughter asks for a Sabbath dinner.

“Sabbath Wine” is the second story in The History of Soul 2065, and the best known, since it was a finalist for the 2016 Nebula Award. Interestingly, my first drafts of “Sabbath Wine” were very different from the final result.

I had happened across a story that appeared in the NY Times from December 5, 1930 with the headline, “Rabbis Urge New Plan for Wine Permits, Charge Officials Discriminate Against Jews in Distributing Sacramental Beverage.” Apparently, during Prohibition there were exceptions made for religious use of alcoholic beverages, but Orthodox rabbis were complaining their applications for purchasing wine were not being treated in the same way as applications by Protestant and Catholic congregations. So that gave me the germ of an idea.

At first, the story was going to be about an immigrant rabbi in 1920 and a streetwise young boy who helps him negotiate the mysteries of the U.S. bureaucracy in order to get Passover wine for his tiny congregation. I wanted some kind of fantasy element in there, and I gave it to the boy, giving him mystical powers. Eventually, over I don’t remember how many rewritings, the story changed and changed again, and finally turned into “Sabbath Wine.”

It appeared in the 2016 anthology Clockwork Phoenix 5 from Mythic Delirium Books.

“I don’t want to be dead,” said David. “I don’t even know if I really am. It’s just what Daddy told me.”

Sabbath Wine

Malka isn’t based on any one person, but her taste in music is. My mother has told me how she would sit on the fire escape outside her apartment when she was a child, and listen to the singing from a nearby African-American church. This was, she said, the beginning of her love of jazz, and it is why Malka finds herself sitting on the steps outside a brownstone listening to a choir rehearse.

Abe is very loosely based on my mother’s father, whom I only knew as a child, since he died when I was eight. I remember him as a quiet, patient man who put me on his knee so I could “help” him play the accordion. But this was a man who was a soldier in WWI, lived through a revolution, immigrated to a new country, and took an active role in the fur workers’ union. So I always suspected he was more of a firebrand, at least when he was younger, than I ever saw.

This is supported by a family tale about the time my grandfather decided nobody had the right to tell him that he had to wear a hat in shul. My mother (who was a child at the time) and grandmother were climbing the steps to the women’s section when there was a roar from the men’s section. They watched as a group of congregants bodily threw my grandfather out of the building. An incident like this is mentioned briefly in the story.

Finally, my mother’s cousin has told us stories of how, in his childhood, members of various political factions — the Communists, the Socialists, the Anarchists, and their various subsets — would occupy different benches in a local park and argue with each other. I loved the idea of that, and really wanted to use it somewhere. It ended up here.

David and his father Sam are completely fictional.

There really was a Prohibition agent named Izzy Bernstein, and according to all accounts, he was very good at his job.

The area where this story takes place is supposed to be somewhere in the East New York / Brownsville sections of Brooklyn, NY. A few streets from that area are mentioned.

For much of my information about the early years of Prohibition and the exceptions made for religious uses, I looked into the NY Times archive. I also got a good deal of information from two books: Marni Davis’ Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, and Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

The Odessa pogrom of October, 1905, was the culmination of a variety of social and economic upheavals, including economic uncertainty caused by war, the Potemkin massacre (portrayed in Eisenstein’s famous 1925 film Battleship Potemkin), and the Tsar’s October Manifesto, which promised civil liberties and an elective assembly (and was condemned by conservatives). According to Wikipedia, “Fear of a pogrom in April 1905 prompted the National Committee of Jewish Self-Defense to urge Jews to arm themselves and protect their property.” But, as Abe finds out, that didn’t help against huge numbers of well-organized rioters and an uninterested police force. Reports of the number of Jews killed during the three-day pogrom vary widely, but were at minimum in the hundreds.

For information about lynchings in the American South, I looked at a variety of sources on the web, but the book that convinced me that I had to include it in the story was Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen. It is a necessary and horrific book. I also want to thank my friend Terence Taylor, who told me how, in the South, women would go out after dark to take down the victims of lynchings and bring the bodies home for burial.

The history behind “Lost Connections”

Photo courtesy NYPL

Marilyn Feldman, Chana’s granddaughter, takes a virtual journey back in time to see her parents as children.

I started writing “Lost Connections,” the third story in The History of Soul 2065, when I was first coming to terms with my father’s death in May, 2001. I wrote it very quickly while still wrestling with the impermanence of life, and musing on how so many things can set our lives on courses that do not meet our own expectations.

The story was accepted and published in a wonderful specfic / literary journal called Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet from Small Beer Press in June 2002. It has been tweaked somewhat to fit into my book’s family trees and timeline.

One note of interest: My original title for the book was “Lost Connections,” after this story, but as the manuscript progressed, a change of title seemed called for.

He doesn’t see her, of course. She is merely an artifact of his future, a ghost of potential tomorrows.

Lost Connections

The two couples in this story — Chana and Abe Hirsch, and Millie and Sam Feldman — were based very loosely on the parents of my mother and father. My mother’s parents were politically active and very opinionated; my father’s father was more conservative. I know little about my father’s mother (whom I was named after); she died before I was born. However, none of what’s told here is based on real events; all the dialogue, personalities, thoughts and actions were generated completely by my imagination.

The story takes place in the neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn, in the late 1920s. When I wrote about the Hirsch apartment, I pictured my grandparents’ apartment as I remember it from when I was a child. The Feldman apartment is completely imaginary.

There was a huge push to organize mine workers during the 1920s by the United Mine Workers of America and the more left-wing National Miners Union, a push that resulted in a good deal of resistance (to say the least) by mine owners and operators. In Kentucky, this eventually led to violent and deadly clashes between the mine workers and company men in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931, although there were plenty of smaller clashes in the years leading up to it, as described by Abe. (I remember sitting in my grandparents’ apartment listening to an old recording of “Which Side Are You On,” a song about the Harlan County strikes.)

The history behind “Hearts and Minds”

Abe, Ruth, Paulo, and Ben are sitting around outside a candy store, bickering about politics and playing cards, when they are interrupted by an irritating stranger.

Let me start by saying I love “Hearts and Minds,” the fourth story in The History of Soul 2065. It’s one of my favorite stories to read out loud because, well, it’s just so much fun to do the characters. And it’s one of the few where I came up with the punchline before I wrote the story.

But what really inspired this story was an experience I had while working as an editor at PC Magazine, back in the 1980s. I was being shown a new genealogy program that had been developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly known as the LDS or Mormon Church), and noticed that one of the people in the onscreen family tree had a baptism date later than his date of death.

“You’ve got a mistake there,” I said to the demonstrator, trying to be helpful.

“That’s not a mistake,” said the woman. “He was baptized by proxy after his death.”

I smiled, thinking it a joke. “And what if he doesn’t want to be baptized?” I asked.

“He can always refuse it,” she said. She was absolutely serious.

I later found out that the LDS folks were posthumously baptizing people into their church en masse (including a large number of  Holocaust victims). Once this was discovered, there were, as you can imagine, protests. Finally, in 1995, the LDS church created rules against inappropriate retrospective baptisms. (Apparently, those rules didn’t stick.) I had to write something about this weird (to me) phenomenon, and the result was “Hearts and Minds.”

It appeared in Weird Tales #336 in 2004.

I don’t remember how or when I found this small cadre of slightly crazy lefties, but when I did, I knew I was home.

Hearts and Minds

Abe (whom we have already met in “Sabbath Wine” and “Lost Connections”), is loosely based on my grandfather, or on what I imagine my grandfather was like (although he was never as stout as Abe eventually became, and probably not quite as rambunctious).

Ben, whom we meet for the first time here and who is the narrator of the tale, is a combination of several people, depending on which story he appears in and whether he’s an adult or a child. Here he is somewhat based on someone I worked with back in the 1980s named Mark; a very laid-back, sweet guy who worked in the art department. One day, Mark asked if I’d meet him for lunch, and it was obvious that there was something he wanted to talk about — he was unusually quiet and solemn — but by the end of the meal, he had never actually told me what he wanted to say. I didn’t push him. I wish I had, just a little.

To this day, I wonder what he was afraid to tell me. That he was gay? (I knew that already.) That he had AIDS? This was when many AIDS patients were isolated and blamed for their illness. Did I say anything during lunch that would have discouraged him from confiding in me, or did he simply decide not to say anything? I’ll never know.

I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t insightful enough at the time to realize that he was ill and what he was going through. Mark left work soon after, for reasons that were never said out loud. He died shortly after that. I attended his memorial and sewed a square in his name for the AIDS quilt. But that wasn’t nearly enough.

All the other characters in “Hearts and Minds” are completely fictional.

There isn’t any specific moment in history referenced here. All four of the main characters — Abe, Ruth, Paolo, and Ben — represent fighters for justice from various times and places.

I thought it would be nice to let you sample the songs or artists that are mentioned in the story.

Moonglow / Benny Goodman Quartet

Minnie the Moocher / Cab Calloway

Union Maid / The Almanac Singers
(I couldn’t find a YouTube video of Woody Guthrie singing the song, but this is a version by the Almanac Singers, a group co-founded by Guthrie and which also included Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and a bunch of other left-wing folkies of the time.)

The history behind “Cancer God”

Photograph courtesy Tomasz Sienicki

Jakie, a sharp-tongued retired salesman, meets a man who claims to be the god of cancer.

My father was a wonderful, ethical, funny, and loving human being, and when he died, my world was badly shaken. Several of the stories I wrote over the next few years were informed by his life and death. “Cancer God” was the first; I started sending it out in August of 2001, three months after he died. It racked up an impressive number of rejections. However, I was absolutely determined that it would see print, either on paper or online. It was finally accepted by Space and Time Magazine and published in July of 2009, and has been revived as the fourth story in The History of Soul 2065.

Damn, Jakie thought, he had to get his meds changed. He was in more trouble than he thought

Cancer God

As implied above, Jakie is loosely based on my father. Like Jakie, my father fought in the European theater in WWII and, after the war, worked as a salesman for wholesale women’s clothing companies in the 1950s/1960s NYC “rag trade” (although he eventually ended up in charge of a mail-order operation for a high-end men’s clothing company). And like Jakie, he knew how to get along with almost everyone, but didn’t take shit from anyone.

As mentioned in the entry for “Hearts and Minds,” Ben as an adult (who is only present offstage here) is somewhat based on a talented young man I knew in the 1980s who was lost in the AIDS maelstrom.

Ben’s partner Carlos is completely fictional, although if you squint hard enough you’ll probably find bits and pieces derived from several of my friends.

The hospital is — a hospital.

Jakie is a man of his time: A veteran who came home from WWII happy to have survived and unwilling to discuss it with anyone who wasn’t there. He married his childhood sweetheart, had a couple of kids, worked hard, smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes a day, and hoped to eventually retire and grow comfortably old — a hope that was cut short by those couple of packs a day. He’s cynical, innately honest, kind without admitting it, foul-mouthed when he wants to be, and not afraid to stand up for his rights because he’s seen what happened when people don’t. He’s also been through enough in his life that he knows not to reject any experience — no matter how strange — out of hand.

The history behind “In The Loop”

Copyright 2019 Google

Morris’ life begins to unravel as he confronts a weird passenger in his car.

In some ways, “In The Loop,” the fifth story in The History of Soul 2065, is one of the most autobiographical stories in this book. For the last six months or so of my father’s life, I spent the greater part of my days (and some nights) driving back and forth to accompany my parents to doctors’ offices, then to sit with my father in hospital rooms, and then to help care for him at home when aides either didn’t show up or couldn’t be found.  And then, eventually, to help with all the errands demanded after a death. It all became a numb blur of trips back and forth.

Occasionally, I wished (rather guiltily) for some kind of escape. Or for everything that I, and my family, was going through to be done with and part of our past. From that came this story.

“In the Loop” was accepted by Descant, a quarterly Canadian literary publication that was looking for stories for its Fall 2003 special science fiction issue. The magazine, which had started publication in 1970, shut down in 2015.

He was not surprised that there was an hallucination sitting next to him in his Honda Civic on the side of the Belt Parkway, although perhaps he should have been.

In the Loop

As described above, Morris’ experiences are not completely fictional. However, Morris is. As is his visitor.

Morris is driving along the Belt Parkway, which runs along the west and southern shores of Brooklyn. There are a few rest stops along the parkway that lead onto small parks along the shore or, in a couple of cases, actual beaches. At the time this was written, which was in the early 2000s, these rest stops were not terribly well maintained. From what I’ve seen, things have improved slightly since then, although I’ve still seen a lot of litter on the parking lot and beaches, especially in the summer months.

The shopping center mentioned is the Gateway Center in East New York, which took several years to be built and finally opened in 2002.

The history behind “The Ladder-Back Chair”

Photo courtesy Patrick Ashley

Joan becomes obsessed with a ladder-back chair that was used by her recently deceased husband Morris.

“The Ladder-back Chair” is one of the more recently written stories in the book, although it takes place only a couple of years after “In the Loop,” which was actually written several years earlier.

I’ve seen many articles out on the web that urge you to simplify your life by divesting it of things — “things” being all the clothing, keepsakes, books, holiday cards, old photos and other stuff you tend to collect over the course of a lifetime. It is better to live simply, these articles tell us, rather than be surrounded by a crowded and chaotic environment full of things you don’t really need.

The problem is that many of these things may not have any practical use any more (if they ever did), but they can have strong emotional resonances, and often it is difficult to dispose of something, however useless, that reminds you of the place you bought it, or the person who bought it for you.

And sometimes, even if that jacket, or book, or toy, or chair is physically gone, you can reach out somewhere within your mind and try to recreate the missing object in order to remember what you were like, and what your life was like, when it existed. There are times when I can think back and remember good things that happened, and the moment is so strong that I can almost taste, smell and feel what it was like. And that led to the writing of this story.

“The Ladder-back Chair” was originally published in Mythic Delirium issue 3.4, April-June 2017.

She knew, in her head, that he was dead, gone, but the house didn’t seem to know it, and she acquiesced in its illusions.

The Ladder-Back Chair

Joan’s experiences while caring for a dying husband, and what happens during through his funeral and after, are based on personal family history.

Both Joan and Morris are fictional, as is Gail, Joan’s friend.

Marilyn and Annie will appear — and will be described more fully — later in the book.

Although he remains offstage, Steve is based on Terence Gazzani, a neighbor’s son, who died at the age of 24 on September 11, 2001, in One World Trade Center.

As I wrote this, I pictured the house in Long Island where my parents lived for about 40 years, and which is still very clear in my memory. But you can picture any home that you like.

The history behind “The Sad Old Lady”

Artist: Henriette Browne

Sheila has a vision of herself as a lonely old woman, and tries her best to change her fate.

When I was an adolescent, I would sometimes have night terrors. I’d lie in bed staring at the ceiling, overwhelmed by the certainty of death. There was nothing I could do about it; death would one day come for me, and I as a thinking, conscious individual would no longer exist. I would no longer be, and I wouldn’t even be aware that I was no longer, or ever had been. I was absolutely horrified by the prospect.

My idea of what death was, and what it was not, probably dates from a day when I was sitting in the car with my father. I don’t know what brought up the question, but I asked him, “Do you believe in life after death?” He didn’t pause, he didn’t consider, he simply said, “No.” He probably spoke not only from his feelings about religion, but also from what he saw as a soldier in Europe during WWII. And he spoke with such certainty, that I fully believed him. It was something of a shock — I think I’d been expecting something reassuring, and didn’t get it. I think I just sat there, absorbing it, for a while.

Eventually, I don’t know why, those night terrors went away, but I never forgot them. And so, when I started to write “The Sad Old Lady,” I tried to recapture those feelings in print. However, I just couldn’t figure out how to end the story properly. I felt that ending the story with the character dying, and finding out what death really was (or having her dying and just ending the story), didn’t work.

Finally, I decided that Sheila’s night terrors should come from a different source: the anticipation of what, to a child, would be the hideous and nearly unimaginable fate of getting old.

“The Sad Old Lady” appeared in an unfortunately short-lived publication called Voluted Dreams in July 2013.

When she was four years old, Sheila Mandel found out that something awful was going to happen.

The Sad Old Lady

For the most part, the people in this story are completely fictional. There are aspects of Sheila that come from my own experience — the fear of what is to come in the future, and the little tin box full of childhood treasures (which I still have, by the way). But she is of my mother’s generation.

Sheila’s son Carl’s experience with schizophrenia was taken from what happened to a friend’s brother when I was not long out of college.

My mother was lucky in that both her brother and the man who was to be her future husband both returned from World War II alive and physically intact. But many didn’t, and I wanted to show that in this story.

The history behind “The Red Dybbuk”

A woman starts to suspect something strange is happening when her daughter begins acting out of character.

Back in 1987, my great-aunt Razel, my grandmother’s sister-in-law, died, the last of her generation. There were only a few of us at her funeral; she had no children and few relatives left.

When we went to the cemetery, I expected to see a series of modest headstones like those at my grandmother’s cemetery, or perhaps a confusion of old stones with Hebrew prayers and ancient symbols. But instead, to my astonishment, there were, side by side with the more traditional headstones, marble stones elaborately carved with memorials to their comrades’ fights on behalf of the working class, Yiddish poetry extolling radical social change, statues of rebels with raised fists, and unembarrassed engravings of the hammer and sickle.

I really wanted to know who these people were and what their lives had been like. I even hatched a plan with a photographer friend to create a book in which we’d hunt down their relatives and write what was known of their histories, accompanied by images of the gravestones and any family photos that we could discover. We applied for a grant but didn’t get it, and then life intervened, and the project was put away and never resumed.

But while the project faded, my impression of the place remained.  I kept thinking about all those strong, rebellious spirits and wondered how they could rest with their tasks undone, and what they would think of the politics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. That eventually led to “The Red Dybbuk,” which was published in the Crossed Genres anthology Subversion: Science Fiction & Fantasy tales of challenging the norm in December 2011. Crossed Genres, a wonderful independent press, ceased publishing in 2019.

Marilyn knows she’s come to the right place when she spots, high against the early afternoon clouds, a statue of a woman in coveralls, fist thrust to the sky.

The Red Dybbuk

Chana is based on my grandmother, whose name was actually Chana (Anna in English). She was a tough, radical woman who survived pogroms in Ukraine, nursed soldiers in WWI Russia (and, later, the children of her Brooklyn neighbors), worked in one of the first birth control clinics in New York City, and guided me stubbornly through cursing crowds when we attended pro-civil rights events. She died shortly after I graduated from college, and the thing I remember most from her funeral was an elderly man telling stories of how he remembered her as a vibrant, fearless young girl ice skating on the lake near their home. If I had had a daughter, I would have named her after my grandmother.

Becky is very loosely based on my mother, who did indeed live through McCarthy’s red scares of the 1950s (which affected more than just movie stars and famous writers — for example, NYC schoolteachers were also a target).

Marilyn is of my generation, and so I know her well; but my life and hers parted somewhere around college.

Annie is completely fictional.

The cemetery where half of the story takes place is based on a small part of the very large New Montefiore Cemetery in Suffolk County where my great aunt Razel and great uncle Morris (and, I think, other family members) are buried. The fact that all those radicals were buried in the same area of the cemetery is not a coincidence. Many Jewish immigrants belonged to burial societies sponsored by others who came from the same Eastern European towns (making them “landsmen”) or by their synagogues. It was a form of insurance; you paid a certain amount every month and you were assured a burial plot and a proper funeral.

The people in my aunt and uncle’s section were neither landsmen nor from a synagogue; they were all members of the International Workers Order, a social organization that was a radical offshoot of the socialist society Workman’s Circle. The IWO was not just a burial society; it sponsored educational activities, medical clinics, summer camps for the kids — and, of course, political activism. The IWO was disbanded in 1954 because its radical politics were too dangerous for the times; however, its former members still held the rights to the burial plots that they had paid for through the society.

The legend of the dybbuk is that of a restless soul who, unable to rest after death, finds a living body to inhabit. In Michal Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish film, Der Dibuk, an impoverished young student is denied marriage to the girl who is his soulmate, dies when he tries to use forbidden knowledge to change his fate, and his soul joins with his beloved’s in her body. (The YouTube video here is a very bad copy, but it gives some idea of the film.)

The history behind “Waiting for Jakie”

Auschwitz gate
Photo by Stanisław Mucha

A Holocaust survivor tries to travel back to a time when she was truly happy.

Survivors of great evils — such as the European death camps in World War II, the lynchings in the United States, the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia, the Rwanda genocide, and so many others — often never recover from the traumas of their past. During the 1950s and 1960s, when so many were living with the memories of their wartime experiences, psychiatrists were beginning to experiment with the use of psychiatric drugs to treat their patients. Unfortunately, many of these drugs were either too strong, addictive, or both, and patients became dependent, needing more and more of their medications in order to function. I started with that, and worked my way from there.

“Waiting for Jakie” was originally published in the April, 2009, issue of Apex Magazine.

As I mentioned in the history behind “An Awfully Great Adventure,” Gretl, the narrator of this story, is partially based on my partner’s mother. While she, unlike Gretl, was able to avoid the death camps, she watched as her uncle was killed by Nazis, and soon after, with the help of a network of Catholic workers, she and her brother were smuggled to Morocco, where they were reunited with their parents.

Years later, after she and her family came to American, she became the patient of a psychiatrist known for his use of psychiatric drugs. He died before he could wean her off the medications he had prescribed, and she spent the rest of her life addicted to an increasingly heavy drug cocktail. I met her late in her life; I liked her very much and I think she liked me. I remember when she showed me a photo she had of herself as a young woman, right after the war. “I used to be so beautiful,” she told me.

I was alone, and my family was dead, and we were diseased Jewish whores from the camps, but we ate, and drank, and pretended we were regular girls out on dates with three boys who would try to steal a kiss and then deliver us back to our parents.

Waiting for Jakie

Jakie, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is based partially on my father. As part of the 104th US Infantry Division, he helped liberate the Nordhausen concentration camp. During that time, he befriended two young women who had been prisoners; as a child, I found a photograph of them up in a closet, along with a few other items he had kept from the war. However, his interactions with Gretl are completely fictional.

(A note that has little to do with the story, but which may be of interest: Many years later, during our annual holiday party, I received a phone call: it turned out the two women had settled in Israel, were visiting relatives in America, and were calling all the Krasnoffs in the Brooklyn phone book on the off-chance that my father was still living there. I immediately called my parents, and soon after, the women came to visit my parents at their Long Island home.)

Gretl’s husband Wilhelm (Americanized to William) is based somewhat on my partner’s father, a German Jew who was recruited by the OSS (later to become the CIA) for undercover work in WWII Europe.

Many of the incidents in the story — the arrival of American troops at a concentration camp, the killing of Gretl’s uncle on the lawn of his home — are taken from family histories.

Gretl’s experiences in the concentration camp are taken from a book I read when I was a teenager called House of Dolls. It was written in 1953 by a Holocaust survivor named Yehiel De-Nur, who used the pseudonym Ka-Tsetnik 135633, which is how he was identified in Auschwitz, and was a novella about a young Jewish girl who was forced into sexual slavery in a concentration camp. More recently, it has been documented that, while there were women inmates forced to act as prostitutes in the camps to encourage cooperation among the forced laborers, there were probably no Jewish women among them, because even there, the Nazis enforced their racial laws. So it’s uncertain whether Gretl’s experiences are historically accurate.