Friday, September 4, 2020

Interview with Linda Kass

The significance of World War II, seventy-five years after its ending, continues to inspire novelists as well as historians. Just last weekend, the New York Times Book Review devoted its entire issue to works—mostly historical but in some cases fictional—about the war. Yet enterprising and creative people continue to find new ways to approach the issues raised by that massive conflict.

Because of the intense trauma and agony inflicted by the Holocaust and the death camps, one area that often receives less attention is families that managed to escape Europe before war was declared. This week’s interview with Linda Kass, however, explores this angle. Read on to find out about A Ritchie Boy, released by She Writes Press on September 1, the eighty-first anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and the book that preceded it, which also took place in a setting that has often been ignored in World War II novels.



Your first novel, Tasa’s Song, came out in 2016. Readers can find out more about that novel from our podcast interview at New Books in Historical Fiction, but can you give us a short summary here?

Sure! Tasa’s Song tells the story of aspiring Jewish violinist Tasa Rosinski, whose secure world unravels amid the gathering storm of World War II. After an initial scene of her family escaping their home in the darkness of night in frigid winter, the narrative reverts back to her peaceful village in eastern Poland, where she lives among her loving family. The story marches along history’s trail to reveal a young Jewish prodigy caught between the Nazi threat to the west and the Soviets to the east as Tasa comes of age in the shadow of encroaching war and finds redemption in her music and through deep love, despite the horrors that draw near. In the end, it is a story of resilience and survival, celebrating the bonds of love, the power of memory, the solace of music, and the enduring strength of the human spirit.

In the new novel, we meet your main character, Eli Stoff, as an old man. We find out early on that there is a connection between him and the first novel, although I won’t ask you to say what it is. But where is he at this point in his life, and why did you decide to start here?

Great question! My book could actually be called a “novel-in-stories,” as different characters tell interrelated stories that, together, form a multi-layered portrait of Eli Stoff and his journey from one homeland to another, and from boyhood to manhood. Theoretically, each of these stories could be read as stand-alone stories, all linked to Eli and related to the decade between 1938 and 1948. (Two stories were actually published as independent stories in literary journals prior to the publication of A Ritchie Boy.) While I didn’t write the stories in the order they appear, they are arranged chronologically and that gives the book a very novel-like presentation. Each story reveals the particulars that influence Eli’s life—the circumstances and people that he encounters from his boyhood in Vienna to New York, where immigrants first encounter America; to Ohio, where his family settles; to Maryland and Camp Ritchie, where he joins thousands of others like him—young immigrants from Germany or Austria who have an understanding of the German language and culture and are trained as military intelligence officers and end up helping the Allies win World War II. The narrative continues with Eli’s travel to war-torn Europe as an American soldier before he returns to the Midwest to set down his roots.

I decided to begin in the near present, in 2016, when Eli is ninety-three, as he receives an unexpected letter inviting him to a Ritchie Boy reunion. His memories of that important decade in his life come flooding back, disrupting his predictable routine at Hillside Senior Living Residences, where he lives. Beginning this way provides a container for all the stories to come, a vessel that transports the reader into all those crucial moments of Eli’s life, beginning with his tense boyhood in Vienna.

As we get older, we look back and see how we got to be who we are, but that future eludes us when we are young. It seemed fitting for the telling of this story about Eli’s journey to begin at that late point in life. I used a quote from Shakespeare for my epigraph that explains this best, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.”

The novel then snaps back to 1938, where Eli is a teenager living in Vienna. What is his situation at this time?

In 1938, Eli and his family, who are secular Jews, live in Vienna where anti-Semitism is spreading. Eli’s best friend is Toby Wermer, a non-Jew who lives in the same apartment building, a friend since they were six and attending Volksschule together. An undercurrent of tension has been brewing at their school all year, with Eli being taunted by other students. And that is the backdrop for an optional school-sponsored ski trip Eli takes with Gentile classmates—all of them around fifteen years of age—during a weekend in early March. The ten boys travel by train, with a supervising teacher, to a medieval Alpine village in western Austria on the cusp of the Anschluss, where some semblance of camaraderie turns somber by the time they return to Vienna.

How do Eli and his family get to the United States?

A childhood friend of Eli’s mother, Zelda Muni, who had earlier immigrated to America with her husband, seeks help from a powerful Jewish businessman, John Brandeis, to sponsor the Stoffs’ escape from the growing peril in Vienna. Brandeis signs affidavits for the Stoffs. He had been helping other Jews escape Europe, ensuring each family would not become a public burden. Brandeis’ altruistic act, for people he didn’t know and expecting nothing in return, left an indelible mark on Eli for the rest of his life.
 
Eli begins his education in at Ohio State University but leaves partway through to become “a Ritchie boy,” as per your title. What was a Ritchie boy, and what does his new status require of Eli?

I alluded to what a Ritchie Boy was in the answer to the second question. I’ll get more specific here. The book title and the name of the soldiers come from Camp Ritchie, a military training facility near Hagerstown, Maryland, where the US Army centralized its intelligence operations beginning in June 1942, not long after US forces landed in North Africa and helped drive the German Army off the continent. In the early part of World War II, the Army sought soldiers familiar with the German culture, thinking, and language to carry out a variety of needed duties, including interrogation of prisoners and counterintelligence. Many recent immigrants from Germany or Austria who had this ability to speak or comprehend the language of the enemy got routed to Camp Ritchie on secret orders. There thousands were trained to perform specialized tasks, which provided advanced intelligence to allied forces regarding German war plans and tactics. Thus their nickname—the Ritchie Boys.

And what drew you to tell this story?


My father was a Ritchie Boy and is the inspiration for this fictional story. He, too, grew up in anti-Semitic Vienna in the 1920s and ’30s, escaped with his parents thanks to the kindness of a stranger, lived his teenage years in the Midwest as World War II began, was recruited and trained by the US Army at Camp Ritchie, and returned to the theater of war just six years after coming to this country to fight the very enemy he barely escaped in 1938. My father died in early 2017. Many of his comrades are gone as well now that we have reached the seventy-fifth anniversary of the war’s official ending (September 2, 1945). These brave soldiers contributed to our victory in World War II, yet many are not aware of this. One Army study estimates that almost sixty percent of the intelligence collected in Europe came from interrogations conducted by Ritchie Boys. Telling this history through fiction builds a human story and allows the reader to experience, and be present in, that narrative. The stories in A Ritchie Boy are an attempt to bring that time and those characters to life so others, too, can remember their sacrifice.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?
 
Yes, I am in the early stages
of my third novel. It will again be historical fiction, during that time period I seem to gravitate toward: 1936 to 1946, in this case. It is based on a real, and fairly well-known, character whose early life I find fascinating.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Linda Kass, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, is an assistant editor of the online literary magazine Narrative and the owner of Gramercy Books—an independently minded, carefully curated neighborhood bookstore in Bexley, Ohio. She Writes Press published her first novel, Tasa’s Song, in 2016 and her second, A Ritchie Boy, in 2020. Find out more about her at her website (https://www.lindakass.com).




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