“So, What’s it About?”

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After working for over twelve years to complete the first draft of my novel, it’s been exciting to tell the world that my labor of love is drawing nearer to publication.

Whether that means a gifted agent will swoop in and embrace Max’s story, making a case for its publication by a traditional publishing house, OR I follow the route of independent publishing so many authors are now choosing quite successfully is yet to be determined.

In either case, I’ve been delighted by the interest expressed by those who’ve learned about my work. The obvious first question is generally, “So, what’s it about?” and nothing gives me greater pleasure than responding! With that in mind, I realized that sharing an overview of the story on my blog was past due and have added a page presenting the novel’s SYNOPSIS.

It’s reassuring to know that there is a lively community of inquisitive minds who read voraciously and enjoy getting “sneak previews” to a work of art in progress. There is still a long road ahead.  From completing the first draft to having a final manuscript ready for publication entails further revisions, research, and expert guides to navigate unfamiliar waters.

Writers produce their work in the quiet of solitude, which (while necessary) can also be a very lonely place.  We write for the love of writing, and the hope that the images that dance through our minds will add something to the human dialogue. Having a supportive partner, friends, other writers, and all of YOU egging me on truly makes it all the more worthwhile.

Please take a moment to check out the SYNOPSIS just added to the blog (top of the page).  I so appreciate your questions, comments, support, and partnership in the process of building a community around GOLANSKI’S TREASURES!

Many Thanks!

Sue

P.S.  If you’re enjoying thus far, please “Like” posts and “Follow & Join the Community” in the left-hand column.  If you click the “Follow” button you’ll not only get posts automatically (once/week), but will help build a strong community of support.

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Speak Out!

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OUTRAGE as a moral imperative must sometimes become one’s compass when political policies and accepted definitions no longer suffice.  In today’s world there are many events and practices where I take issue: greed promoted over social responsibility, ongoing inequality between genders and groups, and self-centeredness trumping compassion (to name only a few).  While I grumble, like many others I’ve excused myself from participating more actively in the discussion so as to attend instead to the daily responsibilities of my life.

I wasn’t always so passive.  In years past I probably would have raised my voice while protesting beside fellow marchers.  Movements fueled by fearless passion for causes supporting: peace, civil rights, religious freedom, and egalitarianism (to name only a few).  Perhaps it is simply that I am older now, with a bit less fire in my belly.  Comfortable walking shoes have replaced my marching boots, and I’ve learned that many shades of grey color the world.  Life is not as clearly apparent as before.

So, what has changed?  Perhaps entering another time and another place in a life imagined through a fictional character has reawakened my impatience with allowing the world to right itself while I go about my business.  In my novel, the central character is a man struggling against the silence of complacency by speaking out against injustice.  Through recast eyes I have begun to see the world and my place in it somewhat differently.

My fictional character, 81-year-old Holocaust Survivor, Max Golanski perfected the art of blending into the horrific scenery of his times by not making waves.  It was a skill acquired as a protective device, an armor of invisibility shielding him from detection by those bent upon his destruction.  Inherent in Max’s choice to return to Poland to reconnect with his past was his choice to become visible once again.

Dropping his protective shield Max chose to speak for those who had died in full view of a world that should have come to their assistance, and instead turned a collective back.  He grew to believe that remaining invisible — silent in the midst of evil — was to abandon a joint responsibility of conscience and allow inaction to become action.

Like Max of my imagination I find it increasingly difficult to remain silent when witnessing attacks by armed forces against civilians throughout the world.  “Rules of Engagement,” don’t exist when governments attack their own people and sovereign countries have engaged in internal battles since the beginning of time.  In Darfur, the battles continue raging with 300,000 killed and almost 3 million displaced since 2003.  In Syria, the question remains as to whether a civil war is underway.  While the question is answered, men women and children in Homs are being killed simply because they live in harm’s way.

It is my personal hope that a global outcry will bring an end to the hostilities against these, and all groups of civilians under siege.  In civil wars, issues become even more complex as people of conscience must watch from the outside without involvement.  What is the right thing to do in such an instance?  The human thing.  As an individual I do not profess to have the answers, but believe it essential to pose the questions.

The fight against genocide will not be won as “Crimes Against Humanity” continue.  Our human family cannot afford to continue losing its humanity. Let us pray for peace among nations, and an end to violence against innocent civilians.  Take action by contacting your elected officials in Congress.  REMEMBER . . .

 First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out –
 because I was not a Communist.  Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out – 
because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out – 
because I was not a trade unionist.  Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me –
 and there was no one left to speak out for me.

– PASTOR MARIN NEIMOLLER –

YIDDISH (my Mamaloschen)

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MAX GOLANSKI here, and like the gifted Mandy Patinkin pictured on the left, I wanted to share with you some information about Yiddish, my mamaloschen, or “mother tongue.” In Poland I read, spoke and experienced the world through its richness.

Yiddish almost became a dead language after World War II, but for centuries it was spoken by 12 million people.  Yiddish helped us maintain our cultural identity and communicate with other Jewish people throughout the world.  As borders changed so often in Eastern Europe, we had a native tongue despite not having a nation. Born in Europe, Yiddish is 70% German with a mixture of Hebrew, Slavic, and Romance languages thrown in. As Yiddish spread between countries and regions, it absorbed their languages and regional slang expressions, but basics stayed the same. Yiddish is the Jewish way to make sense of the world.

To me Yiddish is like a clear chicken broth to which leftovers are added every night until Shabbos (Sabbath). Each night’s soup is stronger than the night before until it’s like a nice, thick stew for the Sabbath meal — then the process starts all over again.  Why all this talk about food?  I see both food and Yiddish as delicacies.  Speaking Yiddish, we relish every bite, eating our words with gusto and enjoying the aftertaste so as not to miss the true flavor, or essence of a conversation.  So, would you like a taste?  A little sampler plate of Yiddish expressions?  So many Yiddish words are now part of everyday life, I’m sure you’ve heard:

BUBKES  (trivial, worthless, useless)

GLITCH (minor problem or error)

MAVEN (expert – often sarcastic)

NOSH (snack)

OY GEVALT and OY VEY (Oh pain!  Yikes!)

PLOTZ (collapse)

SHLOCK (cheap, shoddy item)

SHMALTZY (excessively gushing)

SHMOOZE (chat, small talk)

SHTICK (gimmick, actor’s bit)

SPIEL (involved sales pitch)

TCHATCHKE (knick-knack)

TUCHIS (rear-end, buttocks, tush)

YENTE (female busy-body)

However, unless you’re a lansman (“Member of the Tribe,” or Jewish) and only then if you speak Yiddish, you might be unfamiliar with its descriptive color.  So, how about I start with my very favorite, as it explains the story of my life?

 DER MANN TRAOCHT UN GOTT LACHT.

(“MAN PLANS AND GOD LAUGHS.”)

HERE ARE A FEW OTHER WORDS AND PHRASES I LIKE:

A SHAYNE DANK DIR IM PUPIK — Many thanks in your belly button (“Thanks for nothing.”)

A BI GEZUNT – Don’t worry about problems.  (“You’ve still got your health.”)

BIZ HUNDERT UN TSVANTSIKYou should live to be 120.

FERBLUNJIT — Lost, mixed up.

GAY GA ZINTA HATE — Go in good health.  (“Fine, don’t listen to me. See if I care.”)

HOK A CHAINIK – Bang the kettle, OR give someone a headache with complaining.

KVELL — To beam with pride and pleasure.  (Jewish parents are prone to kvell over their children’s achievements.)

ME OIS VAXEN SVI A TSIBELE MITEN CUP IN VANTYou should grow like an onion with your head in the ground.

SHLIMAZL — A chronically unlucky person, a born loser.  (When a shlimazl sells his umbrella the sun comes out.)

YENTE TELEBENTE – “Mrs. National Enquirer”

ZAYN MAZL ZOL IM LAYCHTN VI DI LEVONE IN SOF KHOYDESH His luck should be as bright as a new moon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

OY . . . I didn’t mean to go on so!  If you have any personal favorites though, let Sue know.  She’s thinking of setting up a page just for Yiddish words and expressions.  But, only if you’d enjoy.  Nu?  What do you think?

Max

P.S.  Sue wanted me to tell you that there are many books and websites on Yiddish and she’ll try to add some to her links.  You may want to read Leo Rosten’s THE JOYS OF YIDDISH.  Or check online.

Seeking Jewish Roots

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SOKOLY (So-koh-wee)! The first time I heard the name of my grandfather’s birthplace was from my father’s cousin, Marie.  She lived in Paris, was a doctor, medical researcher, and reputedly a Polish Countess. Now what, you might ask, does my distant cousin and Polish Countess have to do with the story of Max Golanski?  

In 1989, when I traveled to Poland on behalf of Chicago’s Spertus Museum, I stopped in Paris to ask Marie to fill in missing blanks regarding our family heritage.  Grandpa Ross had arrived in the United States as a young man seeking to leave Russia rather than face the mandatory 12-year military service required of Jews.  (Non-Jews served four years for the Czar.)  He had followed his brother Willie to this country via Ellis Island, and couldn’t remember our family’s original last name, or why his brother had selected the surname Ross.  Fortunately, Cousin Marie remembered names and places that helped round out our family lore.

When Great Uncle Willie arrived at Ellis Island, Immigration officials asked where he was from and without hesitation he replied, “Białystok” (Bee-al-i-stok).  When asked his last name he said, “Białystokski” (Bee-al-i-stos-kee), which translates “from the Białystok region.”  Białystok shifted between  Russian and Polish rule over a period of several hundred years.

Immigration officials decided that Great Uncle Willie was either confused, or his name was too difficult to pronounce, so asked him to select “an American name.”  Of course, he didn’t know any “American names,” so when an attractive female Immigration worker walked past he pointed to her and asked, “Vat’s her name?” in a thick Yiddish accent.  “ROSS!” Without hesitation he said, “If it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.  I’ll take it!”  And so my Eastern European Jewish family had a new, Scottish surname.

And SOKOLY?  Once Marie related the story regarding our family name she also remembered our family’s village.  Upon arriving in Poland I hired a driver to take me to the town (25 miles from Białystok).  Sokoly was a modest farming community of 3,500 people, distinguished by an impressive Catholic church in the town’s center. Surprisingly, my visit generated substantial excitement as word quickly spread that an American Jew was visiting.  People poured from their homes to meet me, saying “No ‘Shoah.’  We like Jews!”  I later discovered that the 9 1/2-hour film “Shoah,” by Claude Lanzmann, had recently found its way to Sokoly.  Residents seemed to feel that by convincing one Jew that not all Poles were anti-Semitic, they absolved themselves of participation in the Holocaust to all the Jews of the world.

Pulled into the kitchen of a humble farmer and his wife, I sat with them seeking the answer to my one burning question:  “What happened to the Jews of Sokoly?”  Their response was translated for me by my Polish driver, and the tape was donated to the Chicago Jewish Archives.

Years later, the Internet made possible more extensive research.  I was surprised to discover that Sokoly had been a renowned center of Jewish scholarship, claiming many doctors, scientists, literary scholars and other distinguished native sons and daughters.  The majority of Sokoly’s survivors immigrated to Israel.  A few others came to the States.  As one might expect, their stories were markedly different from the farmer’s original tale.  Folding differing perspectives of my impressions visiting in 1989, the farmer’s story, and researched testimony of Sokoly’s Jewish Survivors into a fictionalized tale gave birth to several chapters in GOLANSKI’S TREASURES.

As for my family’s Polish Countess?  A story onto itself for another time!

(Church in Sokoly, Poland - Photo by Leszek Zaremba)

How a Book Comes to Be

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I never intended to write about the Holocaust.  Perhaps (if possible) my character, Max Golanski sought me out.  His entry into my world came unannounced.  It was in the late 1990’s when I had one of those vivid, “right before waking” dreams we remember for a few minutes after opening our eyes. That’s where I was plunged into Max’s world, seeing the entire span of his life in one fell swoop.  It appeared like a rainbow, intact from the place where it leaps from the earth on one side, soars across the heavens, and returns to earth far from where it emerged.  I sprang from the bed, looked at Charles (my wonderful, albeit long-suffering partner), and sharply said, “Don’t speak to me!” As I raced to the computer to grab the images, ideas and story dancing inside, Charles sat perplexed. “But I didn’t do anything!” I recall him saying as I quickly jotted down a quick outline of an emerging book just as the story began to fade from my consciousness.  (Charles did forgive me.)

I had visited Poland on behalf of Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies as part of a Spertus Museum planning group seeking to put together an exhibition of Polish/Jewish art, but that was a decade earlier.  I wonder how long Max had languished somewhere deep inside waiting for the right moment to grab my attention, and wonder still what spurred his bursting forth at that moment.  

Having no idea as to what was involved in bringing a work of literary fiction from concept to fruition, I doodled away in my spare time over the years, writing whenever mood, or time allowed.  Some years time simply didn’t allow, and yet the insistent voice of this 81-year old Jewish man living on NYC’s Lower East Side jabbered away to me in Yiddish (which I don’t speak), or prodded me in a Yiddish-laden English (which I do).  He was not to be quieted, so I wrote.  

At times, I was frustrated by the amount of time needed to move the work forward. Now that the first draft is solidly in place and I am into revisions, I feel blessed for the process.  During those 12 years the Internet was born, and with it, access to historical data.  My writing also matured and I discovered professional avenues to hone my craft.  “The Writer’s Life” is not an easy one.  Not easy for those of us who create in isolation, or the poor souls (like my dear Charles) who allow us to exist beside them even as we travel to alternate realities.  Has anybody out there ever had a similar experience?  I’d love to hear about it!

Sue

“Family is Everything!”

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“Family is everything!” Mama used to say.  Yet, I never realized just how important everything was until I had nothing.  Until my family was consumed by the hatred and misguided megalomania of a single lunatic, who crafted “The Final Solution” as the way to rid the world of all that was precious to me.

People generally understand the Holocaust as one of history’s darkest periods.  Yet, that understanding is framed by viewing footage from newsreels where the Jews of Eastern Europe become familiar as victims — black and white images of naked skeletal remains stacked up like kindling, or victims-in-waiting kneeling before open pits, Nazi soldiers standing behind them with rifles poised.  Or iconic images of a young boy with his hands raised above his head.

Then, of course, are the numbers.  The sheer volume of those destroyed in the first genocide where science was employed to systematically destroy those selected by a virtual killing machine.  6 million souls.  Two-thirds of Eastern Europe’s Jewish population.  Gone.  Murdered.

Yet, each of those 6 million were members of families like mine in a culture that lived and breathed family from every pore.  My family was much like yours, the only difference perhaps that we lived in shtels (Jewish villages) and cities in Poland.  We were born, lived, loved and laughed — just like your families.  We made our livings in a variety of ways, from working in farming communities to city butcher shops.  We sought our degrees in institutions of higher learning, studied art, became professionals, fell in love and married.  We debated the finer philosophical points raised by history’s great minds, and immersed ourselves in worship to the God who was the center of our existence.  We harbored the same hopes and dreams as every living soul.

Yet, as Jews, we stood in the same shadows of fear occupied by our ancestors from the moment we chose God, and he in turn chose us for our love of Him and dedication to his ways.  Being “The Chosen People,” was never easy, and when I was young I wished that God would choose somebody else for a change.  But me and my family — Mama and Popa, brother Izzy, sister Miri, wife Sarah, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins – were born into times and circumstances where choosing and being chosen framed our existence.  Our choices defined our humanity, informed our destinies and shaped our relationships with God.

Like you, we were born into a world where God gave us the freedom to choose how to act, or react to the world around us.  Yes, “Family is everything,” but we are all extended family, aren’t we?  So, as family, I invite you to get to know more about my world, for within that world you may discover some pieces of your own.

A blog is a personal connection in today’s impersonal universe.  I will attempt to keep my scribe busy as she relates some of the stories of my life, but most can be found in the book she has been working on for the past 12 years.  Her book – MY book – is called “Golanski’s Treasures.”  Until it is ready to be brought forth into the world, perhaps we can become acquainted through this blog.  Feel free to ask questions, or join conversations.  No need to stand on formalities – speak right up!  This is a dialogue.  Speak your mind, but please be considerate of one another, me and my family, and your writer Sue Ross along the way.  It’s easy to stay in touch.  Just click on the “follow” button at the left and you’ll be notified of new posts.

Thank you,

Max Golanski