Thursday, February 22, 2018

Q&A with Dina Gold


Dina Gold is the author of Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin. She is a senior editor at Moment magazine, and worked as a reporter and producer for the BBC. Born in London, she now lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write that as a child you would hear stories from your grandmother about the building in Berlin your family had owned. What ultimately made you decide to search for that building?

A: I really loved my grandmother Nellie Wolff. She would weave wonderful stories of her life in Berlin that were very tantalizing to a young girl. Nellie’s daughter, my mother, had also enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle up to the age of 11, when the Hitler came to power and the family fled.

My mother always discounted Nellie’s stories. She said Nellie was a fantasist, her claims that the family had once owned a huge building were probably unfounded and that we should look to the future, not the past. I had a very different attitude. Yes, Nellie might have been mistaken but … it was also possible that perhaps she wasn’t. I absolutely had to find out!

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, my parents were totally set against my starting a restitution claim. Nellie had died 12 years earlier, leaving no documents or photographs relating to the building, not even its address.

My father would say, “You can't fight the German government, forget it.” The only person who supported me was my husband, Simon.

Q: How did you feel when you started doing some research and realized your grandmother’s stories could be true?

A: It was exciting and gratifying that my hunch seemed to be right.  As I started to uncover more and more evidence it started to look as if Nellie had not been telling fairy stories. I determined that I couldn’t give up!

I found the building in what had been the Soviet sector, just behind the Berlin Wall, two blocks from Checkpoint Charlie.

It might sound like an exaggeration to say that I was driven by “the burden of history…” but actually it is not.

Professor Walter Reich, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote in a testimonial for my book: “The Holocaust - the project of exterminating Europe's Jews - was an immense act of murder. But it was also an immense act of theft. The murder was, of course, the incomparably greater crime. The dead could never be brought back to life.”

He is, of course, absolutely right.

Stolen Legacy is not directly about the genocide - which was unparalleled, unforgettable and totally unforgivable.  In a similar vein to that of the movie Woman in Gold, about the fight to reclaim a Klimt painting, Stolen Legacy is about the fight for restitution of a huge building in central Berlin.

Q: How long did your effort take to obtain restitution?

A: The case was concluded in January 1996. In round terms it took just over five years.

Q: What are some of the things that surprised you as you learned more about your family?

A: During my investigation to find enough evidence to present a legal claim, I discovered just how successful the international H. Wolff fur company had been. 

The family had tried desperately hard to hold onto the building, which had been the company headquarters. The paperwork I found revealed exactly what had happened, the process of the forced sale to the Reichsbahn (German railways), how the property had been used during the war and what the Communists did with the building when it was inside the territory of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

I visited the New York Public Library and discovered some old editions of a publication called “Fur Trade Review.” I looked at three years’ worth – from 1908-1910. This magazine is no longer published, but these issues offer a vivid portrayal of the once vibrant fur trade that flourished across North America in the early part of the last century. European dealers would visit the United States and establish business links here. 

To my amazement I found many H. Wolff advertisements and photos of the company’s latest designs …not only coats but also stoles, muffs, hats and assorted accessories – all made from fur. It was yet further evidence of just how successful the fashion house had been. 

The librarians at the New York Public Library were perfectly happy for me to take photos.

Q: In addition to the historical aspects of the story, this is a very personal book. How did you balance your roles as journalist and family member as you worked on the book?

A: It’s interesting you ask that because a colleague who read the draft said to me, “I would have written the story with much more emotion.” But I am not like that. Being gushing and sentimental is not my style. I’m trained as a journalist and to a large extent I have to put my feelings to one side.

I was haunted by the terrible discoveries I made while doing research into the fates of some of the people I wrote about. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the International Tracing Service (ITS), as well as many other archives I consulted, have a wealth of material for historians.    

The Wolff family was comparatively fortunate. Not everyone in the family survived, but my grandparents, my mother and her two siblings did. I never forget that the theft of a building cannot be compared with losing family, friends and indeed entire communities.

Q: At what point did you decide to write a book about your family’s experiences?

A: I kept talking about it all through the claim. But I had a full-time job at the BBC, and three young children. Simon was working for the Financial Times and traveling extensively. I was too busy, and I just couldn’t do it.

What prompted me was that, in 2008, I left the BBC and came to the USA on a green card because my husband had been offered a job in Washington, D.C.

I brought all the case papers over. Simon said, “The children need to know their family history, so sit down and write,” and that is what I did. A friend who is a literary agent kept asking me to show her my draft. She really liked the story. And that is how the American Bar Association came to publish Stolen Legacy.

Q: You've published an updated version of your book. What new material did you research and report for the paperback?

In the course of my research, I delved into the background of the Victoria Insurance company – and its Nazi-era chairman, Dr. Kurt Hamann – which had foreclosed on the Wolff family building in 1937 and handed it straight to the Reichsbahn. 

I discovered that the Victoria Insurance, under Hamann’s leadership, was part of a consortium insuring SS slave labor workshops at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Stutthof concentration camps. I managed to obtain the actual policy documents.

I also found out a lot more about Dr. Hamann’s career, his wartime role and how he was feted in the post war era.

I already knew that the University of Mannheim, a very prestigious German university, has a stiftung (foundation) named after Dr. Hamann!

Q: What has the impact of this new material been so far?

I asked Professor Dr. Ernst-Ludwig von Thadden, President of Mannheim University, if he considers Dr. Hamann a suitable person to be honored in such a manner. I have been in correspondence with him for the past two and a half years about what should be done.

The latest news is that a year ago, Prof. von Thadden told me that he had commissioned a renowned German historian, Prof. Johannes Baehr, to conduct an in-depth study into the life of Dr. Hamann. That report was initially due to be delivered by end August 2017. 

Prof. Baehr apparently found “more than anticipated” and suggested he would be in a position to “produce a first report before Christmas.” A decision would then be taken about the future of the Dr. Kurt-Hamann Foundation.

However, I have very recently been contacted once more by Prof. von Thadden who tells me that the report by Prof. Baehr will take more time due to “unexpected difficulties in the access to new material and the extent of the new material itself.” 

Apparently, the latest date being proposed for submission by Prof. Baehr is end March. Prof. von Thadden says he is accepts that a further delay is necessary because this is an important matter and “diligence takes precedence over speed.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When you last interviewed me, I told you how I had been trying to get a plaque placed on the building, explaining it was forcibly taken by the Nazis from its Jewish owners. In December 2013, on behalf of then Transport Minister Dr. Peter Ramsauer, an official e-mailed me: “I’ll arrange for the plaque to be produced and affixed to the office building.”  But nothing happened. 

In Spring 2016 the BBC, my former employer, asked me to fly to Berlin to make a short film about the story for broadcast across the UK on International Holocaust Remembrance Day the following January 27.   

I flew to Berlin in May 2016 and was met at the building by officials only too eager to help! The knowledge that a BBC film crew was coming had seemingly galvanized them into action! And that’s how, in July 2016, I managed to have a plaque put at the entrance to the building.

I have spoken in cities across the USA about the story of Stolen Legacy and everywhere I go I meet audience members who long to reclaim their own families’ stolen property all over Europe. It is a tragedy, and a scandal, that more than 70 years after the end of the war, thousands of people are still waiting for some measure of restitution.  Next month I am off to speak at a conference in Munich.

And finally … in the not too distant future there is going to be a Chinese language edition of Stolen Legacy published by the Sichuan People's Publishing House. I look forward to showing you a copy!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A. Dina Gold will be speaking at the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 24.

Feb. 22

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 22, 1892: Edna St. Vincent Millay born.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Q&A with Cori Doerrfeld


Cori Doerrfeld is the author and illustrator of the new picture book The Rabbit Listened. Her other books include Matilda in the Middle and Little Bunny Foo-Foo. She lives in Minneapolis.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Rabbit Listened?

A:The idea for The Rabbit Listened sprung from my own feelings of helplessness after two of my friends went through the heartbreaking experience of losing a child. My friends both expressed how frustrating it was that while many of the people in their lives wanted to help, nobody really knew what to say or do.

It reminded me of a letter I got back in high school from my boyfriend at the time. He too, had experienced losing a loved one. When he was only eight years old, his older brother was killed in a car accident. The letter talked about how difficult it was for him afterwards.

More than any of the people in his life, it was his pet rabbits who truly helped him through the grieving process. With their warm, calm presence, his rabbits offered him the quiet space he needed to hurt, think, and move through his pain. The rabbits simply listened.

The more I thought about these rabbits, the more I realized the perfect wisdom in how they were there for that little boy. That, combined with the desire to do something helpful for my friends, the idea for The Rabbit Listened was born.

Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations first (or both simultaneously)?

A: Typically my books start with a rough idea or an image that I can’t stop thinking about. How I start working on an idea varies. Sometimes I write out a quick draft, or notes first. Other times I sketch characters first. My house is often covered in random scraps of paper or post it notes that I have either written a phrase or sketched a quick doodle on.

Most of the time when I actually sit down to work on a new book idea, it is a simultaneous process where I switch between writing and sketching. I find that even if I am able to write an entire rough draft of text, it is so hard to tell if it has the right pacing or flow until I draw rough sketches for the art.

All of my books start out as a very rough combination of possible text and quick thumbnail sketches.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: I feel like we are just waking up to the idea that children need more than an education in numbers and letters. I know far too many adults who have no clue what to do with difficult emotions or how to express empathy.

I hope this book helps kids learn what they can do when life doesn’t go as expected, or they see someone who is hurting. I
would love for them to feel confident that even if they weren’t sure what to say or do to help someone, they always have the power to listen.

I hope it starts conversations in houses, schools, and libraries about emotions in general and how you can’t “fix” someone in pain, but you can be there for them. Even the youngest child can take away the concept to “be like the rabbit.”

In turn, I also hope kids recognize that when they themselves feel alone or sad they can tell the people in their lives what they need.

Q: Who are some of your favorite children's picture book authors?

A: Authors I still love from childhood are William Steig, Maurice Sendak, and Leo Lionni. Today I am always adding to my list of favorites. I love Yasmeen Ismail, Ame Dyckman, Lauren Castillo, Elise Parsley, Matthew Cordell and Peter Brown…but could list forever!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished up a picture book that pays tribute to the wild ways of my daughter. When she was a toddler, I had to constantly chase her through countless environments, avoiding many near catastrophes, and receiving many disapproving looks from other parents.

My book recreates this experience with a mother and baby orangutan. The book ultimately celebrates the love and beauty chaos can lead to. It is called Wild Baby and is set to release in Spring 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I just want to say that The Rabbit Listened has such a special place in my heart. I have been so humbled and honored to have its message read and shared by others.

Because of this book, I have even learned of a local group in Minnesota where I live called STEM Bunnies. It was started by a young boy and not only does the group protect and care for hundreds of misplaced rabbits, but they have therapy bunnies. These bunnies offer quiet, calm support to those in pain just like the pet rabbits from my letter.

STEM Bunnies and I are already discussing ways to work together to spread the message far and wide that help is out there, you are not alone, and someone will be there to listen.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 21

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 21, 1907: W.H. Auden born.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Q&A with Renée Watson


Renée Watson is the author, with Ilyasah Shabazz, of Betty Before X, a new novel for kids about the childhood of civil rights activist and educator Betty Shabazz, the mother of Ilyasah Shabazz and wife of Malcolm X. Watson's other books include the award-winning young adult novel Piecing Me Together and the picture book Harlem's Little Blackbird. She lives in New York City.

Q: How did you and Ilyasah Shabazz end up collaborating on this book about the childhood of her mother, Betty Shabazz?

A: Ilyasah and her agent reached out to me and asked me if I’d like to be a part of the project. I was so honored to even be considered. The more I learned about Betty’s early life, the more I wanted to work with Ilyasah to tell Betty’s story.

Q: What sort of research did you need to do to write the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: There isn’t much written about Betty’s childhood, so most of my research was talking with Ilyasah and interviewing one of Betty’s sisters.

I also interviewed people who lived in Detroit in the 1940s. Listening to their stories really shaped the book and gave me insight into the daily life and experiences of people living in Detroit. I also relied on magazines, music, and advertisements from the 1940s to help me get a sense of what the culture was like in terms of style, popular music, and products people were using.

Q: The book is based on Betty Shabazz's life, but is fictionalized. What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction?

A: Every scene in the book is tied to a truth. For example, I don’t know if Betty actually saw a lynching but I do know that during her childhood, lynchings were happening in Georgia. It was my responsibility as a writer to tie in these larger truths of what was happening around Betty and paint a full picture of not only her personal life, but the circumstances she was living in.

Ilyasah and I were told Betty loved to dance and that she enjoyed baking cookies with her friends and looking through magazines. We really wanted to show Betty having fun and enjoying her childhood even though the backdrop is a nation divided and a city adjusting to life after the war.

Keeping all of this in mind, I tried to have a balance of giving historical context but always personalizing it and thinking about how the outside world impacts Betty’s internal world.

In terms of developing Betty as a character, as I listened to people describe how Betty was as an adult, I made a list of her character traits: generous, forgiving, never resentful, nurturer, loyal. It was my responsibility to find ways for these traits to resonate in the book.

I really believe the seeds planted in our childhoods bloom into our adulthood so I had to develop scenes that showed the early beginnings of the woman we know as an icon.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers finish the book knowing that activism can look many ways and that they can use their talents and time to make a difference and stand up for what they believe in.

In the book, we see Paul Robeson using music and speeches as a way to fight injustice, we see the Housewives League volunteering their time, educating their community and making demands to get policies changed.

There are many ways to be a leader and get involved at any age. I hope young readers realize that and take action in their own way.

I also hope that by reading Betty’s story, young readers are encouraged and know that even if there is great sadness and loss in their life, there can be hope and joy. Our hardships don’t have to limit us, or hold us back.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished co-writing a book with my good friend, and poet, Ellen Hagan. It’s called Write Like a Girl and is about two friends who start a feminist blog at their school that goes viral and causes their school community to rethink what it truly means to support girls and their voices. It will be out in 2019, published by Bloomsbury.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Feb. 20

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 20, 1935: Ellen Gilchrist born.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Q&A with Morra Aarons-Mele


Morra Aarons-Mele is the author of the new book Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You'd Rather Stay Home). She is the founder of the organization Women Online and hosts the Forbes podcast Hiding in the Bathroom. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Harvard Business Review and The Huffington Post. She lives in Boston.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Hiding in the Bathroom, and for the book's title?

A: Hiding in the Bathroom is both something I do on a regular basis, and also a way I describe an essential way we introverts take care of ourselves when our energy is getting drained!

Have you ever hidden in the bathroom at a professional event? If you’re an introvert or deal with anxiety, you probably have. 

Think of the last time you were at a professional conference. Did you walk into the huge crowd, panic at the number of strangers all around you, and go hide out in the ladies? In the middle of a demanding day or meeting, do you take five to just breathe in a quiet place? Have you ever gotten some rough news at work and had to cry it out in a toilet stall?

I think it’s also true that when you’re hiding in the bathroom you find a lot of kindred spirits.

The book offers a roadmap for people who are very ambitious but who might be introverts, have social anxiety, or simply need more control over the pace, place and space at which they work. I show readers ways to be super strategic about managing their time and energy.

Q: You write, "Most of what we think we must do to succeed is unnecessary and even counterproductive." What would you say are a few of the most common misperceptions about success?

A: The biggest misperception is that there’s only one path to success in business—be tireless, never stop. The Lean In model is prevalent right now. And the masculine perspective is “crush it,” winning all the time. In my interviews, that’s not sustainable, obviously.

Q: In the book, you discuss Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. How does her approach compare to your own?

A: I hate comparing myself to her—she’s such a massive phenomenon. I’m a huge admirer of hers.

Leaning In is about giving it all you’ve got all the time. I think of what she says to younger women: Don’t leave before you leave; if you’re thinking of changing your personal life, don’t let people at work think that’s your path. That’s great if that’s what you want. But if you want more flexibility, it’s okay to work less. Things aren’t binary.

Q: What role do you see social media playing in how people balance their lives today?

A: It’s both a blessing and a curse. If it weren’t for social media and the fact that many professional workers can get a lot done with just a laptop and a smartphone, people like me would still be stuck at a desk eight hours a day. So connectivity gives us tremendous flexibility.

Social media and the ability to create a powerful online professional brand also means that those of us who hate networking and schmoozing can do a lot less of it.

We can blog, create content and establish an online presence that attracts potential employers or clients, and this means less awkward networking in person. It allows us to use great creativity to establish what we stand for and why we are special.

Q: Do you see some social media as more helpful than others?

A: The difference I try to draw out is between personal and professional. For a lot of us, [the line is] blurry. But a lot of people who are introverts feel it’s almost an intrusion on their privacy…it’s so personal, it takes up so much time, and [you’re] looking at other feeds and thinking you’re less than that. Instagram is the worst culprit.

I love the written word. There’s something about the written form online—it’s more introvert-friendly but also professional. I tell people not to give up on social media, but to find the platform that’s right for you…

Q: What advice would you give people about overcoming their fears as an introvert, say about speaking in public?

A: A lot of introverts have no fear of public speaking. Introverts [can be] really good at getting out there, well prepared. They have a plan afterwards to take a break. You need to practice and have a strong intentionality.

If your face hurts from smiling too much or making small talk, that’s where hiding in the bathroom comes in. If you have social anxiety, it’s about practice and getting into your mission.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My business, Women Online, creates digital campaigns that mobilize women. We are proud members of the resistance and are lucky enough to work with many progressive organizations who are working to advance good change. Goodness knows there is a lot to be done!

I’m also having fun with my podcast, also called Hiding in the Bathroom. This season I’ve taken a deep dive into how patriarchy affects (infects?) every aspect of our lives. It’s been really interesting and eye opening. You can listen here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Morra Aarons-Mele will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Feb. 24.