‘Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe” by Laurel Leff (Yale) is the first book to explore the choices American universities made when they had opportunities to offer jobs to Jewish scholars trapped in Nazi-dominated Europe and save their lives. While scholars like Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Herbert Marcuse were welcomed, most scholars were turned down; the primary American committee working on this placed 335 scholars out of the 6,000 who applied. Leff presents the stories of those who were not hired; most were persecuted and deported. She also documents the pervasive anti-Semitism on American campuses. The book is particularly timely when immigration, refugees and anti-Semitism are much in the headlines. Leff, who teaches Jewish studies and journalism at Northeastern University, is the author of another important work, “Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper.”
Exploring how deeply and thoroughly Judaism and food are intertwined, “Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food,” edited by Aaron S. Gross, Jody Myers and Jordan Rosenblum (NYU Press), is a collection of essays by professors in various disciplines including ethnography, Talmud, history, religious studies, ethics and culture. Contributors address food in the biblical, rabbinic, the medieval and modern eras, “a brief history of Jews and garlic,” wine, schmaltz, how Shabbat cholent became a secular Hungarian favorite, ecological ethics, dietary laws, food and the Jewish future and more, with a foreword by historian Hasia Diner and afterword by novelist and food activist Jonathan Safran Foer. Beginning his essay, “A Satisfying Eating Ethic,” Jonathan Crane of Emory University writes, “Eating well has long been a Jewish concern.”
“Touched With Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle against Racial and Religious Discrimination” by David E. Lowe (Potomac Books) is a compelling biography of a significant figure in the civil rights movement, whose tombstone reads, “He established ‘one man, one vote’ as a principle of American law.” Born to immigrant parents in a small town in rural Georgia, Abram became a leading civil rights attorney, Jewish communal leader (he headed the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents), human rights activist, U.S. ambassador, advocate for Israel, leader in the Soviet Jewry movement and president of Brandeis University. Abram, who died in 2000, was tapped for service by five U.S. presidents. The author is a political scientist who taught at several universities and served at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz” by Heather Dune Macadam (Citadel Press) chronicles the experiences of the first convoy of women that reached the camp. It arrived in March 1942. The unmarried Jewish women, many of them teenagers, had been told that they were being sent to do government work in newly occupied Poland for just a few months, but very few returned. The author, who co-wrote “Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz,” describes the women’s backgrounds and the life of the Slovakian Jewish community before the War, as well as the women’s daily lives at Auschwitz and their murders. While the book is based on archival research, letters, testimony and the tracing of survivors and their families, Macadam sometimes uses dramatic license (which is identified) to recreate scenes and conversations, in addition to direct quotes from interviews. Documenting many untold and important stories, the book is published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
A story of resilience, “No Past Tense: Love and Survival in the Shadow of the Holocaust” by D.Z. Stone (Vallentine Mitchell) is the dual biography of two Czech Jews who met as teenagers in April 1944 when both were forced into the same ghetto. They were together for one week before being sent to concentration camps. He survived Mauthausen and she survived Auschwitz. After the War, she went looking for him and they married. Told in their voices, the book is based on more than 100 hours of interviews, covering their childhoods, liberation from the camps, return to their hometowns and the rebuilding of their lives in then-Palestine and New York City. The couple, Kati and Willi Salcers, hadn’t told their children that they had been in concentration camps before they were interviewed by the Shoah Foundation. Their son then enlisted Stone, a journalist with a background in cultural anthropology, to chronicle their life stories.
Published quietly in 1945 and now in a new edition with a preface by Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano, “A Bookshop in Berlin: The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape from the Nazis” by Francoise Frenkel (Atria) is the story of a Jewish woman from Poland who fulfills a dream in 1921, when she opens the first French bookstore in Berlin. The shop, La Maison du Livre, becomes a center for poets, diplomats, artists and intellectuals. On Kristallnacht, the bookstore is spared, but Frenkel flees to Paris, witnessing many horrors, and spends the war years in the south of France, secreted in a series of safe houses by kind strangers. Little is known of Frenkel’s life after the War. She died in 1975; the memoir was rediscovered in an attic in southern France in 2010 and has been republished in several languages.
Presented through analyses of the weekly Torah portions, “Be, Become, Bless: Jewish Spirituality Between East and West” by Yakov Nagen (Maggid) is unusual in its approach and wide-ranging outlook. Nagen is a senior educator at the Otniel Yeshiva in Israel, where he teaches Talmud and Kabbala, and is very involved with interfaith dialogue between Judaism and Islam as well as encounters between Judaism and Eastern religions. Here, he draws upon teachings from the Bible, Talmud, Kabbala, poetry, philosophy, popular culture and film, as well as his personal experiences, including travel in India, raising a family and reading widely. He highlights differences and similarities between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, and the ways that individuals might learn from one another. The reader gains an understanding of Nagen’s view of life, grounded in Jewish teachings, with gratitude and deep awareness of the blessings of light and life itself.
“The German House” by Annette Hess (HarperVia), a debut novel by an award-winning German screenwriter, is now an international best-seller. Told through the voice of a young translator working at the 1963 Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, the novel, based on actual testimony of the trials, is a courtroom drama and family saga of long-hidden secrets. The German House is the restaurant her family runs from its home in Frankfurt.
Based on true events, Alan Furst’s new historical spy novel “Under Occupation” (Random House) is set in the occupied Paris of 1942, where French resistance networks secretly combat Hitler. Furst was inspired by the story of Polish prisoners in Nazi Germany who smuggled valuable information to the French Resistance. Here, a French novelist is the hero of the novel.
“L’chaim and Lamentations” (New South Books) is an appealing debut collection of stories by Craig Darch. The stories feature a range of Jewish characters that feel familiar; Darch has a great ear for their individual voices and empathy for the way they experience life’s turns, both the ordinary and the unexpected. There’s loneliness and humor, kiddush and Kaddish, humanity and hope in these stories.