So…. let’s begin with you telling us what your book is about.
It would be my pleasure. To start with…. (Here I will simply read the book’s back cover, as succinct a synopsis as any).
Why did you choose to make The Trumpets of Jericho a novel as opposed to nonfiction?
Though nonfiction certainly has its place in adding to our knowledge of things, opening up the world to us, there is nothing like the emotion fiction can generate to bring people to life on the page. That was a big reason I wrote Trumpets, to give unremembered heroes as well as the villains the recognition they deserve, if for opposite reasons.
Of course, another one just as big was to paint an accurate picture of their also little-remembered deeds, and how better to realize both goals than through the lens of historical fiction? It is, at its best, my favorite genre to read, and with the doors it opens, also my favorite to write in. Combining history with fiction, when done right, produces a unique result: a work that when adequately researched not only teaches the past—which so often, incidentally, is a mirror into the future—but enlarges it by transporting the reader inside the skin of those who lived it.
By that I mean, putting flesh on the bones of the dead, blood back in their veins, showing, based on what the author has come to know of them, how they talked, thought, and felt, made love, made hate—their innermost fears, joys, and desires, what they dreamed about at night, what made them laugh, what it was like to stand in their shoes. By infusing fact with emotion, and as much of the last, ideally, as the page will hold, what historical fiction does is give the past a human face, making it all the more accessible to those inhabiting the present.
I like to call it history with a heart in that it provides an intimacy, an immediacy that nonfiction can’t approach. There are those who prefer the latter, and I say fine, to each his own—but which sounds the more interesting, even illuminating: a purely factual book, for example, about a famous Roman emperor’s reign, or that reign seen through the eyes of the emperor himself, described in his own words through the filter of his personality? I allude, of course, to I, Claudius by that magician of a novelist Robert Graves. Assuming one book as faithful to its research as the other, which would you rather read?
There is a lot of violence in your novel, some would say too much. How do you answer those people?
Too much violence in a book set in Auschwitz? That’s like saying there’s too much sugar in cotton candy.
In all seriousness, though, I do admit to not pulling any punches when it came to depicting the waking nightmare that was Auschwitz. Not one of the atrocities I included, however, was gratuitous—not only were none of them invented but each served a purpose: when not advancing plot or characterization, then to make sure the reader grasped both the depth and range of Nazi cruelty. I felt this necessary to justify two of the emotions that motivated the heroes in my book, namely hate and revenge. Unless I made good use of the crimes that spawned these emotions, those heroes might not have come off looking much better than their tormentors.
But despite its horrors and all the negatives attendant to them, Trumpets is far from all bleak. There is much that is positive in its pages—courage, of course, and the championing of right over wrong, but also love, friendship, self-sacrifice, religious faith, and the beauty ordinary people are capable of even in the ugliest of environments.
Nor do I give away too much when I say that my story has a happy ending. Or at least an uplifting one. Several persons have told me that they found themselves crying while reading it, and not all of their tears were sad ones.
Why were the Jews hated?
There were many reasons the Jewish people were despised so in Europe, and I add “in Europe” because there were plenty of places in the world where they weren’t just tolerated but esteemed.
Following the two great diasporas sparked in the first and second centuries by a pair of failed revolts against their Roman occupiers, the thousands upon thousands of exiled Jews forced to flee their ancestral homeland didn’t assimilate well in their host countries, keeping pretty much to themselves culturally. Though this was ultimately a means by which to preserve their national identity—the hope of a return to Israel one day was never far from the Jewish heart—their refusal to intermarry or otherwise adapt to the ways of their various new neighbors didn’t sit well with those neighbors, who perceived it as elitist snobbery.
Furthermore, the success of these Jewish interlopers at business, farming and such—a product in large part of the strong cooperative spirit that existed in the Jewish community—gave rise to both resentment and envy. When, as often came to pass because of that success, they were banned by law from engaging in most professions, they had no option but to become landlords and usurers and the like, this only fanning the flames of resentment.
Remaining even after centuries strangers in a strange land, the Jews also served as handy scapegoats for whatever was ailing that land’s populace. Thus the periodic massacres, or pogroms, that even into the 20th century terrorized the Jews of Germany, Russia, Poland, and Spain. The Nazis were hardly the first mass murderers to prey on European Jewry, merely the most single-minded and efficient.
Again Europe—but why? Mainly, I think, because this was where the Catholic Church was entrenched, and Christianity had been at war with the Jews since shortly after Christ’s death. To explain why here would require more time than I’ve been allotted—suffice it to say it had its roots in the bitter 1st-century rivalry that festered between the Gentile followers of St. Paul and the Jewish proponents of the new faith headed by Jesus’s brother James. Paul’s people, after decades of having to play a humiliating second fiddle to the latter, eventually won the day, establishing the Church as we know it, but never let go of the bad blood that had existed between them and the James contingent.
Combine the animosity of Catholicism with everything else, not to mention the venom spewed throughout history by such influential anti-Semites as Martin Luther, Spinoza, Richard Wagner, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin (go figure), and an army of others, and 1,800 years of oppression and hatred make the coming of Hitlerism seem an inevitability.
What made the great majority of Jews march unresisting to their extinction?
Jewish passivity in the face of Nazi terror was almost total, but hardly unprecedented. Wherever genocide has reared its head, no matter the time or place, resistance to it has been anemic. And for good reason, starting with the problem posed by family. How could ordinary civilians, encumbered by their children, the elderly and sick, be expected to mount an effective resistance against heavily armed soldiers and police? Using the Jews as an example, for the able adults among them to attempt rebellion or even flight would have been not only logistically farfetched but exacted a bloody toll on their loved ones.
Then, too, how could they have possibly foreseen what the Nazis were up to? The Nuremburg Laws and other persecutions were one thing—but wholesale extermination, industrialized murder, the slaughter of children, of whole communities? The German explanation for the deportations east cited resettlement only, and what person boarding the cattle cars would have had occasion to think differently? Those few who did warn of the unimaginable were branded as paranoid, or worse, rabble-rousers.
Yet once at the death camps, with evidence of mass murder all around them, why then did the Jews meekly let themselves be herded into the gas chambers? The insinuation here is that even on the threshold of death, with nothing to lose, the Jew was too timid, cowardly, or otherwise lacking in gumption to stand up to his would-be killers. Allow me to address that misconception by quoting from my book. The year is 1944:
“For almost five years, men and women had been dying at first Auschwitz then Birkenau, methodically butchered without tendering the least resistance. And by no means were all of them Jews. Political and religious activists from a wide swath of countries, common criminals and other undesirables, the Polish intelligentsia and middle class, suspected partisans and assorted other enemies of the Reich—all had been starved, shot, beaten, and gassed to death without lifting a finger in their own defense. Even uncounted thousands of Russian prisoners of war, men trained to do battle, combat their profession, had in the early days of Auschwitz gone quietly to their graves. Under the right conditions, both physical and psychological, submissive-ness to the point of walking obediently to one’s death could hardly be called a flaw specific to the Jewish character, but rather a chink in the armor of the human character that the SS had become adept at exploiting.”
Your book dramatizes events that happened 70+ years ago. How is it relevant today?
All Holocaust books, whether fiction or nonfiction, share a quality more valuable than either fine storytelling or instruction in history. Trumpets is simply among the latest in a long line of like books to show how terribly things can go wrong when a government not only sanctions racism but allows it to run amok.
The public, vulnerable as it is to manipulation by inflammatory propaganda and other negative influences, cannot be reminded too often in these or any racially-charged times how easy it can be for the tiniest flame of prejudice to grow into a forest fire of deadly hate and persecution. It is a lesson America as an enlightened democracy forgets at its peril.
As for that oft-repeated trope extolling works like mine as doing their bit to keep genocide from happening again, I don’t entirely buy into that. To me it’s not only simplistic but misleading. To an extent it has happened again, several times: the (admittedly pre-Hitlerian) slaughter of the Armenians in the 1920’s, that against the Ibo peoples of Nigeria during the Biafran tragedy of the 1960’s, and more recently in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. Horrible as those were, though, each was quite different from the attempted Nazi destruction of Jewry. The Holocaust of the 1940’s was a state-sanctioned, thoroughly planned, rigorously systematic, industrialized form of mass murder without parallel in history. It would take a very special and extreme set of circumstances for anything approaching it to be repeated.
On the other hand, and this is critical, variations on it can all too easily crop up, have cropped up as just noted and closer to home, right here in America no less: the internment camps in WWII California and Arizona, in which U.S. citizens of Japanese origin—men, women, and children—were incarcerated for years in frightful conditions. They weren’t death camps, but were harsh and racially-motivated. Also handily replicated. What might happen if another, or even worse 911 took place, several 911’s? It’s not a stretch to imagine Muslim men, women, and children concentrated in camps and kept there, perhaps again for years.
Surprisingly, the concept of the concentration camp originated in the Boer War of 1899 in South Africa, in which imperial England in a shameful land-grab sought to crush the resident Afrikaans guerilla forces. The Third Reich didn’t invent the concept, the British Empire did. And the American empire has used it once, and could again.
That’s a more realistic reason to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, to make it that much harder for permutations of it to surface.