Sunday, May 6, 2012

Berlin Ghetto: The book that took 28 years to finish

Jacket cover for Berlin Ghetto, which will be published in August of 2012.

This true story takes place over twenty-eight years and involves a novice writer, Holocaust survivors, the Stalinist leader of East Germany, a Nobel Prize Laureate, a private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the head of a German-Jewish institute in London, and an internet discussion group devoted to Nazi Germany.

It is not every day that a writer has his first book published. Especially one that was twenty-eight years in the making. That's right. Twenty-eight years.

It was in 1983 that I started research on a project that took me from Soho and later Riverdale in the Bronx, New York, to New Jersey, Baltimore, Florida and eventually East Berlin barely a year before the Berlin wall was opened up in 1989. My goal was to contact and meet survivors (or relatives or friends) of the Herbert Baum group, a resistance group in Nazi Berlin composed mostly, but not exclusively, of German Jews. I had no idea whether or not I would find any but I was going to do my best.

The first issue of Aufbau, a German-Jewish newspaper that I contacted.

I contacted Aufbau, a German-Jewish newspaper, as well as the Leo Baeck Institute, which is devoted to research German-Jewish history, both of which were located in New York City. Hermann Pichler, the associate editor of Aufbau at the time, was kind enough to write a few articles and a query about me and my search for survivors of the Baum group. Shortly thereafter I began to receive letters (this was before email) from survivors, friends, and relatives of the Baum group. It was Dr. Sybil Milton, chief archivist, as well as librarian Diane Spielmann, who were very helpful to me at the Leo Baeck Institute. The entire staff there were wonderful and became 'colleagues' during my time working at the Institute.

To my surprise I met survivors of the group, among them the late Alfred Eisenstadter of New York, who fled Berlin in early 1941, as well as the late Ellen Compart of Boca Raton, Florida, who survived underground in Berlin until liberation. Most of the Baum group survivors that I met had emigrated before 1939 and returned to East Berlin.

I wanted to get to Berlin to do research so I wrote to the leaders of the two Germanys: Helmult Kohl (West) and Erich Honecker (East) requesting sponsorship. A representative of Kohl's politely rejected my request for assistance, but I was contacted by the press and culture head of the East German embassy in Washington, D.C., who arranged to meet me in Manhattan at a Chinese restaurant. My letter and articles to Erich Honecker were translated and he wanted to help me. The East German leader personally arranged for a visa for me through the head of the German Democratic Republic Anti-fascist Committee to visit East Berlin and meet survivors and do research. A little over a year later, there was a revolution in East Germany and Honecker was swept from power.

Erich Honecker, the East German leader who personally arranged my GDR visa.

At the time I finished my first draft of the book, 1989, I was teaching history at the Lenox School on East 70th Street in Manhattan, New York. I hand-wrote most of the manuscript and typed it on a Commodore 64 computer with a dot-matrix font. I wanted to get feedback and begin developing some kind of buzz about my book, which at the time was called, Red Flags and Yellow Stars. I began to reach out to people who had some influence within the Holocaust research field. Therefore I contacted Michael Berenbaum, who at the time was the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I sent him the manuscript of my book. He replied that he would be happy to write an introduction for Red Flags and Yellow Stars. Through a contact, I got an address for Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and writer, and wrote to him. He wanted to read my book so I mailed it off to him.

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, with whom I met to discuss my manuscript on the Baum Group.

Some time later I received an invitation to meet with Mr. Wiesel at his apartment in Manhattan. It was an honor to sit down with him for an hour or so to discuss my work. This was during the early 1990s, so I only remember snippets of our conversation. He offered to write an introduction to my book. Now I had two experts willing to put their reputations on the line for my work! Publication could not be that far off. Or so I thought.

Armed with letters from Elie Wiesel and Michael Berenbaum, I brought my thick manuscript to a copy shop and had ten or twelve sets of Red Flags and Yellow Stars ran off. I sent them off to combination of university, major, and small publishers. Little by little the letters began to arrive. All of them, however, were rejection letters. By the time I was done submitting my manuscript, I had a nice, neat pile of around 35 rejection letters. I was not happy. In fact, I was considering setting my work to the match. Instead I stuffed it into a top shelf of a closet to gather dust.

I contributed an article on Herbert Baum to the book of the exhibition "Juden im Widerstand."

In 1992 I received a letter from someone in Berlin named Michael Kreutzer. He had read two essays that I had written on the Herbert Baum group and wanted me to come to Berlin to collaborate with on a historical exhibition called "Juden im Widerstand" (Jews in the Resistance). I had written pieces for The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book of London, which was edited by Dr. Arnold Paucker, who became a friend and mentor on this project, as well as the Jewish Quarterly (also in London). I visited Berlin three times during 1992 and 1993 to work on the exhibition with Kretuzer and attend the official opening. It was a thrilling time. I was able to go to Berlin because the good people that I worked for at the Birch Wathen Lenox School allowed me the time to travel during the school year. I shall always remember that.

Dr. Arnold Paucker, my former mentor and the erstwhile director of the London Leo Baeck Institute.

It was when I worked on "Juden im Widerstand" that, for the first time in my life, a had a little bit of clout. I arranged for two people to become involved in the project due to my insistence. They were Dr. Margot Pikarski, an East German communist writer, who wrote the first complete book on the Baum group, and Dr. Arnold Paucker, who published my first essay on the Baum group in the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book in 1987. Both of these people were experts on the Baum group and I wanted them involved.

I had always enjoyed my time with Dr. Arnold Paucker. A Berliner who did pioneer research on German-Jewish anti-fascist resistance, he took me under his wing. Publishing my first essay, he championed my work in his own writing. So after a few years of mounting frustration about my unpublished manuscript, I wrote to him in 1997. I told him that I was going to prepare the manuscript for publication and asked if he would review and critique it. He agreed. To this day I regret that.

I contacted a publisher in Europe who agreed to publish my work. The problem was that they would not provide an editor and would not pay me any money. I added big chunks to my book, which were supposed to be background and context for the story of the Baum group. To make a long story short, I wrote some quite idiotic chapters that Dr. Paucker ripped apart for good reason. At the time, however, I was quite upset with him. I felt completely lost. My mentor hated my work and my publisher was not providing an editor; I withdrew it from publication and stuffed it into a file cabinet. I never contacted Dr. Paucker again and never intended to submit my manuscript for publication again. That was 1998.

Thirteen years later I signed up for an internet discussion group on World War II called the Axis History Forum. I looked at the topics on the forum and saw one labeled 'Resistance.' I wrote two brief sentences saying that I had written a manuscript on the Herbert Baum group of Berlin. Within a day or two, I began getting messages from Jay Slater, the commissioning editor of The History Press in the U.K. He wanted to read my manuscript! No editor ever wanted to read it before; they just rejected it! At first I could not find it. Then I found a floppy disc covered with dust in my garage. I blew the dust off and read 'Baum group book' on the disc. I spent most of 2011 preparing it for publication. Now it is a few months away from publication. That is the story of how Berlin Ghetto: Herbert Baum and the Anti-fascist Resistance took twenty-eight years to finish.

Copyright (C) Eric Brothers 2012. All rights reserved.