Where 9/11 ghosts meet the grandchildren of Shoah survivors

Author/human rights law professor Thane Rosenbaum, a preeminent literary voice of second generation survivors, weaves a new story for young adults in which the World Trade Center tragedy brings relevance to the Holocaust

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Author Thane Rosenbaum. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Author Thane Rosenbaum. (photo credit: Courtesy)

New York-based essayist and author Thane Rosenbaum’s Holocaust survivor parents died when he was 19, without having told him about their experiences. “My parents never said a word to me, not one word. That is not uncommon. I knew we were Jewish, but I didn’t know a thing. Nothing. Less than nothing. I found out everything after they died,” he told The Times of Israel by phone from his home in Manhattan.

The cover of Thane Rosenbaum's new book, 'The Stranger Within Sarah Stein.' (photo credit: Courtesy)
The cover of Thane Rosenbaum’s new book, ‘The Stranger Within Sarah Stein.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)

His new book, “The Stranger Within Sarah Stein,” is Rosenbaum’s first foray into young adult literature, following the publication of his second generation Holocaust survivor trilogy — the short story collection “Elijah Visible,” and the novels “Second Hand Smoke” and “The Golems of Gotham.”

The 52-year-old Rosenbaum is not only a preeminent literary voice of second generation survivors, but also the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law at Fordham Law School, where he teaches courses on human rights, legal humanities and law and literature. In addition, Rosenbaum directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham and moderates an annual series of discussions on Jewish culture and politics at the 92nd Street Y.

“The Stranger Within Sarah Stein” (Texas Tech University Press, 160 pages) tells the story of a 12-year-old Jewish girl whose parents’ divorce causes her to take on a split identity. As she shuttles back and forth by bike across the Brooklyn Bridge between her famous painter father’s Tribeca loft and her candy entrepreneur and social climber mother’s Brooklyn apartment, she finds herself taking on too much adult responsibility while losing sense of who she really is. It takes the help of a ghost of 9/11, and her uncovering the secrets of her Holocaust survivor grandmother’s life, to make Sarah Stein whole again.

Young Adult fiction is a new genre for you. What made you decide to write for an adolescent audience?

I did not actually write the book as if it was only to be read by young adults. I’m not even sure I understand what the YA label is… I don’t understand how “The Chosen” or “To Kill A Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye” are considered YA novels. Their narrators are simply writing from the perspective of a young person…

What I am trying to say is that I didn’t dumb it down. I have a very smart and smart-alecky 12- year old pre-bat mitzva who takes us through this journey very much in the spirit of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

An editor approached me years ago after her husband had handed her “The Golems of Gothem, in which a 14 year-old girl named Ariel narrates six chapters of the book… That editor was the first one to say, “You have a YA voice. You may not realize it, but you have a voice for teens, so you should consider that.” That’s how it really came about… You could say that Ariel was batting practice for Sarah Stein.

The first reviews of “The Stranger Within Sarah Stein” pegged it as a book about divorce. Do you think that is an accurate characterization?

I was interested in writing a novel about divorce by children going through it. I didn’t think they would be the exclusive audience or readership, but I did think it would be interesting to write a book from the point of view of a 12-year old whose parents are divorcing — and by virtue of that, they seemingly have abdicated the responsibility of parents. And she, very similar to other characters I’ve created, is thrust into a parental role prematurely, ill fatedly, without any interest or fanfare, and is now in charge.

How much of this relates to the pathology of the second generation, which has been a theme in your other novels?

Often in Thane Rosenbaum books there’s a sentence about survivor parents that says ‘Not really qualified for the job’

Often in Thane Rosenbaum books there’s a sentence about survivor parents that says “Not really qualified for the job.” There’s too much backstory about something that children can’t ever really receive any premonition of — but because of that backstory, the children will pass on too much damage. The damage couldn’t be cancelled in one generation, and therefore it would need one or two more generations to dissipate. So that theme comes up a lot in some of these earlier books… of the parents who can’t do it and the children who recognize the damage and take on a burden that they simply don’t want.

In this case, divorce is added on to it, and also a certain level of ignorance about legacy. There’s the idea that family secrets, that the truth, must be known… The burden falls on the child, and that’s why she says throughout the book “I’m only 12, I’m only 12.” She’s pleading with the reader to recognize, “Do you understand? I shouldn’t be in this position. I’m only 12. I’m being asked to do too much.”

And she truly is juggling. She’s juggling herself and she becomes a stranger to herself… All for the purpose of creating some kind of domestic life with the other parent, to create the picture of a home, even though she knows she’s now homeless. She’s afraid of the homeless, and of course, the irony is that she gets rescued by a ghostly fireman who was homeless. And she may not appreciate it, but she becomes homeless because she is shuttling back and forth between homes that are barren of any parental life.

You got divorced from your wife when your daughter was 2 years old. How much of this novel is autobiographical?

The children of survivors in my books are horrible parents, and I think I’m a really good one

The children of survivors in my books are horrible parents, and I think I’m a really good one. When it comes to the second-generation parents in my books, one is worse than the other. They’re generally too broken, they’re too withdrawn, They’re just not parenting… One thing is a parallel that I picked up from my daughter. She did inhabit two different personalities, which is a very common phenomenon, especially in custody cases.

The children very much feel responsibility to play ball in the home in which the other parent is existing, literally to get with the program, to be the child that they want them to be. So the idea of taking on a different persona and not sharing the other part of the story is common. It was not nearly as extreme with my daughter, but she was definitely feeling some obligation to be a different child, to have different interests and eating habits. She dressed differently. When she was with me she had more of a downtown urban feel, especially back when I used to wear biker jackets. She had a very different life in Brooklyn.

Has your daughter, who is now 16, read the book, and what does she think about it?

She thinks all of her dad’s books are autobiographical, that they’re all about my trying to create something that disappeared. She says every book is really there to recreate a world that I didn’t see or didn’t get a chance to know, things that I wished I could have fixed.

In comparing herself to Sarah Stein, she has said, “I was a lot like her but she was a lot smarter and wittier at that age. We’re a lot alike, but Sarah’s a lot smarter.”

“Sarah Stein,” like your other works of fiction, is written in a magical realism style. Was this deliberate?

I like broken story telling devices

It’s clear that this is my comfort zone. I like broken story telling devices. I like stories where the reality and the unreality are blended together, and you can absolutely think you’re in something that is incredibly familiar and then something happens and you realize — wait a minute — now we’ve reached the surreal, now we’ve inhabited a ghostly world… The obligation to remember is so great that the ghosts will come back to haunt you if you are forgetting.

So, with “Sarah Stein” written in a similar style and with similar themes to your second generation trilogy, can it be considered a kind of sequel to those works?

It’s another piece. I wouldn’t call it a continuation of the trilogy, because it just isn’t for a lot of reasons. 9/11 provides such a backdrop here. The Holocaust doesn’t have to carry the whole backstory here. 9/11 works in the same way… You can’t have these two giant buildings disappear and not recognize that there’s still remnants of it, ghosts, memories, stories that were never told, and moral obligations to remember the dead.

It is very much in the spirit of the other three books. Here it gets transferred on to another atrocity. It’s different — not a genocide. Different, but it is atrocious in its own way. And it takes a granddaughter of survivors to connect these dots. She now has a double obligation to tell the story of why her Jewish grandmother has used rosary beads as a sedative for all of these years, and of a general family disconnection to this history. And there’s the other history, of “I’m a child of Tribeca and there used to be these two giant buildings around the corner and now they’re gone and we’ve been affected by it.”

But did you use the memorialization of 9/11 as a way of leveraging remembrance of the Holocaust?

The moral obligation to remember is paramount. It’s not negotiable. So all my books, whether they are fiction or non-fiction, are obviously focused on that, as am I in my work as a human rights law professor

The moral obligation to remember is paramount. It’s not negotiable. So all my books, whether they are fiction or non-fiction, are obviously focused on that, as am I in my work as a human rights law professor. To pretend that something didn’t happen is a moral sin. To not authentically, properly, and respectfully remember something is an equal abomination. We all have obligations to honor the dead and to not desecrate memory… Until 9/11 for about 15 years, the Holocaust was the atrocity du jour. It became a hit and it became so relevant that it was on everybody’s mind… 9/11 has now eased in to the thing that we now collectively mourn and collectively remember.

There’s a way to find a parallel between Holocaust memory and 9/11 memory and the ghosts of 9/11 and the ghosts of the Holocaust. These twin obligations don’t go away simply by pretending they’re not there, but it wasn’t a device to keep the Holocaust front and center by leveraging 9/11… I’m still hopeful that the Holocaust is still the biggest gorilla in the room in the nightmarish family of genocide. But I would say that for a 12-year old Jewish girl growing up in New York City, 9/11 is what she knows.

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