Sara Paretsky spent much of March at NEXTBOOK events in Seattle and Washington, DC, as well as Chicago’s Newberry Library. Sara is not, in her own words, “a high-profile Jew,” but the biographical details she has included in her newly-published collection of essays, Writing in an Age of Silence, have caused her to think deeply about her roots. We talked it though one morning at the University of Chicago’s Quadrangle Club near her home in Hyde Park.
“My grandmother, her father was murdered in a pogrom near Vilna when she was 12,” Sara began. “The character of ‘Lotty Herschel’ in my V.I. Warshawski mysteries is modeled on my grandmother. She had enormous energy. She was 4’11,” but she so dominated whatever landscape she was in that I visualize her as being big.”
Like many loyal readers, I was taken by surprise when Sara made Lotty a Holocaust survivor in her eleventh novel Total Recall (2001). Lotty is Austrian, and Total Recall recounts her childhood as an orphan in England, where she arrives with the Kindertransport right after Kristallnacht.
“I was named for my two great-grandmothers who both died in the Holocaust,” Sara continued. “I was born in Iowa; I have no experience with Europe at all. For a long time I turned my back on Judaism; I just walked away from it. I hadn’t intended this about Lotty, but I think in a way she became my bridge back to Judaism, and her experience is probably as close as I will ever be able to bring myself to really thinking about my Eastern European family.”
“Those dead are so sacred that you almost shouldn’t talk about them, because as soon as you start talking about them, you start exploiting them in some way. Six million is a lot of people; each one of them had a name, but how many of those names does anybody know? I don’t know the names of the members of my father’s family, let alone others. My grandmother’s village was destroyed down to the last; every house was leveled and every person was killed. There was one cousin who was with the partisans, and he and another young man from that town watched the whole massacre from the church tower. And then my cousin – my father’s cousin – hanged himself. The other guy was the one survivor, and my father reconnected with him long after the war. In the ‘60s, I finally heard the story.”
My conversation with Sara continues at http://www.films42.com/chats/sara-paretsky.asp
Coincidentally, the Holocaust’s best-known victim is telling her story to a new generation in the Steppenwolf’s current revival of The Diary of Anne Frank. “In the Q&A after the performance, Artistic Director Martha Lavey told us that she had originally intended the production for the student series (“Steppenwolf for Young Adults”), but the more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that the play needed to be seen (“perhaps again”) by general audiences.
Steppenwolf’s production uses text prepared by Wendy Kesselman for the 1997 Broadway version, and it’s much darker than the original adaptation of Anne’s diary by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. For those of us familiar with George Stevens’ Academy Award-winning film from 1959, Steppenwolf’s new production is visually disconcerting. Steven’s Diary received an Oscar for Art Direction/Set Design for its multi-level recreation of the “Secret Annex,” but Steppenwolf’s stark staging is eerily less colorful than the film (which was made in black and white). The intention, Lavey told us, was to place cast members “in an existential void.”
While I‘m well-aware of the motivations behind Kesselman’s version (which made its Broadway debut a few weeks after Cynthia Ozick’s famous New Yorker magazine diatribe “Who Owns Anne Frank?”), I still prefer Stevens’ approach. I can’t quite believe that Anne herself experienced “an existential void,” whereas claustrophobia is apparent on almost every page she wrote.
Why have Otto Frank do an epilogue in which he tells us tragic details that Anne, the writer, never had the chance to describe in her own words? And worse, after recounting Edith’s death in Auschwitz and Margot’s death in Bergen-Belsen, he tells us things Anne never knew anything about (concerning Mr. Dussel and the Van Daan family). I far prefer Stevens’ decision to open his film with Miep Gies handing Anne’s diary to Otto upon his lonely return. It was Miep, after all, who both found Anne’s diary and had sufficient faith left to save it. Had she not done so, none of us would be able to read Anne’s words today.
All that said, young Claire Elizabeth Saxe gives a remarkable performance as Anne. She’s annoying yet endearing, sweet-faced without being inappropriately pretty like her Broadway predecessors Susan Strasberg and Natalie Portman. We know Anne’s face too well; we know her true beauty came from the glow of radiant intelligence burnished by a father’s beneficent love.
The Diary of Anne Frank runs through June 10. To purchase tickets, call (312) 335-1650 or visit: http://www.steppenwolf.org.
For more on Ozick’s article, visit http://www.films42.com/columns/anne_frank.asp
TZIVI’S DVD COLLECTION
A few days before the theatrical release of his second film Glory in December 1989, director Edward Zwick came to town to headline a benefit screening at the Chicago Historical Society. Bounding up to the stage as the final credits rolled, the Winnetka native said: “I feel like I’m back at my bar mitzvah!” A fanatical fan of his TV series thirtysomething, I applauded with enthusiasm. Therefore it gives me great pleasure to report that after five more feature films and several very successful television projects, Zwick’s social consciousness is very much intact. Blood Diamond, the recipient of five Oscar nominations in January and newly released on DVD, is Zwick’s his best work to date.
Blood Diamond is set in the 1990’s, when civil war raged in Sierra Leone, but wide-spread tribal and ethnic conflicts are just as real today. The mishpokhe has every right to be proud: behind this action/adventure movie beats the heart of a man who has learned how to make commercially-successful films in the service of tikkun olam.
For more information, visit http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0450259.
Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.