Total Recall

From May ’08 Spotlight: 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.”

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