Tasa’s Song is a novel, but it’s based on your mother’s experience growing up in eastern Poland during World War II. Why did you decide to write it as a novel rather than a memoir?
When I was a small girl, my mother would speak idyllically about her village in eastern Poland, Podkamien. She’d refer lovingly to her grandfather who clearly was the patriarch of her extended family. She spoke of her older cousin, Ozik, who tormented her. When she talked about her childhood, she shared dramatic touch points — that she boarded with a German woman in a nearby Polish town called Brody while attending a private Catholic school; that she lived under the Soviets during the first two years of the war; that her mother was sent to Siberia during that period; that she lived for a year “underground” with her father and a few other relatives; and that she was the only Jewish girl in her class who survived the war. She always ended every conversation saying how her father had protected her and she didn’t realize the danger they faced at the time.
So I had a dramatic outline with few details of events and places and people. When I began collecting my family’s history in 1980, my only intention, as a working journalist at that time, was to insure future generations of our family would understand where they came from. It was my sister’s prodding many years later to use this history for a private memoir and gift to honor my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary that set this writing project in motion. It jelled a couple of years after that, when we visited our daughter during her sophomore semester in Berlin and took a side trip to Krakow, my first trip to Poland.
By that time I had begun to ask more universal questions about the human experience of survival: How does a person get beyond hardship? How does one rise above the atrocities of war and tragedy and loss? I came to the page to understand both my mother’s suffering and eventual survival, and that of anyone who experienced the brutalities of war.
Most importantly, I was not a witness to my mother’s experiences. While I had the facts of her life, I couldn’t know her feelings and reactions to the events of her life as they happened. I wanted to go beyond the facts of her story and offer a larger truth based on imagined characters and actions and interrelationships. Fiction builds a human story and allows the reader to experience, and be present in, that narrative. Inspired by my mother’s experience, I felt I could arrive at a deeper truth through fiction, truth I hadn’t discovered from the facts alone.
What sort of research did you do before writing the novel?
I knew I needed to gather the detailed history and political underpinnings of World War II, particularly the Soviet control of eastern Poland from 1939-1941, and the later German assault eastward. Over a period of several years, I read nonfiction and fictional books about Poland, World War II, the Holocaust, Vienna, and about Jewish life at this time. I found a great deal of information about composers and their works on the Internet, and listened to a wide range of music through iTunes or from videotaped performances. I consulted historical documents published by the Holocaust Museum, many I found on the Internet, alongside many other articles using Internet sources. While Google allowed me to be efficient when I had to be, whenever possible I spoke with contemporary experts—historians, musicians, religious scholars, and others—to ensure accuracy. I’ve listed a number of the books I used in my research in the Resources section of the website.
I researched how to play a violin and hold the bow, for example. I needed to choose the music and composers Tasa would have played at that time as her talent developed. My research was necessary so I could authentically convey the traditions and life in a rural Polish village and larger town. It enabled me to describe Polish foods, and to understand Klezmer music and the “Roma” gypsy background. I had to learn about education levels and typical school life of the time, the Polish and Russian literature and poetry common during that time period. I needed to research the use of radios during the war, Siberian camp life, European geography and locations, as well as the distances between cities and towns and villages. The smallest facts had to be checked, like the use of morphine to treat wounded soldiers, typical farming tools used, and the crops and flowers indigenous to Poland; even the kinds of dogs people owned back then. I had to reacquaint myself with the game of chess and Gin Rummy. I researched post-war Vienna (I did visit Vienna) to know what was destroyed and what were the appropriate train stops in use. I needed to learn what money system and coins were used in Poland before and after the Soviets took over that area.
I wasn’t able to visit Podkamien or Brody, but did get helpful details from my mother about her village and home, and learned additional details from her younger cousin, Otto Dornberg. I was able to find some Internet photographs of Brody. My visit to Krakow, while a much larger city and in central Poland, offered me a real feel for the square that still remains there, and for the Polish countryside.
How did you choose the music that’s such an integral part of Tasa’s Song?
I listened to a great deal of music. A great deal. I read about various composers, came across certain pieces for violin, or for violin and piano (for Tasa and Frau), and even for violin and vocal (with Danik). It often felt like a discovery when I finally hit on the exact piece that made a scene come alive. So I chose music that fit my narrative, that evoked emotions Tasa struggled with, that helped her process her feelings, and, at times, soothed her. The music in my novel offers an additional expression of the emotions of the moment; a reader will see that my choices were purposeful. Several very obvious examples: in the first chapter, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, is a lyrical melody that actually translates to “Remembrance of a Beloved Place,” exactly where Tasa’s mind and memory went as she lay, shivering, on a cot in an underground bunker and safe haven, after trekking through the woods from her beloved village to escape certain death. Gypsy Airs was so perfect for Tasa’s first public recital—its gaiety and emotional range, its similarity to the spirited Klezmer music—and it naturally followed a classroom discussion that began with Leviticus and judging others fairly and lovingly—a lesson that led to the similar shunning of Jews and Gypsies. Or the music of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as Tasa listened, gripped by fear, to the steps of two Nazi officers above the bunker.
What background do you have in classical music? Do you play the violin?
I served as a trustee of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, and led the organization as its board chair for three years, during which time the orchestra celebrated its debut at Carnegie Hall. My familiarity with classical music grew from this experience, but I also played classical piano as a child, and attempted clarinet for a few years in junior high school. I never played the violin, although readers of Tasa’s Song assume I have.
What were the challenges in dealing with a character that ages from ten to twenty-four?
Whether one thinks of Marcel Proust’s famous words to “possess other eyes” and behold the world through the eyes of another, or the advice from rabbinic sage Hillel (discussed in an early classroom scene in my novel) about not judging anyone until you’ve stood in his shoes, in fiction one has to inhabit a character, think like that character, empathize with that character, just as an actor must to play a part successfully. So, each stage of Tasa’s life required that I think like her, dream like her, desire as she did.
Why do you feel a story like Tasa’s Song is important to tell?
From a historical standpoint, the rapid disappearance of the witnesses of the Holocaust and World War II make it critical for us to continue to remember and educate.
From a personal standpoint, the preciousness of memory and family and love is a message I hope is conveyed. As I wrote deeper into the novel, Tasa’s thoughts began reflecting the idea that she is made up of the many people who have touched her life. That, in fact, became how she kept them alive; so often inside her own mind, she was able to let their strengths, and her love for them, inhabit her. This trait allows her to come out of the horror of the Holocaust in one piece. That was the most compelling truth for me that resulted from her plight.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a novel of linked stories, titled A Ritchie Boy. It revolves around a character named Eli Stoff. While Tasa’s Song was inspired by events of my mother’s life, the inspiration for this fictional story comes from my father. My protagonist is a Jewish boy growing up in anti-Semitic Vienna in the 1920s and 30s, a teenage immigrant adjusting to life in the Midwest as World War II begins, and a young man recruited and trained by the U.S. Army as a military intelligence officer fighting the very enemy he barely escaped in 1938. I hope the stories, collectively, will weave a portrait of a man whose character is built by factors out of his control and reveals the challenges he faces as he moves aways from his past.