Q & A
A Ritchie Boy is a novel but was inspired by your father’s role as a Ritchie Boy and the persecution he faced in anti-Semitic Vienna. Your first novel, Tasa’s Song, was similarly sparked by your mother’s experience growing up in eastern Poland during World War II. Why have you chosen to retell family history in fiction?
When I was a small girl, growing up in the Midwest in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, I knew my family was different from everyone around me. My parents had accents, they spoke German when they didn’t want my sister and me to understand what they were sharing, and my grandparents were even more “old world.” This was more a source of embarrassment than pride during my childhood.
As a couple, my parents were trying to assimilate into American life, which I didn’t understand then. I didn’t learn about the religious persecution that drove them out of their countries until I was ten or twelve. Even as a teenager, I didn’t fully consider their individual journeys to America or their determination to begin a new life.
Family lore inevitably inserted itself into conversations. There was the older cousin who died in the war on my mother’s side, the grandmother left behind on my father’s. My mother would speak idyllically about her village in eastern Poland. We learned my father finished college on the GI Bill, that he’d fought in World War II. That he and his family escaped with affidavits from a man who never met them. As I got older, I wanted to connect the dots to what was a dramatic outline, but with few details of events and people and places.
I earned a graduate degree in journalism in the late ‘70s and soon thereafter assumed the role of family historian, interviewing both of my parents to ensure that future generations of our family would understand where they came from. I audiotaped these conversations. In terms of my father, I was able to glean a few more details and a timeline of his life. But I was not a witness to his experiences. While I had the facts of his boyhood and young adulthood, I couldn’t know his feelings and reactions to the events as they happened.
Over my lifetime, I’ve come to understand that the things that embarrass us the most in childhood end up defining us. They become a part of who we are. For me, this cultural heritage—marked by persecution, family love, resilience, and survival—is what I have been most curious about and what I have chosen to explore in my writing, both nonfiction and fiction. In my fiction, I sought to 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.
Can you talk a bit about the unique structure of this novel? You call it a “cohesive linked narrative.”
Different characters tell the various stories that, together, form a multilayered portrait of Eli’s journey from one homeland to another, from boyhood to manhood, and during his time as a military intelligence officer during World War II. Theoretically, each of A Ritchie Boy’s chapters can be read as stand-alone stories, all linked to Eli Stoff and related to this period of our history set during the dawn of World War II and the disruptive decade to follow. The variety of voices telling these stories, in effect, allow the reader to see Eli Stoff from many angles. There have been other novels structured in this manner, the most well-known being Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
Did you have to do a lot of research to write A Ritchie Boy?
Given my background, I’ve had a lifelong fascination with books and films about World War II and the Holocaust. Along with historical documents published by the Holocaust Museum, and many other Internet sources, a number of books, dramatic films, and a documentary about the Ritchie Boys helped me to better understand the world of these mostly Jewish young soldiers, as well as the life of the Jewish immigrant in America. While Google allowed me to be efficient when I had to be, wherever possible I spoke with experts to ensure accuracy. One of my early readers was a university professor of European history.
Some examples: I had to research skiing techniques, as well as the particulars of Alpine skiing back in the late ‘30s, to write the chapter about Eli’s ski trip with classmates to the western Austrian province of Tyrol. I had to learn about education levels typical of Eli’s Austrian childhood. I explored the kinds of music the characters might listen to during this time. Seven of the twelve stories in A Ritchie Boy feature different types of music—classical, big band hits, bebop, and songs from Broadway musicals of the day. I needed to understand the local geography of New York City and of Columbus, and other locations that stories were set, as well as the cultural norms of that time period. I learned about the details around the arrival and review process at Ellis Island, the life on the campus of Ohio State University as the country prepared for war, about life in Shanghai for Jews during World War II, and the nuances of a professional photographer (the point of view character in my final story).
I had been to Vienna, New York City, and I live in Columbus, but I know those cities today. My stories are set between 1938 and 1948.
What inspired you to write A Ritchie Boy, besides the fact that your father was one? Why do you feel a story like this is important to tell?
We live in a moment when immigrants seem to be held in disdain by our current leadership when, in fact, immigrants like the thousands of Ritchie Boys fought for this country and contributed to our victory in World War II. Most of these men are gone now, as we have reached the seventy-fifth anniversary of the official ending of this war. The stories in A Ritchie Boy bring that time and those characters to life so others, too, can remember their sacrifice.
There is little known about these young soldiers—these Ritchie Boys. Other than a documentary and a few books, very little is widely known about these young men or their contribution to our victory in World War II. One Army study estimates that almost 60% of the intelligence collected in Europe came from interrogations conducted by Ritchie Boys. Most were of German or Austrian descent, fighting an American war but also fighting an intensely personal war.
A Ritchie Boy is a human story of a hero, inspired by a very real person who, like all of those soldiers he fought with, never really shared his remarkable life with the world. These immigrant soldiers are a metaphor for the many others who have helped to make this country honorable and strong.
Did you using your bookstore, Gramercy Books, to launch A Ritchie Boy?
As a bookseller who has curated and hosted about ninety book-related events every year, I was on an American Bookseller Association conference panel for debut authors that was focused on how to have successful author events. My very first point to the authors in the audience was to take advantage of one’s home team—in other words, hold events in the city where you live, where you have family, friends, and an established network.
I had planned to be a featured author for a September 2020 Gramercy Books author evening shortly after A Ritchie Boy was released and to be in conversation with someone in our community, similar to the way I pair visiting authors with a local expert aligned with their topic or with another author, to make for a more interesting program for the audience. In this time of Covid-19, we have been live streaming our events and we did the same for my book launch, which was held on September 15.
I was in conversation with distinguished Ohio State University historian Dr. Robin Judd, an expert in modern European and Jewish history and also the U.S. Editor of The Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. We registered nearly one hundred and fifty people through Eventbrite and hosted them on Zoom Webinar.
It has been exciting to celebrate the launch of A Ritchie Boy with Gramercy Books which is, along with writing, my other labor of love!