Online Interview with the author of the Interpreter: ALAN SIDRANSKY
Q: Reading the forward and acknowledgments I learned that your story centered around someone in your family and how your family members helped you to write this novel sharing their experiences: tell us about them.
A: As a member of a family that lost over 100 members, I have a long list of individual stories from the Holocaust, from both survivors and refugees. Each story is unique and each needs to be told. The truth though, is that while these stories are compelling, many don’t have enough length or depth to carry a novel. That was the case for the story I adapted for my debut novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, and for my most recent work, The Interpreter. In the case of Maximo, I wove the story of my uncle’s experience as a refugee in Sosua, Dominican Republic with a fictional murder mystery set in upper Manhattan. In the case of the Interpreter, I wove the story of the escape from Nazi occupied Europe of my cousin, Kurt Berlin, and his parents into a fictional story about his return to Europe as an OSS officer. While that part of the story is fiction as relates to Kurt, I based the experience of Jewish servicemen working as translators for the OSS on the experiences of a former client of mine from my days in the mortgage business. In all cases, their experiences were related to me by them over years, through interviews and conversations.
Q: Define Operation Paper Clip.
A: Operation Paperclip was a program to bring former Nazi scientists to the United States after the war to work for the American government and military against the Soviet Union. While Paperclip has been confirmed by the government, it is widely held by historians and other experts of that period that other, more opaque and nefarious projects relating to intelligence, were undertaken as well. The result was the integration and assimilation of former Nazis into American society, despite their fascist background.
Q: In the novel you remind us about the Kindertransports why and how did it save lives?
A: The Kindertransports were set up by German-Jewish and international Jewish aid organizations to bring Jewish children out of the Reich to relative safety, mostly in Britain. Some transports went first to Brussels and other stopovers first. The hope was that the parents of these children would follow shortly. Tens of thousands of children were saved in this manner. The vast majority never saw their parents again.
Q: The story begins in 1945 and we meet Kurt Berlin. Tell us about why he met with his superior and what he was enlisted to do.
A: Kurt, born in Vienna and a native German speaker, is approached by the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, to act as an interpreter for the interrogation of captured Nazi officers. The OSS needed native German speakers who would understand the nuance of the language. In real-life, there was a whole department in the OSS that employed Jewish soldiers who spoke German, most of them were refugees themselves.
Q: Why was he promoted to Lieutenant and exactly what was his role as the interpreter.
A: In real terms, these interpreters were expected to translate dispassionately to make communication seamless. In the book, Berlin is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant as an incentive to make him take this difficult assignment.
Q: Why was he going to listen to interrogations and why did they center on von Hauptmann. Tell us about him and how did the interrogation change Kurt.
A: Kurt was an interpreter. He was assigned to von Hauptmann’s case because von Hauptmann was viewed as a very important potential asset for the anti-Soviet intelligence program going forward. Von Hauptmann had a long history of anti-communist activities within the Nazi hierarchy. Berlin is very affected by the interrogation because von Hauptmann is a vicious anti-Semite and doesn’t hid it. If anything, he revels in it. Von Hauptmann’s testimony also hits too close to home relative to Berlin’s personal history, and all the time he’s translating, he has to remain cool, dispassionate.
Q: Let’s go back in time to Vienna, Austria and Hertz Berlin and his wife Berta: tell us about him and what they realized they were going to face.
A: Hertz and Berta Berlin were upper middle-class, assimilated, Jewish-Austrians. They lived and dressed like their neighbors. They spoke the same language as their neighbors. They were accustomed to some level of anti-Semitism, but not to the level that arose under the Nazis. They, like many, waited too long to leave. And they had means. When they realized they needed to escape they were faced with the impossible task of making it possible. That required a plan. That plan required them to leave separately, and to find a way to make their assets portable. No easy task.
Q: What happens when Kurt meets the prisoner and starts his job to translate his answers?
At first, he remains impartial, but eventually that would change as memories flood back. How and why?
A: Kurt is able to translate like a machine at first. The material answers coming from von Hauptmann are disturbing but not personal. As the questions drill down to specific acts that von Hauptman was involved with, it becomes obvious that Kurt’s past and von Hauptmann’s past activities, have crossed. The information becomes too personal for Kurt, flooding back his memories, things he’s buried for the sake of his sanity.
Q: In the backstory we learn that Kurt has to leave Brussels. Where does he meets Elsa why did they bond and where did they live? Tell us about the family they lived with and the rules they stated they had to live by and why. How does Kurt adjust but why does Elsa find it hard? Tell us about her past
A: Kurt and Elsa meet on the Kindertransport to Belgium from Vienna. They are both only children and alone. Once in Brussels, they are placed in the same host home. The family is Orthodox. Though Kurt is not, he is able to adjust to the situation. Elsa has more trouble as she is from a mixed family and was raised as a Christian. Her mother was gentile and her father Jewish. Her father is a prominent artist and critic of the Nazi regime, and she is targeted as a result.
Q: When we meet Saul and we met him in the past: tell us about him in both timelines and why Kurt felt the need to protect him and help him.
A: Saul is Kurt’s best friend in Brussels. He is like a brother to him. Saul comes from an Orthodox family. He is trapped in Brussels during the war. They find each other accidentally when Kurt returns in 1945. Kurt felt the need to help him both out of brotherly friendship and guilt over his own escape when so many others died.
Q: There were non-Jewish people that helped Hertz and Berta: why?
A: Simply put, because not every gentile was a Nazi. The truth from the many stories of escape I’ve heard is that one needed three things to escape; a little luck, a lot of money, and the help of a gentile.
Q: What did they do to ensure that the Nazis did not get everything and how do we know Berta was an asset because of her appearance?
A: You’ll have to read the book to find out how they escaped! LOL!! Berta’s great asset was her Aryan appearance and perfect German.
Q: Explain about the guards. Why was it so hard to get papers to leave and why the bribes?
A: The guards were corrupt, and they were instructed to belittle and terrorize the Jewish populations right up to the moment they left the Reich. The Nazi’s made it difficult and expensive to get papers so that they would impoverish the Jews before they left the Reich.
Q: Tell us about Elsa and why she was drawn to the church and how it helped her cope with the present and living with the Mandelbaums?
A: Elsa was raised nominally as a Catholic. Her maternal grandmother would take her to church. She found comfort there and familiarity when she found herself living in the world of orthodoxy in the Mandelbaum’s home. It helped her feel more at peace.
Q: Tell us about McClain and how he managed to befriend the prisoner. What was their primary goal and why would he get a free ride? How did this anger Kurt?
A: McClain is a composite drawn to illustrate the persistent ant-Semitic strain that coursed through the veins of the U S military, state department, and intelligence services. He hates the Soviets but is tepid about the Nazis. He shares their anti-Jewish attitudes. He finds common cause with von Hauptmann. Kurt is angered because he expects more from the Americans.
Q: How did you create the interrogation questions did they come from your family or other sources? Tell us who helped with the German.
A: I created the interrogation scenes myself. Understanding the purpose for the interrogations made the structure of the questioning simple. Also, I write detective stories, so interrogations are nothing new for me as a writer. A very dear writer friend of mine, a German speaking Jewish fellow, proofed the German.
Q: Tell us about his Uncle Sam in both time periods and why he was so influential?
A: Sam is Hertz’s much younger brother. He acts as a sounding board for Kurt throughout the story. He’s there when Kurt needs advice or needs another viewpoint relative to his parents. Remember, Kurt is a teenager in the backstory and in his early 20’s in the main story. He’s in over his head. Sam is a sounding board. I had an uncle like that when I was growing up, so I’m familiar with the territory.
Q: Throughout the novel we relive the first time period and Kurt and his parents have to pretend to be German and Nazis: how did he handle it and why would this false appearance and their loyalty to the Reich in the eyes of those that could kill make them feel? At any time could they be found out.
A: The backstory, the escape as Nazi diplomats is a true story. Imagine the stress for the Berlins. In truth, they were terrified. But what choice did they have? It was a dangerous charade. There were many points where they thought the jig was up. They persevered. One never knows what strength lies beneath your fears.
Q: The flashbacks in the present as told by Saul were powerful and chilling: how did you create his past?
A: Saul’s story is a fabrication, but the circumstances, historical dates, places, are real. I simply put him and his family in the picture and imagined what it would be like to be there.
Q: Why did Kurt need to find Elsa?
A: Elsa was Kurt’s first love and he hers. He felt he had abandoned her when he escaped with his parents and desperately wanted to find her and reunite with her.
Q: Tell us what Kurt and Saul did without giving too much away: did this make them any better than the Nazis?
A: They develop a plan to expose von Hauptmann. If I tell you more, I’ll give away the book.
Q: How did you create the final scenes in each time period? How were they the same and different?
A: The final scene for the backstory actually happened. As to the ending, without giving it away, I’m a sucker of a good cry. LOL. I considered several endings, but I went with the one I thought would be most realistic and most touching.
Q: If Kurt could speak to our listeners what messages would he convey?
A: Kurt would tell readers and listeners to be weary of politicians promising rosy futures by blaming some of those among us for our problems. Sound familiar? I wrote this book during the 2016 election process, and I am still chilled by the similarities between Hitler’s promises and tactics and Trump’s. I’m not ashamed to say that. If you don’t want to read my book because of that, because you support authoritarianism, please don’t. If you have an open mind you will see how close this story is to our world now.
Q: What messages would you like people to come away with after reading this novel
A: There are many. As I mentioned previously, I would like readers to see the close parallels between our reality today and the rise of Nazism in Europe in the 1930’s. Then it was the Jews. Today it’s people from Latin America or Muslims. The hate is the same. I’d also like readers to recognize that human emotion, caring for our neighbors and friends even on the smallest scale, that plate of cookies Berta receives from her neighbors when she is alone in Vienna, makes a huge difference. Human contact is at the root of our experiences. In the end, we are the sum of our love for each other, not our hate against each other.
Q: How were these Nazis supposed to help our country fight communism? How and why were they targeted when Hitler’s ideology was much more deadly?
A: Nazism and fascism battled against communism in the 1920’s and 30’s in Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Spain. They were natural enemies. They could help the American government with their knowledge of communism and communists in the past, and with their commitment against it. They could give their lives for the fight against communism here, just as they had pledged to do in Nazi Germany. Who wouldn’t want that kind of immigrant?
Q: The McCarthy era began in 1950, was this an outgrowth if WWII?
A: I believe it was both an outgrowth of the war and the regeneration of fascism in this country that was enabled by fear of communism and Soviet expansion. Many Americans supported American fascism, the America First movement and Charles Lindbergh for instance, prior to WW2.
Q: What is next for you and where can we learn more about you and your work
A: I have a lot going on. I am writing the next installment in the “Justice” series, of which the Interpreter was the first book. It’s called ‘The Intern’ and picks up 8 years later. Kurt, a law student at Georgetown University, is an intern with the SDNY in the six weeks prior to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. His father’s friend is arrested for murder and espionage. Totally fiction, the book will examine the McCarthy period and the injustice served by the Rosenberg execution. It will have a thrilling murder plot too!
The third and final piece of the “Forgiving” series, Forgiving Stephen Redmond, will be out in January 2021, depending on the resolution of the COVID19 crisis. And a novella and collection of short stories entitled, The King of Arroyo Hondo, will be out in late 2021, as well. It’s about life today in the Dominican Republic.