How a diplo­mat took on the Shoah


The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

By Pam Jenoff Mira, £6.99


PAM JENOFF’S FIRST book, Kom­man­dant’s Girl, had a strik­ing cover of a Nazi in a great­coat with swastika arm-band, locked in a clinch with a blonde wo­man in a red coat. Its au­thor re­calls: “ini­tially, I had a vis­ceral re­ac­tion against the pic­ture, but I re­alised it pro­vokes dis­cus­sion about the Holo­caust and that’s good. There are a lot of grey ar­eas… it’s hard to judge peo­ple who had to live through th­ese events.”

When Jenoff, who was born in Mary­land but grew up in Penn­syl­va­nia, was a young diplo­mat work­ing for the US State De­part­ment (hav­ing started at the Pen­tagon), her post­ing to Cra­cow in the late ’90s came at a crit­i­cal time. Sud­denly, is­sues that could not be re­solved in Poland dur­ing Com­mu­nist times — resti­tu­tion of Jewish prop­erty and preser­va­tion of the con­cen­tra­tion camps — came to the fore. Poland wanted Nato and EU mem­ber­ship.

“As a 24-year-old Jewish girl liv­ing on my own in the city, I was a nat­u­ral to work on th­ese tan­gled prob­lems,” ex­plains Jenoff. “In Cra­cow, the Jewish com­mu­nity be­came my sec­ond fam­ily. Al­though I came from a Re­form back­ground, I started go­ing to Ortho­dox ser­vices most Fri­day nights and to the rabbi’s home on Shab­bat.” She also went to Auschwitz al­most 50 times — a key part of her job was es­cort­ing visit­ing VIPS to the camp, one of whom was cur­rent pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Af­ter two years, Jenoff re­turned to the US and re-trained as a lawyer. One week be­fore 9/11 she started a new life as an at­tor­ney. “That event made me re­alise that if I wanted to be a writer I had to get started,” she says.

She had plenty of raw ma­te­rial. She had left Cra­cow with one par­tic­u­larly strong im­age in her mind of a fright­ened mother and child walk­ing across the main square dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Poland.

Not know­ing how to use it, she en­rolled on a creative writ­ing evening course en­tic­ingly en­ti­tled: “Write your novel this year.”

Then, for­tu­itously, she found her­self on a train chat­ting to Shoah sur­vivors who told her some ex­tra­or­di­nary facts about the Cra­cow re­sis­tance, in par­tic­u­lar about the bomb­ing of a café fre­quented by Nazis.

Five years later, Jenoff had her cher­ished im­age form the open­ing scene of Kom­man­dant’s Girl, which in turn be­came a 100,000 in­ter­na­tional best­seller — in­clud­ing a Pol­ish edi­tion.

Her cur­rent, sec­ond, novel, The Diplo­mat’s Wife — set against a Cold War back­ground — takes the char­ac­ter Marta from her first, a char­ac­ter who, she says, “just came to me and de­manded that her story be told”.

Jenoff, now in her mid-30s, has been writ­ing sto­ries since she was six and had her first pub­lished in a Jewish chil­dren’s mag­a­zine when still at school. Even now, with two books un­der her belt, she gets up daily at 5am, writes un­til 7am, and then goes off to work.

Mar­ried five months ago, and want­ing to “have kids and write lots more books”, this is a se­ri­ously ac­tive wo­man.

She did an MA in his­tory at Cam­bridge and found time while there to cox the men’s row­ing team. Oh, and she is also a karate black belt… Anne Sebba’s Jen­nie Churchill: Win­ston’s Amer­i­can Mother is pub­lished by John Murray


Pam Jenoff: writer, diplo­mat, his­to­rian, lawyer and sportswoman

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