My German Lutheran grandparents cringed at my Irish Catholic ones. When I was 6 or 7, I actually believed that if my devout Aunt Mary touched me I would turn into a Catholic, the worst possible thing! Needless to say, in the next generation, the two Protestant brothers married Catholics, and the four Catholic siblings married Protestants. Were they rebelling? Trying to reconcile the absurdity of prejudice? Whatever. Both camps couldn't tolerate Jews.
In my circle, Christians dated and married Jews. In my daughter's, there is every conceivable cross-pollination of couples: black-white, black-Asian, white-Asian. Is this commonplace? It is now in the patchwork quilt of metropolitan areas like New York, adjacent to where I was raised. I have come to regard this as a gift -- our ability to acknowledge every race, religion and nationality.
In crafting my novel, "Siegfried Follies," I explored the roots of anti-Semitism, ablaze in the Holocaust 2,000 years after Jews were butchered as Christ-killers. When I was 12 -- in a New York suburb then rife with anti-Semitism -- I did a color drawing of the brash, abstract stained glass window in the new synagogue, so cheerful compared to the staid Bible scenes of my church. Shortly after, rocks smashed it to pieces. I learned that one of my pals was Jewish, his father a surgeon, his car a Cadillac, with the only swimming pool in town, much to my family's contempt. At Cornell University, where I attended in the early 1960s, fraternities and sororities were strictly segregated; my house pledged a Jew and was put on probation by its national council. In history class at first I found details of the Holocaust unthinkable. Could there be such barbarity in the 20th century?
In my day, half of the student body of The College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell, was Jewish. Scholastically, they were tops, but not necessarily smarter. Their families in Scarsdale, N.Y., or Winnetka, Ill., placed highest value on education and culture. They were far better prepared than preppies and kids like me from sports-minded high schools. All this fueled my interest in why their faith or ethnicity led to such mind-boggling persecution in the form of Hitler. Was there precedence for this horror?
Searching for answers, I became immersed in German and Jewish history, folklore and culture. I found no simple answers, but I do believe good-minded people can light sparks of hope, and that friendships can transcend prejudice, which resulted in my novel.
It presents two boys, both 8-year-old orphans. Franz is a blond, blue-eyed Hitler youth living in a Lebensborn, a birthing home for beautiful German girls who serviced Nazi officers to produce ideal children for the Reich. (These actually existed!) On an errand, Franz rescues a filthy, speechless boy hurled from a passing train. Unbeknownst to Franz, the child, J, is Jewish and headed to an extermination camp. They make a home in the bombed ruins of Munich, forging a difficult brotherhood but bonding for life, on very separate journeys to find their missing parts.