Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Larry Kaplan - Guest Author Blog
Constructing The House of Ghosts
I am a self-confessed history junkie. World War II is my disease. I’ve read more than a hundred books on the most destructive period in world history when 100,000,000 died.
My late mother-in-law, Irene Lederer, was a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944 when American bombers flew overhead on the way to bomb the I.G. Farben, synthetic rubber and oil plant being constructed by the camp’s inmates only four miles away. An SS Guard used to taunt her, “Deine freunde sind droben haute,” which means, “Your friends are overhead today.”
She always wondered, why didn’t those bombers attack the camp to stop the murders taking place there? By then, the world knew of the camp, and knew its only purpose was to dispose of the remnants of European Jewry.
“Deine freunde sind droben haute,” stuck in my head.
Those bombers were of the 15th Air Force based in Italy. They returned four more times and flew another forty missions in that section of Poland. No attack was ever made on the concentration camp where 700,000 Hungarian Jews awaited the ultimate outcome - death - either from gassing, beatings, hanging, or starvation.
I read Sir Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies. There was an inscription in the book under a picture which stated that it was taken at 22,000 feet by a B-17 bomber on one of the runs against the I.G. Farben plant. I thought that had to be wrong. I contacted veterans’ groups and befriended a retired general who, as captain, flew on one of the missions. The bombardier used the chimneys of the crematoria in Berkenau as landmarks to begin the bomb run. He told me they were at 12,000 feet and could see the trains unloading at the ramp.
I knew I had to write about this. My initial thought was to write a non-fiction book about the crews who flew on those missions. I also wanted to write about the social and political situations in the U.S. prior to WWII, and how they influenced American reaction. Why didn’t the United States lift a finger to help the helpless gain entry into the country instead of stifling immigration, specifically of European Jews? And most important, I wanted to find out why Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy, did not authorize bombing of the gas chambers in Auschwitz, when one 500-pound bomb could have stopped those murders.
So, I read everything I could get my hands on -- The New York Times on microfilm, personal interviews. I buried myself on Fridays, my day off, in the Firestone Library at Princeton University, for over six months. The research was tedious and difficult. Pilots and crews either were deceased or didn’t want to talk. Only that one retired Air Force general opened up to me. He flew a B-17 in the 15h Air Force during WWII. Based in Foggia, Italy, his group, the 2nd Heavy Bombardment, flew missions to Germany, France and Poland. The Poland runs took him over the death camp. He confirmed my suspicious and stated in no uncertain terms that the accepted version that the pilots did not know what lay beneath them was untrue. The massive complex with the crematoria stacks blowing smoke and ash into the sky wasn’t an amusement park, and everyone knew it.
Unfortunately no one else would talk to me, and one man’s testimony does not make a book. Even with all the research I did, I worried that I couldn't substantiate my theories. Somewhere during this time, I also began to worry that I had a DDS after my name, not a PhD in history. Without scholarly credentials, I feared the book would never be published. This was when I decided that fiction was the best genre in which to work. I changed direction, and the process of giving life to House of Ghosts began. I would use a washed-up Westfield NJ Police Department detective and his Russian stripper neighbor to uncover two sets of diaries that spanned the years 1938-1944. One diary was written by a WASP freshman at Princeton University, the son of a Wall Street investment banker. The other diary was written by a young Jewish NYU student from Brooklyn, the son of Hungarian immigrants.
House of Ghosts uses historical fact. It includes the aviation hero, Charles Lindbergh, and his affiliation with the isolationist organization America First and their attempts to keep the U.S. out of another European war. It shows the perceptions of American-Jewish college students to the events unfolding in Europe, and their hesitation to act. It reveals the acts of Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy, the man responsible for not bombing the camps. But House of Ghosts delivers all this information through the sub-genre of mystery,
because I wanted the book to also be entertaining. The material is very serious, so placing it in the voice of a cynical New Jersey detective allowed me to control the tone, to bring in some humor and sarcasm.
House of Ghosts tells a story that I believe needs to be told, and tells it in a way that promises to reach a wider audience of readers. House of Ghosts offers an answer to a question that has been asked since 1944. I hope your readers believe that it does those things well.
“Larry Kaplan is giving away a signed copy of his book, House of Ghosts, to one lucky tour visitor. Go to Larry’s book tour page, enter your name, e-mail address, and this PIN, 8930, for your chance to win. Entries from Books, Books, the Magical Fruit will be accepted until 12:00 Noon (PT) tomorrow. No purchase is required to enter or to win. The winner (first name only) will be announced on Larry’s book tour page next week.”