A passion for the past

A passion for the past

Author spins a love of history into fiction

Author Pam Jenoff uses her experience as an American diplomat in Poland when writing her Jewish-themed historical novels.
Author Pam Jenoff uses her experience as an American diplomat in Poland when writing her Jewish-themed historical novels.

Pam Jenoff always had a fascination with history, from her days as a graduate student at England’s Cambridge University to working as a diplomat at the American consulate in Cracow helping Poland’s remaining Jewish community reclaim its past.

She’s channeled that fascination into eight Jewish-themed novels, many centered on historical events. On Sunday, Feb. 28, the NJ author, who is also associate professor of history at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, will speak at Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson about her novels, whose settings range from Paris of the early 20th century to Poland on the brink of the Holocaust.

Her latest book, The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach, is set closer to home: in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

“It’s about a Jewish girl who is just 16 when her parents throw her on a boat to get her out of fascist Italy,” said Jenoff in a phone interview from her Cherry Hill home, where she lives with her husband and their three young children. “She comes at the start of the war to live with her aunt and uncle and meets this Irish Catholic family with four sons. She falls for the oldest boy.”

Set against a backdrop of anti-Semitism, Jenoff said, the story of Adelia Monteforte is “really a coming-of-age story, a story asking: ‘Can you find a second chance at love?’ and a story of immigration and assimilation and being able to fit in.”

Jenoff’s The Winter Guest, published in 2014, is about orphaned twin sisters raising their three younger siblings in a small town in Nazi-occupied Poland. One twin finds an injured Jewish-American paratrooper in the woods, and the sisters decide to hide him and nurse him back to health. 

That book, said Jenoff, “really is about what these sisters learn about their own lives from that.” 

She is currently working on another “somewhat darker” book, due out next year; also inspired by historical events, it is about members of a German circus troupe who save Jews. 

Jenoff became known for a series of books about a Jewish woman who took on a Christian identity and her relationship with a Nazi officer in occupied Poland. In The Kommandant’s Girl, the woman secretly feeds information to the resistance. The book was nominated for a prestigious Quill Award. The sequel, The Diplomat’s Wife, is set in postwar Europe.

“People were requesting a follow-up, but then it wouldn’t be historical fiction because it would run into the ’60s,” said Jenoff. “I do historical fiction so I thought, ‘Why not do a prequel?’”

That resulted in The Ambassador’s Daughter, largely set in Paris, where the victorious Allies gathered after World War I to set the peace terms for the defeated Central powers. 

“It was a really exciting time in history,” said Jenoff. “The world was being reborn. It revolves around this young woman who finds she is very much a part of this conference where the Germans were being treated in such harsh terms. The conference very much set the tone for the next two decades.”

A part of the book also takes place in 1920s Berlin, when German Jews were wrestling with their identity, said Jenoff, and “questions of Zionism and who they were going to be.” 

The Ambassador’s Daughter brought the author “full-circle,” she said, because her master’s thesis at Cambridge was on the Paris Peace Conference.

After graduating from Cambridge, Jenoff accepted an appointment as special assistant to the U.S. secretary of the army, involving her in such operations as helping the families of Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery and observing recovery efforts at the Oklahoma City bombing site.

Later accepted into the Foreign Service, Jenoff was sent to Cracow “doing regular consular duties” shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. A newly democratic Poland was seeking entrance into NATO, said Jenoff, but the country needed to resolve such questions as what happened in the concentration camps and ownership of seized Jewish property before it could be welcomed into the organization.

After being assigned to work on these issues, Jenoff developed close relations with the small remaining Polish-Jewish community and developed an enduring interest in the Holocaust.

She left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a labor and employment attorney in Philadelphia for several years.

However, Jenoff said, she had an “epiphany” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“I always had this dream to be a novelist,” said Jenoff. “It forced me to look at my own mortality, and I realized we don’t have forever to do these things.” 

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