Throughout Bury the Hot, a biography of a Holocaust survivor by Montclair writer Deb Levy, the author often interrupts the narrative to question her own motives and methods.
Levy said her early readers and editors “kept asking why I was telling Szulim’s story. So I added it,” she said. How did he remember that date, or those details? How could his own wife not have ever heard the story? How did that affect their marriage?
“Figuring out the structure of this book was one of the hardest parts of writing it,” Levy said.
Bury the Hot (CreateSpace Independent Publishing) is the story of little Szulim Wajnberg — just three and a half when the Nazis arrive in his family’s town of Zelechow, Poland. It tells how most of his immediate family survived the liquidation of their town by hiding — in attics, cellars, farms, forests, even grain fields — and walking, mostly at night and mostly without shoes, in cold and in heat.
It follows Szulim through the events of the Holocaust and then beyond, through Szulim’s journey to becoming the man, Sal Wainberg, whom the author knew growing up in Miami as a family friend.
But Bury the Hot, Levy’s first book, is also a kind of reckoning for the author, because she learned that Wainberg was a survivor only when he called her as an adult to ask her to write his story.
Levy, who has a background in advertising and marketing, is currently creative director of the education marketing agency CarrotNewYork. Her husband, David, and three sons are members of Bnai Keshet in Montclair. She has blogged about family life at Care.com, Nameberry.com, and Forpoorer.com. An essay about writing Bury the Hot appeared in Lilith magazine and on baristanet.com.
At first, Levy acknowledged, she wasn’t sure how interested she was in writing Wainberg’s story. When he made his request, she said, “The first thing I thought was, ‘Yeah, right.’ I am ashamed by that response. But there is Holocaust fatigue out there — you know, this sense that we’ve heard it all before,” said Levy. “But now I realize I haven’t heard it all and really, I’ll never hear enough. The Holocaust is this huge, enormous thing that is so hard to enter. I don’t think we can ever comprehend or understand it. But at least we can honor people’s memories by reading.”
So while the book is a Holocaust survival story, it is also about relationships — how people weave in and out of our lives over months, years, even decades, sometimes altering the course of our lives unexpectedly, long after their presence has faded.
“I wanted to explore not just what happened to him during the Holocaust but the journey from such trauma to living a normal life,” said Levy. “I was struck by the fact that he was a CPA in Miami and I knew him as Robyn and Andy’s dad and Sandy’s husband. You always see these women in yellow sweater sets and pearls, with photographs of their daughters’ weddings behind them talking about surviving the Holocaust. I wanted to know how you go from these horrors to living in a house on Long Island.”
The book is also full of tiny details — the coarseness of certain fabrics, the sweat on someone’s face, the softness of an aunt’s skin. “When Sal spoke, I asked him about very sensory details: the color of the sky, what certain foods tasted or smelled like, what a shirt felt like, because that’s how children perceive the world.”
She did her own research as well. “Listening to his description of his mother cooking cholent, I did some research and learned more details about the ingredients and the ashes that would fly off when it was opened.”
She researched Zelechow in archives and found yizkor books describing the fate of its inhabitants. When Wainberg talked about his father healing a sickness with “bahnkes,” she learned that a popular healing treatment in small towns in Poland involved applying heated cups, or bahnkes, to the patient’s skin.
Sometimes, Levy said, she used her imagination to embellish a scene just slightly, even just by taking Wainberg’s description of someone as “sickly” and giving them tissues and constant sniffling.
The survivor himself read every draft. Because of his CPA background, Levy said, he focused on the details and insisted that anything that wasn’t accurate be changed. But he left some of the embellishments that were “probably” true — like a little boy looking out the window to see if the planes that had been there earlier would come back, a younger brother sucking on a finger when upset or hiding in a mother’s skirts when something scary happened.
In assessing the book, and the fact that it reads more like a novel than a memoir, she said, “I am telling the story as he remembers it. It is not a journalistic account. It’s a man’s memories. But that doesn’t make it less true. It’s an emotional truth,” she said.