Writer’s past informs her historical novels
Pam Jenoff was always fascinated with history, from her days as a graduate student at England’s Cambridge University to her time at the American consulate in Cracow, helping Poland’s remaining Jews reclaim their past.
She’s channeled that fascination into six “Jewish-themed” novels centered on historical events. On Thursday, April 11, she will speak in East Brunswick about her latest work, The Ambassador’s Daughter, at Jewish Middlesex Reads, the annual book and author event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. The conversation will be moderated by Jennifer Altmann, who is cochairing the event with Michele Bernstein, both of East Brunswick.
The novel is largely set in post-World War I Paris, where victorious Allied leaders gathered to set the peace terms for the defeated Central powers. Many historians believe the penalties imposed on a defeated Germany laid the groundwork for World War II and the rise of Nazism.
“It was a really exciting time in history,” Jenoff told NJJN in a phone interview from her Cherry Hill home. “The world was being reborn. The story 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 1920 Berlin, when Jews in Germany were wrestling with their identity.
“There were questions of Zionism and who they were going to be,” said Jenoff.
She noted that she would not have written the book were it not for fans of her bestselling The Kommandant’s Girl, about an affair between a Nazi officer and a Jewish woman who takes on a Christian identity in occupied Poland while secretly feeding information to the Resistance. The book was nominated for the prestigious Quill Award.
It was followed by a sequel, The Diplomat’s Wife, set in 1945 in post-war 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?’”
In The Ambassador’s Daughter, a German-Jewish diplomat brings his family, including daughter Margot, to Paris. Margot meets and eventually marries a young man who would eventually rise in the ranks of the Third Reich to become “the Kommandant.” Although Margot is briefly mentioned in the first book, there is little else about the Kommandant’s “dark secret.”
“The book is popular with people who like Downton Abbey,” said Jenoff, referring to the popular PBS series set in and following World War I.
The book also brought the 41-year-old author “full-circle”: Her master’s thesis at Cambridge was on the Paris Peace Conference.
“It’s always been an interest of mine and I got to return to it with this book,” said Jenoff.
After graduating from Cambridge, Jenoff accepted an appointment as special assistant to the Secretary of the Army, 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 former Soviet Union. A newly democratic Poland was seeking entrance into NATO, but the country needed to “resolve” questions concerning the concentration camps and ownership of seized Jewish property before it could be welcomed into the organization.
Jenoff enjoyed “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.
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 so I took a night course at Temple University while practicing law.”
These days she teaches at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, while working on her next novel, set in World War II Poland and due out next year. She and her husband, Phillip, are also raising three preschool-age children.
“It’s a little chaotic,” acknowledged a laughing Jenoff. “But in all seriousness, my husband is very capable and my mom is just up the street, so we make it work.”