Combatting Anti-Semitism Through Writing
Claire: Not a Real Enemy: The True Story of a Jewish Man’s Fight for Freedom was an incredibly inspiring read, and I want to thank you for sharing your family’s compelling story. I was not only moved by your story, but I also learned a lot about the state of Hungary during this period. So what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
Robert: Hello Claire, you’re welcome, and I thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed about my heartfelt biography describing my dad’s life, particularly the tumultuous times. Educating readers about the state of Hungary during this trying period is undoubtedly a motivating factor.
I hope to persuade our children, grandchildren/future generations that racism in general, and antisemitism more specifically, are wrong and will always be wrong. Prejudice, war, greed, power, persecution, humiliation, and isolation are all part of the message and the lessons. Those few folks who have already read the book certainly get the message.
Janice: When Rob brought his family’s story to me, there were two critical themes I wanted his book to illuminate. The first was the remarkable story of Rob’s father, Ervin, and the stories of Joseph and Kamilla. I did not want them to become known as “Ervin’s parents” but as people with histories and dreams that the Holocaust tragically shattered.
I wanted the reader to get to know them and understand the profound loss suffered by millions of individuals and families. The second theme I wanted to weave through the book was the patterned slide from prejudice to the genocide that we see worldwide and across time and space.
We see these same patterns emerging in the world today. With Viktor Orbán now in power in Hungary, calling for nationalism and promoting “replacement theories” that ignite social hatred, the echoes of Hungary’s past are increasingly audible. Genocide follows predictable patterns, and these patterns are woven throughout the book as antisemitism takes hold. Jews were cast first as different, then as threats, excluded from work and social spheres, then cast out of the country altogether.
In reading the story, I hope the reader will recognize these warning signs wherever they arise.
In every memoir, the protagonist must be transformed by their journey. In Ervin’s case, that transformation was especially telling. He started as a privileged only child who had never done so much as make his bed. His parents feared for his future because they considered him “soft” and unprepared for the world. But once he was sent to the labor service, he was forced to find the strength to survive. And boy did he—with such wit, grace and kindness throughout his many tragedies and challenges.
Providing Historical Context
Claire: You provide readers with much historical context blended with the narrative. What strategies did you employ to make this background flow with your narrative?
Robert: I like your word “seamlessly,” and I appreciate the compliment. Michael Berenbaum also used it in his wonderful testimonial. Most of the history came from my dad’s original autobiography, which I then converted into a biography. That was the basis for including the historical events of the times. They were pretty relevant to my parents and their families.
Most of the smooth segues are attributed to my awesome co-author, Janice Harper. Janice researched the historical events, Hungarian and Jewish culture, specifics about forced labor camps, and the politics of the times. I learned much from her, not only about writing but also about Hungary’s often complex history. I hope that she expounds on this question. We also consulted an excellent historian, Peter Black, who retired from the Holocaust Museum and helped us verify the information within the manuscript seamlessly, kindly and expeditiously. Mr. Berenbaum also contributed a few suggestions.
A Sense of Place and Context
Janice: It’s essential in telling any story to give the reader a sense of place and context. In this case, history was critical to telling the tale. Few people outside of Hungary knew the history of the Holocaust in that country.
As Ervin, Joseph and Kamilla grew and their lives became entwined with political and world events, the reader needed to understand what was happening to understand their motives, decisions and dilemmas. So I did my best to weave those historical contexts into the story whenever the characters’ actions or reflections necessitated, as well as to mark passages of time or new developments.
Advice on Memoir Writing
Claire: This book is the story of your father and grandparents’ lives. What was your experience like writing about your family’s lives? What advice would you give someone wanting to write a historical memoir based on the life of a family member?
Robert: This is a complicated answer because everybody’s backgrounds, families and lives are different. Answering the last question, I would say sit down and get started. If the story is interesting, edit it and send it to a professional editor and/or polisher. If you can get a Beta read or two, that’s helpful.
Then the fun begins. The querying process can be painful unless you have thick skin and a strong spine like me and can handle rejection. But never give up if you believe in the story and the powerful message it may convey. That was my primary motivation during this four-year and ongoing journey which I hope ends soon. When you persist, you may have the fortune of connecting with the right people to steer you toward your story’s success. So do the project with your heart. Get help and listen to advice.
Growing up, I had no idea what my parents had gone through. As I matured, I learned about the Holocaust, which was hard to comprehend. I listened to all their stories over the years, but unaffected by the devastation, it became easy to be indifferent. Plus, I had a full-time medical career, family, friends and a life to live. But after my mom passed in 2016 and I was pulled back from retirement, I rediscovered the story and the heavy topics.
What it Takes to Write an Engaging Memoir
Janice: Writing an engaging memoir requires skill and experience. It’s critical to get professional guidance to ensure the story has narrative flow, suspense (even if it’s not a suspense story), emotional highs and lows, strong characters and strong imagery.
I think the biggest mistake beginning memoirists make is to sit down and write without knowing how to write dialogue, describe a scene, open and close a chapter, and what to include and what not to include.
It’s tremendous work to write a book, even a bad one, so having that guidance from the beginning can save enormous time and make for a much better book. As for what to gather in getting started, Rob did just the right thing. He interviewed his dad, took notes, and recorded him. Then he reviewed photographs and asked family members about them. He asked for any letters or diaries and talked with elders about old family recipes, traditions and memories. Rob also asked about holidays, cherished memories, pets, and joyful and sorrowful times. Listen, don’t interrupt. Record them.
Ask open questions, not yes/no questions, and importantly, follow-up questions—in what way? Why was that? Can you elaborate? Remember that memory is imperfect. Double-check to be sure their memories coincide with what was happening during that time. I’ll double-check the weather to be sure it was raining on that holiday or whatever they said. If a reader can spot one mistake, they’ll doubt the whole book. Talk with family members about the same events to see if memories coincide. They never do—but don’t doubt the memory. Instead, use the richness of our complex memories to draw out the impressions of the past.
Learning About the Publishing Industry
Claire: In addition to being an author, you are also a neuroradiologist. What was the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the editing/publishing industry?
Robert: I’ve learned that writing, editing, polishing, marketing and publishing a book is more complex than I had ever expected. Whereas a day’s work of reading radiology cases within a specific amount of time is relatively finite and confined, the idea of selling or marketing a book can be seemingly infinite as one tries to reach as many potential readers as possible.
It can be a hectic process, as there are limitless avenues to pursue in this regard. As with my mom’s affairs after she passed, I learned to accept help and to listen to and heed experts’ and even the general public’s advice. Unfortunately, trial and error are essential, as not much happened with this book for four years. In contrast, the activity surrounding it has accelerated over the past several months.
Janice: Not much surprises me in the publishing industry these days. I’m familiar with how it works, and Rob was an excellent client to work with because he dove right into it. For the writer hoping to publish, understand that traditional publishing is increasingly challenging. Fortunately, there are several new publishing options for new writers. Whether you publish traditionally or independently, getting your book out there takes a great deal of work. Rob has gone above and beyond in getting his parents’ story out there.
Finding a Book Coach and Co-Author
Claire: You worked with several coaches and editors before Lisa Tener introduced you to your book coach and co-author, Janice Harper. How did each contribute to your process and how long did your journey take from start to finish?
Robert: Again, the journey has been four years and counting. I loaded the disc containing my dad’s autobiography into the computer and started rereading it between radiology cases. My acknowledgments page mentions those who have contributed the most and/or the longest.
My friend and mentor, book coach, author, and website designer Mark Cahill has been indispensable to me during all this work! A family friend and historian from my parents’ hometown, Kim Parr, initially sparked my interest in reviewing my dad’s story. The book was then copyedited, polished, and copyedited again, and the initial querying process as a biography occurred.
After connecting with Lisa, she introduced me to Janice, a significant turning point for the hopes of the book’s success. Alongside reviewing the history, language, and culture of the times, Janice revised the book for about a year. After that, we each edited the manuscript. Then we resent the new version for copy editing to Kelly Morin-Araujo, her second time around, an excellent and meticulous editor. Janice and I edited the manuscript once more before querying select and carefully vetted publishers and agents.
Getting the Publisher’s Offer
Getting an offer from Amsterdam Publishers (AP) was a shoestring catch in the bottom of the ninth inning. Liesbeth Heenk, who runs the company, was a great find, experienced in the genre (10 years now), helpful, kind, patient, honest and easy to work with. AP was a fortunate find, for which I’m grateful. Janice did a great job vetting agents and publishers after helping me formulate an awesome proposal package and query letters. AP used its own editor, after which I perused the final manuscript for formatting.
Janice: As Rob indicated, I spent about a year on the book. I wish I’d had another year to make it even better. While I was busy researching and writing, Rob was busy finding me whatever information I needed, finding a publisher, and connecting with reviewers and promoters. He did a great job. Lisa Tener is a fantastic resource, and I am so grateful to her for putting us together.
Researching Historical Background
Claire: You must have had to do a lot of research for this book. How did you go about that?
Robert: I did a lot of online research when I wrote the first version of the biography to confirm word spelling and definitions, historical accuracy, check event dates, Hungarian culture, etc. I will defer to Janice, as she did the bulk of the heavy lifting with her extensive research.
Janice: I have a doctorate in cultural anthropology, so historical research is second nature. I researched the history of the Hungarian empire, the Holocaust in Hungary, and the rise of Stalin and his role there.
The research also extended to myriad other details, such as what the streets of Gyor and Budapest looked like during those eras (thank you, Google images!) and how people ate, spoke, and dressed. Each scene had to ring true for the time and place. Many scenes had to be revised as historians pointed out small details, such as this move by the Nazis was not known until after the war or that action by the communists wouldn’t have happened that way.
The minor details had to be checked and rechecked. I also reached out to a historian in Budapest, Balazs Trencsenyi, at the Central European University, who referred me to some books and films. And I read other Labor Service accounts to understand better the types of things the guards did and the conditions in which the young men were subjected to fill in any gaps we didn’t have from Ervin’s accounts.
Claire: Was it challenging writing dialogue for your father? Was it easier since you know him well enough to evoke his voice?
Robert: The first rendition of the book did not contain too much dialogue. Then Janice weaved the biography into an actual novel, in which the dialogue and correspondence brought the story to life. His voice is evoked in my mind as I hear him discussing his life during good times and bad, and even more so during live conversations.
His descriptions of his household, the forced labor camps, his escapes and his other adventures were so vivid and detailed that I could picture it all in my mind’s eye while hearing his voice describe what was happening. That still holds today.
Janice: The most challenging for me was to write the dialogue as young European men would speak then or as Joseph and Kamilla would speak (a much more formal dialogue). Writing dialogue means capturing the speaking styles of characters and making them consistent with gender, class, and time periods. Dialogue also requires not boring the reader with chitchat—each word must count. And in Ervin’s case, during an earlier draft, Rob caught many things his father wouldn’t have said.
Advice on Writing Imagery
Claire: You use a lot of imagery and descriptive language, which made me feel as though I was witnessing everything myself. Can you share any tips for incorporating imagery into a story?
Robert: My dad, Ervin, recounted his life accurately, with love and passion, but certainly with the truth. It was impossible not to imagine or experience what was happening around and within him, especially during the most harrowing times.
Mom and dad wrote his autobiography in the 1970s, from pencil and paper to typewritten, to computer screen, to disk, and now on a thumb drive, multiple computers, emails, posts as excerpts, websites and social media. Dad’s descriptions were so vivid that the imagery was easily incorporated, making my job easier.
Janice’s writing skills are so good as she further embellished this, although within the confines of a true, accurate, no-nonsense biography. Dad’s (and his father’s) integrity was unmatched. To coin a close friend’s phrase, “If dad said that’s what happened, then that’s what happened!”
Even though most events occurred between the 1920s and 1950s, mom and dad’s assembly of the facts was true to life. It’s as though the stories were told the day after. But, again, I’m sure that Janice has some interesting thoughts to add to this.
Imagine Yourself in the Setting
Janice: Get online, and review as many images as possible of a place during a specific time period. Don’t use too much detail, just enough to capture the setting. Incorporate all five senses—smells, especially, conjure a setting.
In the scene where Ervin first escapes from the Nazis, I imagined what it would have felt like to run through the woods in the dark with bears, wolves and armed guards on your tail. Instead, I wanted to capture the feel of the spongy earth beneath his boots, the loud snap of every twig, and the terrifying darkness that both threatened and protected him.
By imagining yourself in the setting, you can call on all your senses to capture that moment—but make it accurate. Review the photographs and the artists of the time and place, and listen to the music. Put yourself in the scene and capture the details that bring it to life. Leave everything else that clutters up the image. Too much detail confuses the reader; just enough puts them there.
From Autobiography to Historical Fiction Memoir
Claire: In the acknowledgments, you mention that a family friend gave you a CD-ROM of your father Ervin’s handwritten autobiography. Did you incorporate any of his writing into the story?
Robert: Absolutely! As mentioned above, that got the ball rolling. The entire project is just that: Dad’s memoirs/autobiography is now converted into something special. Even though I was handed the disc in 2016, I did not get to work on the project until 2018. Then, after quietly rekindling my radiology career, mainly to help a friend who was short-staffed, working part-time from home and bringing to me the miraculous, funny, sad, happy, but all true stories and situations, inspiring me to work further on what mom and dad had to share.
It was as though they knew I would take this on someday to share with others. Maybe an offhand comparison, but I think the disc called out to me like Superman’s kryptonite. Thank you again, Kim Parr!
Janice: There were no single lines from Ervin’s story in the book, but every event he told, and the emotion he said it with, was there. Ervin was an amazing man, and he suffered so greatly. He had such a mischievous spirit that I hope we captured it on every page.
The story is true, though certain characters had to be imagined. For example, Viktor Kroonenberg was a made-up character. Ervin knew that a distant cousin who had made his wealth on the black market during WWI had backed Joseph’s business with the caveat that he would convert back to Judaism. So the conversations were imagined; his name and his appearance were imagined. Those types of things had to be added for narrative interest.
Publishing and Marketing Journey
Claire: What was your experience like publishing your book with Amsterdam publishers? How do you plan to market the book?
Robert: I mentioned above that working with Liesbeth has been a wonderful experience, and we’re just getting going. Besides the many great attributes mentioned above, she works in a businesslike and timely manner, something not to be taken for granted after hearing other traditionally published authors’ stories. I could not imagine working with someone better. And the Holocaust/Jewish history genre is about the only thing that AP currently works on.
Marketing is complex, challenging, time-consuming, expensive and ongoing, the details of which are too many for a brief answer. Still, in addition to the people I’ve mentioned above, specifically Mark, we have assembled a great little team to assist me with so many details, including marketing on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, a YouTube channel, a Google My Business page, a website, two email addresses, Doximity and a Facebook author page.
My IG connection is also helping to link me to TikTok, and I am considering a Pinterest account. Some of my marketing is a bit door-to-door, but everybody gets pitched. It is an ongoing process that I hope goes well into the future.
I am reaching out to the local community, including multiple synagogues, Holocaust museums and learning centers, other physicians, authors, avid readers, interest groups and countless people who may seem interested within the general public, locally and abroad.
Hopefully, one day, I will be able to do multiple lectures about the Holocaust in the book more specifically, in both the lecture urban/suburban areas, as well as by Zoom, podcasts, radio interviews, website interviews, etc.
I recently hired a PR person to help me with this. I will work with her until at least the end of the year, and hopefully longer, when there’s some semblance of success in terms of book sales. Then we can decide whether to continue with the ongoing expenses. That said, it doesn’t matter how good a book or other work is; if no one knows about it, no one will buy it.
And in the end, most of that is on me, another essential point to convey to other authors trying to succeed. Like I say to the med students and residents: “There’s no substitute for experience!”
As a radiologist, I’m a natural-born talker since if we don’t speak quickly, we don’t finish our day. So even though I didn’t go to business school, I have a good feel for marketing. A small group of us ran a successful fundraiser in Massachusetts in 2014. Besides this current project, that is one of the best things I have ever done.
Janice: Amsterdam Publishers has been an excellent publisher and a good fit for Rob. I don’t work on the publishing end directly, but I’d readily recommend them to anyone writing a memoir about the Holocaust. And I’m honored that Rob trusted me to bring his book to life. It was a story that needed to be told. I hope I’ve done it justice and that readers will be both entertained and moved by this horrifying but inspiring and unique story. Every story from the Holocaust ought to be told. This one was especially interesting given Ervin’s remarkable bravery, audacity and determination to be free.
About the Authors
Robert Wolf, M.D., grew up in a suburb of Detroit as the only child of Ervin and Judit Wolf. The stories of their escape from communist Hungary, and his father’s tragic history of escaping the Nazis twice but losing his parents at age 50 in Auschwitz, inspired Robert to document his parents’ tales and share those stories with Jewish groups and others throughout the United States. In Not a Real Enemy, Robert shares his family saga—and the forgotten history of the nearly half million Hungarian Jews who were deported and killed during the Holocaust—through an epic and inspiring tale of daring escapes, terrifying oppression, tragedy, and triumph.
Janice Harper is a ghostwriter who has ghostwritten eight memoirs and several nonfiction books. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, her ethnography, Endangered Species: Health, Illness and Death Among Madagascar’s People of the Forest, was nominated for the Margaret Mead award for anthropology. She has been a regular feature blogger for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.