Rochelle Wisoff-Fields is the author of the novels Please Say Kaddish For Me and From Silt and Ashes, the first two in a series featuring early 20th century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to the United States. She also has written the short story collection This, That, and Sometimes the Other. She is an artist, and has illustrated some of her stories. She lives in the Kansas City area.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novels about your main character Havah and her family?
A: The ideas came about 10 years ago. I was wanting to write about my grandfather, who came from Russia [in the first decade of the 20th century]. There was little known about him. He went through the pogroms, and taught himself to be a tailor.
I was always interested in Jewish history. I read The Diary of Anne Frank in fifth grade. I read Sholem Aleichem stories before Fiddler on the Roof ever came out. I was drawn to the stories because of where my family came from.
Kishinev [the site of a huge pogrom] came up in several places. We do a Mourner’s Kaddish on Yom Kippur where we recite names and places where the Holocaust happened. Kishinev was one of those. I started reading about it, and I felt that people didn’t know about this history. It was a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.
People ask, What is the book about? The pogroms in Eastern Europe. They would say, What’s a pogrom? Even my cousins. [A cousin] said, What’s that? [I thought,] You’re the descendant of Russian Jews who came over in the late 1800s!
The more research I did, the more I found out how horrible the pogroms were. They were as bloody and brutal as the Holocaust, and were sanctioned by the government. I thought maybe I was over the top, but I read about children being decapitated and pregnant women sliced open...
The characters somehow dropped into my head. When I started, my son said, Why don’t you research first-hand accounts of people in the shtetl? That’s how I came up with [the character] Yussel…
Q: What about Havah?
A: She evolved. In my first draft, she was very accepting. She and Gittel became friends immediately. I was a novice at this!...
I thought, OK, what would make her more interesting? Say she had a disability she had to overcome. I researched the effects of frostbite and exposure, and discovered [a] nerve injury that’s progressive…
I was fascinated by the movie Yentl, and I did more research on that. It would have been out of the question [for Havah] to go to cheder like a boy—but with a father who was a progressive rabbi, why not!...
Q: Did you know when you started the first one that you would continue the characters’ story beyond that book?
A: I really didn’t. A friend said, I can see this going on. I said, If I can get this one done, that’s it! One thing that compelled me to write the second one was [something a rabbi in Kansas City wrote] about the Jewish community all coming together after the Odessa pogrom. They were so devastated…
That’s what I drew from, and why I sent [the characters] Gavrel and Leah to Odessa. By the time I was finishing Please Say Kaddish For Me, I knew I was going on…
I started writing the two books simultaneously…I had finished Please Say Kaddish For Me, and showed it to a friend of mine. I won’t show that draft to anyone! I must have gone through about 10 renditions.
By that time, I had already started From Silt and Ashes, and I would edit Please Say Kaddish For Me, and go back to From Silt and Ashes. It was kind of a seesaw.
The third one is in progress. I started it while I was editing From Silt and Ashes.
Q: The books are set in a variety of locations. How did you research all the different settings?
A: The Internet is an amazing tool. Google is my friend! I once spent over an hour doing a virtual tour of Odessa…It’s amazing where threads can lead. I have found newspaper articles, a quote from The New York Times about Kishinev. I’ve also used the public library and [looked at] microfiche downtown, and at photographs…
Then there’s the whole Roosevelt thread. I’m always in the right place at the right time! I found a book about Ellis Island and found out that Theodore Roosevelt was at Ellis Island [in September 1903]. He was there to make sure his reforms were being put in place.
I started a research trail with Roosevelt, and found out he did his thesis on women’s rights, and that he had said if you’ve been in this country five years and don’t speak the language, go home. He was going to be impressed with Havah—she learned the language, she was a strong woman. He was sympathetic to Jews.
Q: Did you know from the start that your characters would emigrate to the United States? And why did you decide to have them move to Kansas City?
A: Yes, that’s one of the few things I knew was going to happen! Everybody expects Jews to end up in New York. So much so that [a plan was developed] that started routing Jews through Galveston, Texas.
I drew on my own family. Half did go to New York, and half to Kansas City. My grandfather was a tailor in Kansas City. I drew pretty heavily on that. It just seemed right…I do know Kansas City. We do have a pretty large Jewish population here.
Q: What more can you say about the third novel?
A: Right now I’m about halfway through it. It picks up two years after From Silt and Ashes ends. By that time, everyone is in Kansas City, and the whole first quarter is called "Ghosts of the Fallen." They’re working through the trauma they all have suffered…
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It also goes into a fourth book! As a point of interest, the artwork is all original and all mine. I am blessed by having an agent, Jeanie Loiacono, who’s as enamored with my artwork as with my writing! I am grateful to her for her belief in my novels. The fourth book is a coffee-table book of illustrations and character studies I’ve posted online.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb