Annette Libeskind Berkovits is the author of the new book In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism. It recounts the story of her father's life. Her stories have appeared in Silk Road and Persimmon Tree. She worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society for more than 30 years in New York City.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your father, and how did you separate your feelings as a daughter from your role as biographer?
A: Since I was a young girl I was fascinated by my father’s stories about his life and what had happened to him.
As I grew older and began to understand how his attitudes and positivity affected me, I thought it would be good to share them with others, but of course, one’s life gets in the way. I had a demanding job and children so there wasn’t any “spare” time to write.
In any case, I did want to write, but knew that it couldn't be done as a side hobby. I always wanted to get deeply into it and give it my full, undivided attention.
So it wasn’t until I retired that I could think seriously about writing. When I found my father’s tapes—the ones where he had recorded his incredible life story—I knew that was the perfect subject for my first book. I took his tapes as my marching orders.
The second part of your question, Deborah, is quite interesting.
To begin with, I was very keenly aware that since my father was no longer with us that I had to be completely respectful to the way he told the story, because he wouldn’t be here to make corrections. No elaboration, no additions or deletions. I had to be faithful not only to his words, but to the spirit of the story he recorded.
I did a great deal of historical research to add context for the reader. It was especially important as my father was a man who valued historical accuracy and his tale spans nearly all of the 20th century.
I did in some sections include myself, but it was only as a contrast to my father’s interpretation of certain events. I worked hard to make it clear to the reader where my father’s story was being told and where I interjected myself.
Q: Your research included tapes your father made in which he told stories about his life. Did you know much of this information growing up, or was a lot of it new to you, and what do you feel you learned about your father as you wrote the book?
A: My father was one of a minority of survivors who had a true passion for telling what had happened to his community during World War II. Many survivors were so traumatized that they either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak of it for years, if ever.
In our own family, my father’s older sister was an Auschwitz survivor who lost her husband and child while in captivity, but she did not reveal any of it to the new family she formed after the war. They did not learn her story until after she had passed away.
To my father the telling was a sacred obligation, which is why I learned of it while still a very young girl. The tapes he recorded did provide some more detail and helped me remember each portion of the story with people’s names, dates, and places with the most accuracy, so I had a very fresh canvas from which to work.
As I wrote the book I not only learned the fine details, but gleaned a visceral sense of what it was like to have to abandon everyone who was nearest and dearest, the sense of statelessness and homelessness and unemployment that plagued my father during the entire war time period and unemployment later in Israel.
It was interesting to me that I wasn’t as distressed writing about all those forms of repression and imprisonment because I had read about the gulags. It was the sense of utter abandonment and loss of place my father experienced that affected me even more.
Most of all, I learned that with the kind of optimistic outlook on life and humanity that shone so brightly in my father, one can overcome almost any challenge in life. That lesson helps me everyday with the challenges in my own life.
Q: The book also includes examples of your father's art. What are some of your favorites?
A: Oh, goodness, that is a hard question. Since my father began painting at the ripe age of 72 he created well over 200 paintings. Amazingly, each is nearly completely different from the others, very unique, so it’s hard to have favorites.
My father didn’t want to sell his paintings. He called them his children, so if I pick one over another, I’d be slighting a sibling!
When I saw his first piece—a felt collage, titled “Lonely Bird”--I was stunned. It wasn’t only because of the colors and intricacy, but it was the startling modern style, a latter-day Picasso.
He painted many musical themes, wild imaginary instruments, otherworldly figures and flowers, dancers and young people and even events such as a rally at Union Square.
Of course, many are too abstract to be easily described. But all are exquisitely colorful in way that still radiates his upbeat persona.
My father was mainly interested in exhibiting his work so as to inspire other older people to pursue their interests. “It’s never too late” was his favorite saying.
For someone beginning art so late in life he managed to have dozens of exhibitions, including having his work shown in the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
If I am pressed to choose, I’ll pick “I Remember Zina,” an acrylic on canvas that was an homage to his second grade music and dance teacher, Zina. She opened a whole new world to him and even in his 80s he could not forget her indelible influence on him.
In this painting two abstract dancers fill the canvas, but one can easily tell which one is Zina—the one with the crown on her head. In my book I describe another painting that has made an enormous impression on me, but I’ll let the readers discover it.
Q: How would you describe your father's legacy?
A: I feel extremely fortunate to have had my father in my life long enough so I could get to know him on an adult level as a cherished and respected friend, not just as a beloved parent.
He taught me, and my husband (who called him his buddy) and our two children that everything in life can be overcome with a positive attitude and a belief in the goodness of people.
It is remarkable to me that given the traumas of his life, my father never abandoned his belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity.
He knew how to get along with and appreciate people that were completely different from him in terms of cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. He always said that everyone had some essential goodness in them and if you only listened to their life story, you’d discover it.
He also had intense pride of citizenship and voted in every single election, and taught us all to do the same. His patriotism and love of America translated into my daughter Jessica, his eldest grandchild, becoming a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force as part of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps after graduation from law school.
One of his proudest moments was standing alongside her commander at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and helping to pin on her new rank when she was promoted to Captain.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have several very different projects in the works. My next book, Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator, will be published early next year. It is part memoir, part a collection of surprising and humorous stories of my 34-year career at the Bronx Zoo.
Next is a coming of age on three continents memoir (mine) titled Learning to Speak American. This one in some ways will be a sequel to In the Unlikeliest of Places since readers will find the young Annette and Daniel growing up under the tutelage of their father Nachman, the protagonist of the current book.
Simultaneously, I am working on a poetry collection, A Mother’s Lamentations, which deals with the trauma and pain of our son, a husband and father of two young girls, sustaining a devastating hemorrhagic stroke that left him a quadriplegic - essentially trapped inside his own body. Poetry is the only way I’ve been able to deal with the torrent of feelings about this tragic event.
Another project on my plate is a historical novel set in Europe and the Middle East in the 1930s. I am modeling some of the characters after people who have had influence on me, most notably my mother. This one is as yet untitled. It is nowhere near finished.
The readers of your blog, Deborah, can read excerpts from all of the books mentioned above on my website. They can also sign up to receive my blog entries and updates on my appearances and readings.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My father’s artistic talents were transmitted to my brother, Daniel Libeskind, who is one of the foremost architects in the world.
Some of his many projects include his role as Master Planner for rebuilding Ground Zero in New York, the Berlin Jewish Museum, Imperial War Museum in Manchester and many other notable cultural sites.
My father’s youngest granddaughter Rachel, Daniel’s daughter, is at the tender age of 27 already an enormously successful artist and performer in her own right.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb