Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Q&A with Roberta Seret



Roberta Seret is the author of the Transylvanian Trilogy, a new series of books including Gift of Diamonds, Love Odyssey, and Treasure Seekers. She teaches at New York University and is the founder of an NGO, the International Cinema Education Organization. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write your Transylvanian Trilogy?


A: My husband was born and raised in Bucharest, Romania. He was educated there, became a doctor, and then he was sent to work in the countryside of Transylvania because he was not allowed to work in the capital.


Under Communism, he was considered privileged, an enemy of the people. His father was a physician and his grandfather was a landowner. He and his family had to escape; they managed to do so in 1963.


In 1990, after [Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu’s execution, my husband took me to visit Bucharest and Transylvania and showed me the city and villages he loved. I understood why he missed his country so much and I wanted to learn more. 


As a writer, I thought it would be interesting to share with American readers what I was learning about this exotic world of Romania. So I took plenty of notes and photos for a possible novel.


Years later, I recreated in my imagination a voyage to Transylvania where I borrowed politics and history to create stories about four friends growing up together as teenagers. I thought it would be interesting to show how they escaped communism and what happened to them.


To do this, I mixed facts that I was learning from research, with my imagination – a hybrid approach. I wanted a different literary style to offer to American readers.


Q: What relationship do the books have to one another? Should they be read in order?


A: The novels, which can be read independently and out of order, are connected by four lifelong friends, the main protagonists of each novel. They call themselves Poets of our Lives. 


Each heroine takes the stage in each novel to create her own life while she forges forward in an existentialist need to direct her destiny. But sometimes, the four friends find challenges that are stronger than their willpower. Those are the times when the fictional protagonist collides with factual events.


It is then that their courage evokes exciting fiction. Fiction that could not exist without facts in a supporting role. And yet, I did put the three novels in a chronological setting and suggested that sequence for reading: Book One - Gift of Diamonds; Book Two - Love Odyssey; Book Three - Treasure Seekers.


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the books, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Yes. I needed to do a lot of research about the history and politics of Romania. And Yes, there was one thing that surprised me: the sale of Jews.


Anti-Semitism had always been part of Romanian culture long before World War II, but what struck me as I was doing my research is how the Bucharest Jews were saved during the war. 


King Carol II, the royal-dictator (1930-1940), was forced to abdicate and left the country with his mistress once it was known she was Jewish.


General Ion Antonescu eagerly took power. He was a rabid anti-Semite. Even Eichmann had warned Antonescu that he was being “too cruel and sloppy with his Jews.” 


The Jews residing outside the capital were persecuted, rounded up and forced into death trains. Those who survived were sent to Transnistria, a camp where typhus and starvation slaughtered more than 200,000, including 50,000 children.


But strangely, the Bucharest Jews were spared. Their population of 100,000 were not forced to wear yellow Jewish stars, or to live in ghettos, or to be deported. The question is why? And who protected them?


Paradoxically, it was General Antonescu with assistance from Romania’s Chief Rabbi, Alexandru Safran, and the respected president of the Jewish communities, Wilhelm Filderman, with the Queen Mother of Romania, Elena.


Antonescu realized the tide of war was turning against Germany, and that the Bucharest Jews could represent for him an insurance policy in case of a post-war trial for “crimes against humanity.” The Bucharest Jews, alive, could serve as collateral for his own survival.


Antonescu began negotiating a financial deal without either Hitler or Eichmann ever knowing – to sell the Bucharest Jews and send them to Palestine.


But the British, who controlled Palestine at that time, didn’t want to upset the Arabs. Even though Ben-Gurion, the leader of Israel, wanted the Bucharest Jews to build up the new country, the British told Antonescu, no. They called it a slave trade, unethical to sell people.


A key figure in this market was Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Roosevelt. Since 1934, he was the only Jew in Roosevelt’s cabinet and was active in bringing to the president various rescue plans to stop the annihilation of European Jews.


Despite criticism about a slave trade extortion plan, the committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, a Zionist organization in New York, with the help of Morgenthau, placed an ad in The New York Times on February 16, 1943, saying, “For sale to Humanity, 70,000 +Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a piece.” 


There was no interest. No potential buyer came forward. President Roosevelt hesitated to push the plan forward for it was an election year and not a popular idea. The rescue plan fell through. But while they were negotiating, the war ended, and the Bucharest Jews were saved. My husband was one of them.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the books?


A: All three novels of the Trilogy present a female protagonist who fights against the obstacles of evil: evil in government, evil in society, evil in individuals. 


All three novels are survival stories, and at the same time, love stories. Love brings hope amidst evil. It is love and hope together that helps us survive - to overcome evil and to live.


The opposite of EVIL is LIVE. They are anagrams, opposing forces. The four friends in the Transylvanian Trilogy show that to LIVE to the fullest is the best revenge against EVIL. The books are their stories of love and survival.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Several years ago, I wrote a book about film (World Affairs in Foreign Films), based on my academic teaching at New York University and my NGO at the United Nations (International Cinema Education. 2003-present).


During the past year, as we went through the pandemic and stayed at home, I realized how important art is to our life to survive. If I did not have my favorite music to listen to or foreign films to watch, I think the days and nights would have been worse for me during NYC’s lockdown.


For this reason, I am writing now A Night at the Movies with 52 Foreign Films. It would have details, summaries and tidbits about 52 films from around the world that viewers could watch and use the book as a manual to better understand the relationship of the film to the country’s history and culture. I hope that others could benefit from the power of cinema to heal and help survive.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As I was writing the first book of the Trilogy, Gift of Diamonds, I realized that unconsciously I was putting a lot of myself in the book. Actually, I found that there were 14 chapters that came from my life.


And this made me think that I used my memory like a treasure chest where I had saved and cherished my dreams and hopes, the people I had met and loved, even hated, and stored them for the day I would wish them out.


Unconsciously, as I was writing Gift of Diamonds, I reached into my memory’s treasure chest and found scenes and people from afar that came to me without pattern or reason. I grabbed them, not to lose them, and without realizing how, each item turned into a life of its very own in my novels.


Strangely, they all took different form on the paper until they hardly resembled the original at all. But it was too late. They were now alive and I marveled at it all, wondering if the imagined is more real than the real. As a writer, in Transylvanian Trilogy, I have used memory as a brush for truth.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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