Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Q&A with Henry Rozycki





Henry Rozycki is the author of the new novel Walk the Earth as Brothers. He is also a physician.


Q: Walk the Earth as Brothers was inspired by your own family history--can you say more about that? 


A: The first thing I realized about my own parents was that they were not like the other parents in my neighborhood. For one thing, they had accents. They also were not as informed or comfortable with things - how people talked and dressed, the popular culture, schools, toys, games.


As I got a little older, I came to know that we were Jewish, like almost everyone in my neighborhood and school but that somehow that was not something to announce to the world. I came to realize that they were refugees from Eastern Europe and, especially my mother, had suffered some kind of unspeakable trauma.


I was an only child and by the time I was 8, I knew that my role was to help my father in supporting her and lessening her pain. I was around that age, when I stepped in front of our TV set to block her view of The Pawnbroker, the Sidney Lumet film where Rod Steiger, a Holocaust survivor now working in Harlem, has flashbacks of his time in the concentration camps.


All in all, it was like having a large and dangerous monster in the house, one you could not see, but were always aware of its breathing. As a result, no one talked directly about anything that occurred between 1939 and the late ‘40s.


Despite that, a few facts got out. I heard about the time my aunt received a goose in exchange for teaching some children, and my mother overcooked it into an inedible cinder, or that my father, during his time as a supply officer in the Free Polish Army, managed to find a dozen or more eggs and two bottle of brandy.


It was never sequential and when I tried to piece it together, it was like those archeological exhibits where you wonder how they constructed whatever thing they are displaying from a couple of small shards. I only had shards.


I knew my mother was from what is now Lviv, that she moved away and lived under a false Catholic name with her sister and niece. I knew that my father was supposed to start his engineering studies in France in 1939 and that he made it to Casablanca by masquerading as a French Army soldier.


I knew my uncle was in the Soviet Gulag and then in Budapest and then in Vienna, but as for how he got from one place to another, or what any of them did or suffered through, what I learned was not to ask.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I created a timeline for the two main characters, listing where they were and when. I then tried to find out as much as I could about that place and time. I also had to fill in the time in between, as the two characters moved from place to place.


One of the brothers is in the Gulag, so I read Solzhenitsyn, both The Gulag Archipelago and Ivan Denisovitch, and Anne Applebaum, especially her collection of first-person accounts.


One of the things that surprised me was learning that about 10 percent of Polish Jews survived the war, and that the vast majority of them did so by being consigned to the Gulag from 1939-41. I searched through library catalogs for online first-person accounts.


To have the other brother's time and then escape from Paris make sense, I read Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and the more relevant Collapse of the Third Republic. The story behind that, of how weak leaders came together at the wrong time, was a revelation.


There were also books about life in Paris before and during the War, and I found material through library searches on French North Africa, and about the 1st Division of the Free Polish Army. I used Google maps to understand the physical relationship between places. like direction, distance, terrain, etc.


It should have been frustrating to have to do so much research but it was the opposite for me. I became immersed in the period and that made it easier to imagine and then write about what might have happened to a few individuals in that time.


The challenge was in knowing the more complete picture but then writing as if I was someone who did not know everything. 


Q: As a longtime physician, what was it like turning to fiction? Did your work as a doctor inform your writing? 


A: I was a neonatologist, caring for sick newborns in an intensive care unit. It was a high pressure, logic-driven job, mixed in with often profound human connections. I was privileged to be invited to join families at some of their most intense and personal events, birth and death. 


I turned to writing as a hobby at first, something that I enjoyed but was different from my regular work. The pace was slower, I was in control of the time and production (not suddenly running to emergency deliveries, for example).


On the other hand, doctors tend to have misplaced self-confidence and it was a bit of a surprise to me to learn that writing well is a skill that requires practice, and learning, and time.


For Walk the Earth as Brothers, my work in medicine had no direct effects that I can see. The next novel might be different.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you? 


A: The first file about the book on my computer is labeled “Brother and Brother” but that did not last long, thankfully.


For a long time, I used the title of the Dire Straits song “Brothers in Arms” because it had both the military connotation, and the close connection two siblings can have, no matter what happens to them. The lyrics of that song, however, really do not relate to my story.


I was looking for epigrams and came across one attributed to Maxim Gorky – “We've learned to fly the air like birds, we've learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet how to walk the Earth as brothers we don’t know...”


To me it says that we can do great things collectively, like fly the air and swim the seas, but even when we recognize that we are connected as human beings, as brothers, we cannot live together in peace.


That's one of the main themes, that nations, movements, armies, and generals toss around or discard individuals and rob them of their humanity if we let them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have two current novels in process. The first is about a brilliant physician and scientist who makes a discovery that saves humanity from much suffering and is worthy of a Nobel Prize.


But the memoir he is working on to coincide with the anticipated Prize is hacked and parts are fed back to him written by the other people he describes in his manuscript, and these paint a very different and far less flattering picture of the scientist. Does he deserve the Prize? Can he bring himself to even ask the question? 


The second is an idea for which I am doing the research. It addresses the question of why we have no reports that anyone in any of the ghettos in World War II tried to make a Golem.


It was the quintessential circumstance - Jews in mortal danger - for which the Prague Golem, for example, was formed, according to legend. Maybe some made one as an aid to or back up for the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. That's as far as I've gotten to date.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I will be 68 when Walk the Earth as Brothers is released. There have been even older debut novelists, but it is rare.


On the one hand, I think there is perspective and, I hope, a little wisdom. available to the older author. On the other, there is a fair amount of internal pressure to get out the next ones while I still can. The most important thing, though, is that writing is something that can be taken up at any age. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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