JEWISH RESISTANCE HERO’S STORY RE-RELEASED

I’m thrilled to announce that my book about the life of Jewish World War II resistance fighter Bernard Mednicki, told in first person by Bernard himself, is back in print for the first time since 1997 and also available as an ebook for the first time ever. I won’t waste time with humility. During this holiday season, any reader of this blog site will not go wrong in buying multiple copies for gifts. Bernard’s story of heroism, inspiration, and love of family deserves wide distribution.

afraid-cover_ebook

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Flight to France, Pose as Christians

Never Be Afraid: A Belgian Jew in the French Resistance begins with Bernard’s father and mother taking their family out of Russia to escape the pogroms at the turn of the last century and ending in Belgium on their way to America. There, Bernard is born in 1910. A street-smart Jew from a working-class, Orthodox, socialist background, Bernard flees Belgium with his wife and two young children in 1940 when the Nazis invade, assumes a Christian identity, and settles in Volvic, a small town in the mountainous region of southern France, where their third child is born.

While living in Volvic and trying to feed and protect his family, he finds his way—through a series of life circumstances, every one of them a heroic step of courage—into the Maquis, the French Resistance. Never Be Afraid ends with Bernard finally bringing his family to America after surviving the Nazis, completing the journey his parents began forty-two years previously after surviving the pogroms.

I fell in love with Bernard when I met him at a Holocaust conference in Pennsylvania through the passionate way he told his story, which encompassed a full range of hand movements and emotions, from sadness to humor. But it was only in Ann Arbor, where he came with his second wife Minnie to spend two weeks being interviewed and tape recorded by me to lay the groundwork for this book, that I became fully aware of at least one hidden reason for his compulsion to tell his story.

Uncovering Repressed Memories Forty Years Later

I learned that he was telling his story not only so that the world would know what happened, as was the stated motivation of so many Holocaust survivors, but to make peace with actions he had taken under stress that he couldn’t control but that he also couldn’t excuse. Never Be Afraid is not a blood and guts story. Bernard killed but he never glorifies his actions. He preferred a hand grenade to a gun, he would tell me often, because with the former he never had to look into the eyes of his victim. Only twice did he kill a man with his hands.

The trauma of that second time and the events that followed are what he ultimately repressed from his memory. Three days later, he returned from the mountains to his first wife, Chana, and their three children but he didn’t tell Chana what he did. The war ended, they settled in America, she died in 1964. He never told her. At some point along the way, he forgot. In retelling his story through the years, I believe he was trying to unblock the memories to free himself from his own pain, but his efforts were blocked by the standard format of his presentation, forty minutes of the same oft-repeated anecdotes and twenty minutes of surface questions and answers.

Only by first allowing Bernard to tell his whole story without constraints of the clock and then probing deeper into areas of his story that were literarily incomplete or still surface, including his experiences in the Maquis, was I able to help Bernard break through those blocked memories midway through our eleventh of twelve ninety-minute interview sessions. Bernard had begun to slow down by this time anyhow, even in his enthusiasm to tell his story, from sheer force of stress and—despite the fact that in Ann Arbor he was taking a sleeping pill every night instead of his regular three per week—lack of sleep. Still, he had patiently answered all of my questions and even allowed me to repeat one session when that day’s tape was found to be defective. By the end of that eleventh interview session, Bernard had become impatient for the first time. The next morning, I ate breakfast alone for the first time as he finally was able to sleep soundly, and for more than his usual four hours, without having taken a sleeping pill the night before.

In Chapter 19, “Like Blood out of the Aorta of a Pig,” the most experimental memoir chapter I’ve ever written, I’ve tried to retain the feel of his struggling to open his memory and unleash those painful secrets that had haunted him since that time, so that the reader can actually experience his pain along with him, as I did that day. That one chapter’s outline is less chronological than the traditional biographical chapter and more like one might feel getting pulled into the funnel of a cyclone.

As you read the chapter, do you feel his struggle? I would love comments.

Bernard’s story is a story of survival, but it also is a love story. Bernard loved his children and he loved Chana. Then he loved Minnie. “It was an ideal twenty-six years I shared with her,” he said over the phone when he called to tell me about Minnie’s death. “And before her I had thirty-two good years with my first wife. I was lucky.”

After I sent him the final 8 1/2″ x 11″ double-spaced manuscript version of his story, he photocopied it about a dozen times and passed it around to his family members. His health nosedived quickly. In the summer of 1994, after suffering a stroke, Bernard moved into a nursing home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, near where his daughter Eliane was living with her family. He never did live long enough to see his story’s publication but he didn’t care because, with my help, he had fulfilled his final wish. He and I had enabled his family to hold his story in their hands. The copyright date for this second edition of his story, January 2, 2015, commemorates the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Bernard was an amazing storyteller, in the tradition of the legendary Yiddish writers Chaim Potok and Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer. But he wasn’t a writer like them. I was honored that he asked me to write his story for him.

In an appendix, Philip Rosen, former director of the Holocaust Awareness Museum at Gratz College, puts Bernard’s experience in its historical context.

“moving, profoundly moving”—Elie Wiesel

“engrossing … wonderful”—George Cohen, Booklist

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Unlike Lambs to the Slaughter: Remembering the Holocaust and the Resistance

As Jews observe Yom Ha Shoah, the remembrance of the Holocaust, I hear again the question, “Why didn’t the Jews resist?” and I am angry. The myth of “the passive Jew” has joined the folklore of bigotry along with the myth of “the happy Negro” in the pre-Civil War South.

But if passivity is a myth, what is the reality? Fortunately, a growing body of research is reconstructing for Jewish resistance fighters the history the Nazis tried to destroy.

The answer, as researchers present it, demands at least three areas of explanation: the mind of the Diaspora Jew, the Germany of the 1930s and ‘40s, and the actual resistance.

Ever since the Diaspora, Jews have faced the question of how to be a Jew in a gentile society. Many shed the hardships by conversion or assimilation. Others clung to Orthodox Judaism, which they practiced in small communities apart from the mainstream.

Often, Jews lived in ghettoes under harsh conditions. Anti-Semitic laws barred them from certain trades, and they were made scapegoats by monarchical regimes to divert the attention of peasants from legitimate grievances. Many individuals, and sometimes entire communities, responded by escaping to other countries. The mass migration of Jews to the United States between 1880 and 1920 was in response to pogroms encouraged by the czar of Russia.

But usually Jews endured the hardships and prayed for better times, which often returned. By the time Hitler came to power, German Jews were the most assimilated Jews in Europe. Many had been leaders of the enlightenment that swept Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Within the religion, they were founders of the Reform Movement, which encouraged assimilation as a survival tool. Many had wealth and status.

Then came Hitler. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Jews lost all civil and political rights.

Why didn’t they flee? Partly because the troubles were expected to pass. But many tried. Unfortunately few countries would accept them, including the United States, which approved 850 visas a month from a pool of 110,000. Still, before 1939, 400,000 Jews left Germany. Many fled to Poland. Then Hitler came to Poland. Ghettoes were set up and became holding tanks for Jews on their way to the death camps.

Although armed resistance was rare before 1942, when the truth about the camps leaked into the ghettoes, nonviolent resistance was common. Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer cites a study of 73 Jewish councils in southeastern Poland, which showed that 45 resisted, even before they knew their lives were in danger. Resistance included refusals to hand over names of people, money, and clothing to the Nazis. Sixteen of the chairmen of the councils were later executed; five others committed suicide. More than forty ghettoes in Eastern Europe had armed underground units.

Jews were also in the resistance movements of Western Europe. Numerous acts of sabotage included blowing up trains, bridges, and SS headquarters. Inmates at five of the camps, including Treblinka and Auschwitz, staged uprisings.

But Jewish resistance failed. Lack of arms was one reason. Lack of contact between ghettoes and with Jews on an international level was another. Also, the Jews were being systematically starved. According to Bauer, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto lived on 336 calories a day, a third of which was smuggled in by children who were shot if they were caught. No social or medical services were available.

Finally, there never was a long-range plan of extermination that might have warned the Jews. According to Bauer, this plan only came into being as a result of the Nazi decision to attack the Soviet Union. “How, then, can the victims be blamed for not foreseeing their fate at a time when the murderers had not yet decided it?”

This fact alone makes belief in the “passive Jew” myth startling by assuming that the Jews of the 1940s had the benefit of a 1980s retrospective view. How much easier it might have been had this been so.

[I was going to post my latest entry on the underground press digital project today but, as it turns out, today is Yom Ha Shoah, the day Jews commemorate the victims and survivors of the Holocaust; so instead I posted the above story, which appeared originally in the Chicago Tribune on Monday May 5, 1986, under the title “For Jews, myth becoming passive.”]

A Pollack-Katz-Dratler-Ilyovitz Family Roots Story (in which the Rosenstein connection is explained)

Roots information has been coming at me through Outlook and Facebook. First, my Uncle Norm Pollack (mom’s brother) wrote to me (the family genealogist for my generation) for information about a distant ancestor. Then First-Cousin-Once-Removed Norm Vendeland (Mom’s first cousin; their mothers are sisters) was on TV news and in the papers just yesterday for being given medals of his brother Albert, who died in World War II. In looking through my notes and early correspondence to answer Uncle Norm’s question, I saw information that was relevant to the story of Albert, in the same letter, so I’m sharing it here for anyone who might be interested—especially members of the Pollack-Katz-Dratler-Ilyovitz Family.

As a brief background to the letter, eight years ago, Aunt Elaine (sister to Norm and my mom) wrote to me to ask if I could share some roots information with Brett, son of Cousin Michael Rosenstein (read the letter to learn our double relationship), for a school project. I sent him the below letter. I guess roots projects are popular nowadays because I received the call from other cousins to help their kids. I always sent a variation of the same letter that is posted below.

Shalom,

Ken

* * *

Hi, First-Cousin-Once-Removed and also Second-Cousin-Once-Removed Brett (Ask your dad to explain what I mean by that; if he doesn’t know, read on),

Your grandmother said you were doing some roots work and asked if I could send some information to you. Here it is: I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get it to you before your assignment was due (but I understand you got the answers you needed without me—Lesson: Check more than one source when you have a question). But once I had the momentum going it was hard to stop. Picture Michael Jordan in midair not making the shot. I hope you find it interesting. To me it’s always fascinating. We can talk next time we’re together if you have any additional questions.

On your grandmother’s side of the family, there are 5 children in your grandmother’s generation and you know them all: Ruth, Shirley, Marvin, Elaine, and Norman. My mother is Shirley so, since she and Elaine are sisters, your father and I are first cousins and you and Blake are my first cousins once removed; you are second cousins to David and Carrie. Your grandmother’s parents, your great-grandparents, were Harry Pollack and Yetta Dratler.

HARRY POLLACK

Harry (Hermann) was born on November 28, 1889 in Sziget, a town in the province of Marmorsch, which was then in Austria-Hungary. The famous Holocaust author Elie Wiesel is from Sziget also. Today the area is in the country of Rumania. Situated in the Carpathian Mountains, it was a large industrial town, a melting pot for the area (mostly Polish with a few Hungarian) because it was the home of a cane factory (walking sticks). Outside the factory area, the population was desolate.

Harry was the second oldest of 9 children: Sarah, Harry, Hermine, Frank, Friede, Bessie, Morris, Lew, and Faye. It is possible that you met Faye but she is no longer living. She was the last of her generation. All of them came to this country. In the Old Country Harry was a skilled craftsman, a cabinet maker, who served as the house carpenter in the Kaiser’s army. It was a preferred position because he didn’t have to go on maneuvers and he lived in the servants’ quarters. His brother Frank was also a carpenter. Harry was the first from his family to come to America. He travelled on the S. S. Amerika out of Hamburg, Germany. He left on January 22, 1913, a year after his father died, and arrived at Ellis Island on February 2. In this country, after his brother Frank arrived, they formed a partnership as carpenters and builders. In fact, they built the house in which I grew up in Beachwood. Elaine and Shirley’s brother Marvin followed in Harry’s footsteps as craftsmen, and Marvin’s sons Mark, Gary, and Alan have followed in his.

Harry’s parents, your great-great grandparents, were named Mordechai (Martin) Schmuel Pollak and Chaya (Anna, Hannah) Katz (born 1870, Sipinka [Szaplancza], Austria-Hungary; d. 1936, Cleveland). Note that there was no “c” in “Pollak.” The “c” was added when members of the family came to the United States. Unfortunately Mordechai was not among them. He worked in the Old Country as a butcher. He died in Sziget in 1912 when a knife cut on his finger became infected.

Pollack Family

Mordechai was the second of five children born to your great-great-great grandparents Meyer Pollack and Faiga Ethel (I don’t know her maiden name): Moishe, Mordechai Schmuel, Pesach, Shumoo, and Munish. Meyer and Faiga were both born in the 1820s to 1830s and died in 1910 in Sziget. Meyer also was a butcher.

According to Yetta, she and Harry were related. Here’s what she told me. See if you can follow: “Moishe’s children I knew very well because coincidentally his wife was also related to my mother. They (the wife and her sibling) were Harry’s cousins through his father, to me through my mother. Moishe’s wife (Yitta)’s mother’s mother was my mother (Frieda)’s mother (Feiga Ruchel)’s sister.” That would make Yetta and Harry non-blood second cousins (or second cousins-in-law).

That’s as far back as I go on the Pollack side.

Katz Family

On the Katz side it’s a bit more complicated. Chaya Katz had three brothers, Meyer Chaim, Hascal Hersch, and Schmuel David, and one sister, Reizel. Of the five, only Meyer Chaim (I’m not sure of this) and Chaya came to America. Their parents, your great-great-great grandparents, were Jacob Lieberman and Sara Katz. You know that in this country it is traditional for the wife to take the husband’s name. In their case, Jacob took Sara’s name and became Jacob Lieberman Katz. One story has it that he did it to avoid the draft; Jews were often drafted against their will and treated poorly in the army. According to another story, Sara was a Cohan (Katz is a contraction for Cohan Tzedek, or “Righteous Priest”) and the rabbi told her Lieberman was no name for a Cohan so her husband took her name. One story says the Katzes worked as butchers. Another says that Jacob was a blacksmith.

Sara was one of 5 children born to your great-great-great-great grandparents, Fishel Katz and Chaya (I don’t know her maiden name), who were probably born in the 1780s to 1790s. The 5 children’s names were Mayer, Leah Malka (married David Davis, known as Davidovitz in the Old Country), Yankel, Sara, and Rezzi. I told you that Sara married Jacob Lieberman and they had five children, including Chaya. Then Sara died. Guess what. Jacob married her younger sister Rezzi and had 8 more children: Herzl (I think that’s the name), Heschel, twins Fishel and Sarah (Sarah died young), Feiga, Jenny, Frank, and Rosie. So, because they shared the same father as Jacob and Chaya’s children, they were sisters and brothers to each other. But since their mothers were sisters, they were also first cousins to each other! Herzl and Heschel did not come to America; the others did. Sura and Rezzi’s older sister Leah Malka married David Davis (known as Davidovitz in the Old Country). He came to America at the turn of the century, the first in our family from that side. He settled in Cleveland because other Marmorsch Jews were already there. Everyone else in the Katz Family followed him.

GRANDMA POLLACK

Yetta was the fourth oldest of six children: Maurice, Sam (Lezar), Daniel, Yetta, Rachel, and Zelda. Rachel died in Europe. The other children eventually came to America. None of them are still living. No one is exactly sure when Yetta was born but for years she celebrated her birthday as April 28, 1899. Then, when she had long since settled in Cleveland, in the closing days of World War II, her sister Zelda’s son was killed while in the U.S. army and the date of his death was April 28 (1944). Not wanting to celebrate a birthday on such a sad anniversary, Yetta adopted April 5 as her birthday. She was born in Ruskovce, also in Marmorsch and moved with her family to nearby Sziget five years later. Growing up, Yetta knew of Harry but Harry, who was over nine years older than Yetta, didn’t know her until they met and started dating in Cleveland. According to Yetta, whom your dad and I knew as Grandma Pollack, Harry’s brother Frank also had eyes on her. It’s a good thing Harry—Grandpa Pollack—won out or I wouldn’t be telling you this story.

Yetta’s parents, your great-great grandparents, were named Harry Dratler (according to Grandma Pollack, born 1858; Ruskovce, Austria-Hungary; died 1936, Cleveland; according to headstone at Park Synagogue Cemetery, born 1870; died 1935) and Chaya Friede Ilyovitz (according to Grandma Pollack, born 1875, Sziget; Austria-Hungary; died 1946, Cleveland; according to headstone, born 1875; died 1946). Harry made clay ovens (fireplaces that were built onto sides of houses) in Ruskovce, where Yetta was born. In this country he was a cement contractor.

Dratler Family

Harry was the oldest of six children: Harry, Sruel (Israel), Toyvya, Avraham, Ettel (or Edja), and Schloyma. I believe they all came to this country but Schloyma died in the Holocaust after returning to Sziget from the United States.

Harry’s parents were Nathan Dratler (died Ruskovce, Austria-Hungary, 1908-09) and Rivka (I don’t know her maiden name; died December 1874). According to Grandma Pollack, Nathan had at least two brothers. He was a general store owner in Ruskovce. After Rivka died, he remarried. I suspect all the children were from his first marriage but I don’t know for sure. According to Grandma Pollack, she was named after Rivka’s mother Yitta. “My mother never met her. She was already dead by the time my mother was expecting me,” she told me. “One night, this Yitta came to visit her. When she woke up, she realized it was her mother-in-law’s mother. She realized she had to name me after her. She woke up and realized she never met her. It was all a dream.” Elaine’s sister Ruth was named after Rivka.

Ilyovitz Family

Frieda was the oldest of seven children: Chaya Frieda, Reisa, Yitta, Esther, Devorah, Melkah, and the only brother, Elya. Devorah and her husband Gabriel Ilyovitz, who was a cousin, both died in the Holocaust.

Frieda’s parents were Avram Jacob Ilyovitz (died 1908, Sziget, Austria-Hungary) and Feiga Rachel (Fanny or Rachel; I don’t know her maiden name; died 1939, presumably in a concentration camp). Avram was a bookkeeper.

In Sziget Yetta was denied a Hebrew education because she was a girl but she learned by listening in on her brothers’ lessons. (One time, she told me, she did take Hebrew lessons, which was unheard of for a girl, but she quit because the teacher was flirting with her.) In public school she was denied textbooks because she was Jewish but she was usually able to obtain them by being persistent. I remember that when I used to visit her as a child, she always had a book at her side. Fourteen-year-old Yetta came to America with her younger sister, Zelda, and their mother, Frieda, ten years after their father, Harry, had sailed alone to Montreal, settled briefly, and then resettled in Cleveland. Today there are Dratler families living in Montreal. The few I’ve talked to didn’t know if we were related but I suspect we are. That research remains to be done. Since Yetta was five when she moved to Sziget, her father must already have been in America by that time.

Yetta, Zelda, and Frieda left the port of Bremen, Germany (if I am reading the sloppy handwriting on the Ship Passenger Arrival List correctly) on June 23, 1914, travelling on the S. S. Kronprinz (Crown Prince) Wilhelm. Grandma Pollack later described it as “a real pit,” rats and all. They arrived at Ellis Island on July 1. According to Grandma Pollack, if they had waited two more weeks before deciding to leave they would have been trapped in Marmarosh-Sziget because World War I broke out and all immigrant travel was halted. At the border immigrants were given physical exams and physically unhealthy immigrants were refused admittance. Grandma told me she was afraid she would fail the eye test and be deported because one of her eyes had a dent in the pupil which caused the pupil to be irregularly shaped. Luckily they tested only her good eye. In the Old Country, Grandma Pollack went by the name Ilonca. In America, she told me, she took the name Yetta because a boy she liked in grade school told her it sounded more American.

And in Conclusion

Harry and Yetta’s fourth child, your paternal grandmother Elaine, married Stan Rosenstein, your paternal grandfather. Stan’s mother, your great grandmother Ella Kroshinsky, had a sister, Ida, who married a man named Adolph Wachsberger. They had four children. The youngest, Si, married Elaine’s older sister Shirley and had four sons. Hmm, this sounds familiar; doesn’t it? So, if you figure it out, you can see that Si and Stan are first cousins because their mothers were sisters. Therefore, your father and I, in addition to being first cousins because our mothers are sisters, are second cousins because our fathers are first cousins; and you are my first cousin once removed and second cousin once removed; you and Blake are second cousins and third cousins to David and Carrie.

Best to you in your journey into your past,

Cousin Once-Removed and Twice-Removed Ken

Barnes & Noble Celebrates National Authors Day: Invites Me to Sell Books

 

Sunday is National Authors Day. To celebrate, Barnes & Noble, on Washtenaw in Ann Arbor by Whole Foods and my favorite Panera, is inviting authors to sell their books in two-hour shifts. I was invited to be one of them so, first of all, I hope anyone reading this will visit me any time from 3 to 5 Sunday November 1 and bring your friends. Secondly, I hope you’ll buy a few books to enjoy and to give away as gifts for the holiday season.

Some of my books are temporarily out of print. Here are the ones I’ll have with me:

  • Transforming Lives: A Socially Responsible Guide to the Magic of Writing and Researching: the first textbook devoted to helping students turn Ken Macrorie’s brilliant I-Search idea into a full-length, life-changing research project while demystifying the process of writing and researching, arousing their curiosity, and awakening their dormant passion for expressing themselves through writing. So student-friendly it’s been called “the anti-textbook.” If you’re a teacher of writing whose students don’t want to be in your class because they hate or fear writing, this book is for you. It’s been used successfully at the high school and Freshman college level as well as by individual writers who want to find or regain the flow.
  • Beercans on the Side of the Road: The Story of Henry the Hitchhiker: called a cult classic by someone whose name I long forgot but whose characterization I have ever since used. Henry’s story, the adventure of a young college dropout hitchhiker in search of the perfect flow and what it means to be a writer, came out of my hitchhiking years during the seventies when I established my reputation as the foremost expert on intranational hitchhiking in the country.
  • The Ballad of Ken and Emily: or, Tales from the Counterculture: a collection of short stories, poems, head trips, essays, and journal entries including “Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Growing Up as a New Left Jew” (an analysis of the Yippie literature from a Jewish perspective as well as a history of the Jewish Left in America and an account of the Yippies and Zippies in Miami Beach in the summer of 1972); “Accidental Revolutionary” (a fictionalized version of my first political arrest following the Kent State murders in May 1970); “Diary of a Mad Anarchist” parts 1 and 2 (May Day 1971 in D.C. during the May Day demonstrations; May 1972, Madison, Wisconsin, after Nixon blockaded Haiphong Harbor), plus “Being in Jail Is Like Finals Week” (because, in case you didn’t notice it, all three arrests happened in May), “Yo Ho Ho-Ulp” (my brief life as a gillnetter in Sebasco, Maine), “The Busy Person’s Guide to Street Yoga” (how I kept limber and in shape while on the road), and more.
  • The Last Selection: A Child’s Journey through the Holocaust: an amazing story about a girl who spent time in Auschwitz during World War II. If you know about Dr. Mengele, you know about the selections. At one point the war ended. Before that, you had— the last selection. Thirteen-year old Goldie was in it, the only child along with her mother and a hundred other women. This is the only book that gives you “life in the gas chamber.” I co-wrote the book with her current husband Sylvan Kalib.
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cancer Book: Like all the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, this one is an anthology of contributions from lots of folks connected with the subject. This time, one of the contributions is mine, an excerpt from my booklet, Your Partner Has Breast Cancer?: 21 Ways to Keep Sane as a Support Person. I’ll have copies of the book and the booklet.

Finally, I’ll have information on my upcoming Dissident Press Series, which Michigan State University Press will be publishing in four parts beginning with the first in May 2010 and followed every six months by another until all four are out. Stories are written by insiders of underground papers—the predecessors to today’s progressive blogs—representing the Black, Puerto Rican, feminist, lesbian, gay, socialist, psychedelic, Southern consciousness, rank-and-file, prisoners’ rights, military, Native American, and other antiwar voices from the Vietnam era.

I hope to see you there. You can always purchase books from my web site but if you show up you don’t have to pay shipping and handling.

President Obama, I’m Your Man for the Supreme Court

Watching Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and the other Republican Judiciary Committee members attack Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a racist last week over her statement that her background as a “wise Latina” would help her decide cases, it suddenly hit me. I am supremely qualified to be the next SC justice if her nomination is rejected or if another SC member retires on President Obama’s watch. I am perfectly qualified because I am a Jew who can say in all truthfulness that I have not been influenced by my background.

Yes, I know that in religious school I learned Hillel’s summary of the Torah: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” But that’s so negative. Isn’t it? Double negative, in fact. Who could be influenced by such a theological position? Anyhow, the better-known version (spoken by another Jew but that’s only a coincidence) is much more positive. That’s probably the one that shaped me.

During my graduate school years, I studied Jewish-American literature, but only because I majored in creative writing and Jews are, after all, “people of the book” so I figured they would be good writers. The tales I read of men and women scrimping for a living in the shtetls of eastern Europe and finding strength in family, community, and tradition had a lasting effect on me: They made me realize that, yes, Jews were good writers.

It’s true that my ancestors fled the pogroms at the beginning of the last century to come to America. As the family genealogist, I heard those stories and, strictly as a writer and historian, recorded them. And, yes, many relatives who stayed behind in the old Austria-Hungary (what today would be Rumania) died in Auschwitz. I judiciously added their names to my family tree even though I never met them. My interest was strictly academic and anal retentive—it would have been untidy and incomplete of me to not include them.

Later I wrote two books about Holocaust survivors, one about a girl from Auschwitz who was invited to participate in Dr. Mengele’s last selection of the entire war and actually spent 18 hours in a gas chamber but survived because the Nazis were more concerned about starting the cover-up than they were gassing another 100 women; and the other about a Belgian Jew who posed as a Christian and fought in the maquis, the French resistance in southern France. But they were exciting stories. Can you blame me? I would have been crazy to pass up those opportunities. Do you think the girl met any of my relatives while she was in Auschwitz? Just curious.

Passover is my favorite night of the year. Any excuse to bring my family together is reason enough to celebrate for me. Every year during the Seder we are reminded that “We were strangers, too, in the land of Egypt.” But there’s no way that has anything to do with my solidarity with the plight of the poor and the dispossessed in America. After all, how many of them came from Egypt?

So I feel confident in saying that I am bias-free. I have what it takes to be on the highest court in the land. Like my hero, Justice Samuel Alito.

[He said what? “When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.” Oops.]

I mean, like my hero, Justice Clarence Thomas.

[He said what? “I believe … that I can make a contribution, that I can bring something different to the Court, that I can walk in the shoes of the people who are affected by what the Court does.” Oops.]

I mean, I have what it takes because it takes a real man to not be influenced by his background enough to be a Supreme Court justice and I am much more of a man than Sonia Sotomayor. Any day of the week.

Amen.