The Girl Who Counted Numbers:
Susan Reich is a seventeen-year-old American who goes to Israel seeking to solve a family mystery. Susan’s quest takes her to unexpected places where she confronts layers of history that she never knew. While trying to find her missing uncle, with the Adolph Eichmann trial in the background, she explores awakening emotions in herself and gets involved in the struggles of her Israeli and Jewish Moroccan friends.
The seven months that Roslyn Bernstein spent in Jerusalem in 1961, when she listened to the stories of immigrants and survivors and daydreamed about their meanings, was a source of inspiration for The Girl Who Counted Numbers. She has been attentive to historical accuracies of time and place but the story of Susan Reich, her family, and friends is fictional. The cover untitled photograph was chosen as an evocation of just that time and place. This photograph was made about 1960 by an Israeli photographer, Liselotte Grschebina, whose archive is in the collection of The Israel Museum.
Cover Photograph: "Untitled" by Liselotte Grschebina. ca. 1960, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The photograph was chosen by the author because it evokes the time and place of the novel. Grschebina (1908-1994) was an Israeli photographer who emigrated from Germany to Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1934, when the Nazis came to power. She was influenced by the New Vision, a photography movement, which developed in the 1920s and was directly related to the principles of the Bauhaus.
“All families must deal with the past in order to move forward, but for some families that is harder than others. Roslyn Bernstein's beautiful new novel chronicles one family's difficult quest for peace. Moving, nuanced and inspiring, this gripping book rings achingly true.”
Author of Thank You, Mr. Nixon
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The Jew Who Posed as a Nazi: A Writer Navigates Conflicting Identities an essay by Roslyn Bernstein was featured on The Jewish Book Council website.
Europa, Europa, Polish Movie Poster, Designed by Mieczyslaw Gorowski
I thought about imitation and reality while writing my historical novel, The Girl Who Counted Numbers. In the book, Susan, a seventeen-year-old New Yorker, is sent to Israel by her father to try to find what happened to his brother during the Holocaust. Although the story is fictional, I wanted to make the settings and situations as authentic as possible. I spent several years reading and researching interwar Eastern Europe and life during the Holocaust before I started to write. Still, l felt uneasy about one thing: my portrayal of Susan’s uncle. As the book’s mystery unfolds, we learn that he survived the war by posing as a Nazi. I was unsure that such a thing could have actually happened and worried that I might be criticized for making it up.
Somehow I missed the incredible, true story of Solomon Perel: a Jew who posed as a Nazi in order to survive the Holocaust. Perel didn’t simply have a false name or papers; he was immersed in his false identity. As a young boy, Perel moved with his family from Peine, Germany to Lodz, Poland. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they were forced into the ghetto. Perel and his brother fled Lodz to the Soviet Union where he lived in an orphanage. In June of 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he left the orphanage but was captured by the Nazis. Determined to save his life, Perel buried his identity papers and when asked if he was a Jew, he said that he was an ethnic German. He became a front line German-Russian translator and then joined the Hitler Youth. He later wrote in his memoir, Ich war Hitlerjunge Salomon, “that my mental faculties were so befogged that no ray of reality could penetrate. I continued to feel just like one of them.” The book was later translated into English, French, and German, and was made into a German language movie, all of which were titled Europa Europa.
Throughout his senior years in Israel, Perel lectured on tolerance, but there were many people who said that he “never fully purged himself of the Nazi identity he had adopted.” In 1992, Perel told The Washington Post that he had “a tangle of two souls in one body.”
Somehow I missed the incredible, true story of Solomon Perel: a Jew who posed as a Nazi in order to survive the Holocaust.
I first heard of Perel months after my book came out, when The New York Times reported his death at the age of ninety-seven. I was fascinated to read about Perel’s story as it validated the possibility that a Jew could have actually passed as a Nazi and somehow survive with such a dual identity.
The real question is — Is it important for a fictional work to have a basis in real life? Not necessarily. Writers often can invent characters who have never existed and whose actions are surprising and unexpected. Science fiction books, for example, often are built around imaginary beings. More often, though, fictional works lean on people (singular or plural) who have lived somewhere, people who the novelist transforms into new characters, incorporating bits and pieces of the old character and creating new landscapes, and new experiences. In a historical novel, it is especially important that characters, singular or composite, real or imagined, be believable.
Set in 1961, with the Adolf Eichmann trial in the background, The Girl Who Counted Numbers unravels the many secrets that pervaded life in the concentration camp. Friends who were enemies and enemies who were friends. Germans who did favors for Jews and Jews who did favors for Germans. Life in the camps was brutal, but between the extremes of black and white, there was some gray. A rape that turned into a love affair, leaving a woman who for the rest of her life loved and hated herself. An illegal, forbidden, and passionate love affair between two men that lasts for years. A woman who could never quite resolve her identity. Secrets that helped people endure the suffering of living in the camps, pain and anguish, their conflicting identities somehow surviving.
My Trip to Israel 1961 (Medium.com 9/19/2022)
I rolled a large metal trunk that held a heavy German portable typewriter up the gangplank of the SS Jerusalem of the Zim Lines on my way from New York City to Haifa, Israel. In those days, traveling to Israel by ship was much cheaper than flying by plane.
I was in a group of 12 students from the Hiatt Program of Brandeis University who were on their way to Israel to study the politics and economics of the country. The courses were to be taught in English and we were all evaluated and sent to an Hebrew Language School (Ulpan) and placed in an appropriate level.
Since I had studied Hebrew for many years. I found myself placed in the highest grade class 10 YUD, the only English speaking student in the class. Many of my classmates were from Morocco. Classes at the were in Hebrew and we used specially prepared newspapers. Hebrew. Most of the stories were to build up the image of the land of Israel, its agriculture, its manufacturing, its education, its patriotism. We were being educated to be loyal citizens, patriotic Zionists.
I had read considerable Jewish history but before this trip I had never met a survivor from the Holocaust in New York. In my schoolbooks, I saw shocking photos of starving survivors, piles of dead bodies, arms with numbers, shaved heads, prisoners digging ditches for their own graves, and trains stuffed with prisoners, their heads gasping for air. I saw photos of dilapidated Jewish ghettos, with two or three families sleeping in one apartment.
But it was not until 1961 when I arrived in Israel that I actually saw survivors, many with numbers showing on their forearms because they were wearing short sleeved shirts in the hot Middle Eastern climate. They were everywhere and I got into the habit of counting them as I walked back and forth from my apartment in Rechavia to the Ulpan.
In the cafes along Ben Yehudah street people often talked about the Adolf Eichmann trial which had mesmerized the country for weeks. Since I understood Hebrew, I listened to the survivors tell their stories. One sad tale after another
I traveled up north by bus to visit my father’s first cousin who was a farmer in a Marxist kibbutz near Haifa. In the dining hall, a massive portrait of Karl Marx looked down on the modest tables and chairs. They were not religious but they were Zionists. They had fought off the mosquitos. They had built cement block houses with tin roofs. Most of the men were dressed in coveralls and straw hats. The only concession to Judaism, was lighting Shabbos candles on Friday night.
We met with Ben Gurion and with other Israeli officials to discuss Israeli politics, economics, health care, and education.
In 2015 I finally started to write a novel, informed by, but quite different from my trip to Israel in 1961.