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Introduction
The Girl Who Counted Numbers:
A Novel
GWCN Cover.jpg

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.

Reviews

 

“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.”

 

 

Gish Jen

Author of Thank You, Mr. Nixon

Reviews

News, Reviews + Awards
(See Events on Home Page)

The Girl Who Counted Numbers was recognized as one of the 100 best independently published books of 2023 by Kirkus Reviews and Roz was one of four authors interviewed in the magazine

The Girl Who Counted Numbers received a 5 star review and won a book award in the Readers Favorite 2023 contest.

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.

Roslyn Bernstein(1).jpg

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.

Roslyn Bernstein appeared on the Jewish Agnostics podcast.

The Girl Who Counted Numbers received a prestigious starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

The Girl Who Counted Numbers was named a Distinguished Favorite in the Historical Fiction category by the Independent Press Awards.

A Holocaust Mystery Buried 61 Years is Finally Released as a Book, to Critical Acclaim. Story on BKReader.com

Roz Bernstein was featured on the Jewish Book Council Instagram in conjunction with the Manhattan Jewish Community Center's Books That Changed My Life Festival.

January 18, 2023: The Girl Who Counted Numbers won the prestigious finalist award in the debut fiction category of the 72nd Jewish Book Council Award Contest.

A review of The Girl Who Counted Numbers appeared on The Many Thoughts of a Reader blog

A Review of The Girl Who Counted Numbers appeared on the Cassidy's Bookshelf blog,

The Culture Buzz with John Busbee. Radio interview.

Article about Roslyn Bernstein on Patch

Roz Bernstein in conversation with Wayne Hoffman, Executive Editor of tabletmag.com, on the Unorthodox podcast. A discussion of The Girl Who Counted Numbers.

Israel 1961

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.

PHOTOS OF MY TRIP TO ISRAEL, 1961
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