March 26 2009 12:00 AM

Authors latest explores personal Holocaust mysteries


Ghosts of the past can visit at the most unexpected times and places. Okemos author Lev Raphael was on a train just outside Berlin when his ghost found him.

While touring in support of his book “The German Money” in 2005, an apparition of his mother making the same trip triggered Raphael’s writing instincts. “Sixty years earlier, my mother was making the same trip, except she was on a cattle car going to a munitions factory to be a slave laborer,” he said. “They tried to kill her, and here I was, a successful author making a book tour trip.”

Raphaels latest book, "My Germany" is the story of his journey from despising all things German — down to coffee grinders — to coming to terms with modern Germany, despite the horrors that had been inflicted on his parents, both Holocaust survivors.

Raphael said he never intended to write a book — his 19th — about his experiences and those of his parents, but following his mother’s death, he wrote an essay as a tribute. “I couldn’t find a book in it,” he said. “It never jelled.”

But it would. Raphael expanded his idea by writing what he calls a memoir/travelogue/ mystery, focusing on the then and now of his parents’ experiences. His father’s experience was Raphael just as dramatic; hailing from Czechoslovakia, he worked as a forced laborer on the Russian front and then was sent to the Bergen- Belsen camp in Germany. “My father was on his way to a death camp in April 1945 when his train was stopped by the Allies, saving him from sure death,” Raphael said. In “My Germany,” Raphael tells these and other stories about his parents. He also tells of the great sadness that followed them to America.

Raphael said writing the story required him to use his skill both as an academician and as a mystery writer; the former professor of American thought and language at Michigan State University taught for 13 years before giving it up to write full time in 1988. He spent about a month in Germany over the course of three different visits researching the book.

Probably the most dramatic experience in the book comes when Raphael holds his mother’s prisoner’s card in his hand. “It was the actual card they used when she was admitted, processed, in one of the camps,” he said.

Raphael said he was “struck by the very elegant and very striking penmanship she used.” “I was impressed that she kept human dignity with something as small as that,” he said.

He also found immense irony in a line on the card stating that all questions would need to be answered truthfully under threat of punishment. “What punishment would be worse than death?” he asked.

The author claims no one has tried to write a story like this one, which ties travel, World War II history and the Holocaust with a memoir. He mixes the pleasantries of his own tour with the brutal reality of visits to the camps that were part of his parents’ lives.

Like a detective, he tracked each story to check its sincerity. He admitted that some stories “reached a dead end,” but he also said there are numerous stories in the book that are surprises, which he declined to detail. Raphael also knows that this is why so many Holocaust stories are difficult to trace, which was underscored by the recent fraudulent Holocaust story, “Angel at the Fence.” “As soon as I heard the story I knew it was a hoax,” he said. “I was appalled, but Americans love a romantic story.”

Raphael wrote an essay on his reactions for Salon.com, in which he detailed one of his mother’s own heroic acts of kindness, which he points out was never told to him by his mother.

Following the war, Raphael’s parents were relocated to Belgium, where they first met and lived for five years before immigrating to the United States, as the Cold War heated up. “While they were in Belgium, they were very happy and very comfortable,” he said. “They even owned an old Ford.”

When talking with his father, who lives in Staten Island, N.Y., about his experiences and recollections, Raphael said, “He would come up with things I never heard of, that no one ever told us.”

For example, when he heard the Hungarians were “unbelievably cruel” to prisoners, he used primary research to verify those stories of cruelty.

Raphael said he recalls growing up in New York City and realizing his family was different from others, citing the lack of relatives as one example. “It was a different kind of life,” he said. “There was no physical history (like photographs) and no emotional history that most families have.”

He said he first learned of the Holocaust in the first grade by hearing others talking about it. His parents, who spoke in Yiddish, said little about it.

One of Raphael’s amazing discoveries was that his mother had written an account of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto where she lived. “It’s not quite the ‘DaVinci Code,’ but I knew nothing about it until I was contacted on the Internet,” he said.

Raphael said this example and his book represent the dark, troubled history of the Holocaust and the efforts survivors made to start anew. Raphael also explores how the journey helped lead him to embrace his Jewish heritage and break a generation of silence.

Lev Raphael

of “My Germany” 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Mach 18 Everybody Reads Books &
Stuff, 2019 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing FREE (517) 346-9900 www. becauseeverybodyreads.com