MA: Today I am delighted to welcome Charles S. Weinblatt as my guest author. Charles was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1952. He is a retired University of Toledo administrator. He is the author of Jacob’s Courage and Job Seeking Skills for Students. His biography appears in the Marquis Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Education. Charles was a frequent Toledo television news guest, providing business, economic and labor-management insight. He received the 2004 Douglas Frasier Swift Award and he was awarded a certificate of achievement by Chrysler Corporation.
Charles, welcome! Please tell me a little bit about your professional or personal background, and what you did before writing professionally.
CW: I was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1952; raised the only child in a middle-class home. My father was a pioneering Toledo (OH) psychiatrist, starting his practice in 1932. He was well known in the professional community. He was also a football star at The University of Toledo in the 1920s and again at Michigan, while in medical school. Tremendously intelligent and gentle, he was the perfect role model. My book is dedicated to my dad, who gave me all of the tools to become a good person. It is also dedicated to the six million lost souls murdered by The Third Reich. They are gone, but will never be forgotten.
I am a graduate of The University of Toledo, with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. My post-university career spanned 31 years; the first 15 years devoted to psychiatric and vocational rehabilitation counseling, followed by 16 years at The University of Toledo. During my last nine years at the University, I created and led The Division of Organization Development. My division helped businesses improve their performance. We generated consulting opportunities for faculty and earned considerable revenue for the University.
My biography appears in the Marquis Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Education. I continue to live in Ohio with my wife, who is a retired special education teacher. We have two adult children.
MA: So what brought you to writing fiction?
CW: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. As a child, I wrote short stories and even some poetry. After college, my focus turned to family and career. Writing was pushed away for a while. Yet, the interest never departed and I was happy to return to it in earnest in retirement.
I had to retire at age 51 due to disability. Since I retired at a fairly young age, I decided that I should remain as mentally productive as possible. I decided to pursue writing. I had already been published for non-fiction in 1986, for a textbook called Job Seeking Skills for Students (Kendall-Hunt Publishing Company). After my University career, I turned to fiction. Three years later, my Holocaust novel, Jacob’s Courage, (Mazo Publishers), was published.
I made no conscious decision to write novels. Perhaps, as Mozart once described for his composition, the words were already within me. With Jacob’s Courage, I sometimes felt as though I was taking dictation.
I had known as a young adult that members of my maternal extended family were Holocaust victims. Only after I retired did those thoughts rise to the surface in a way that I could harness. I could not tell the story of my lost ancestors in any other format than a novel. No member of my current family knew enough about our lost relatives to write a memoir or a non-fictional account. No amount of research could produce an explanation for their disappearance into the darkness of Nazi-occupied Russia. Like millions of other innocent Europeans, they disappeared, without a trace. Perhaps they were shot and bulldozed into a trench, as at Babi-Yar, or maybe they were gassed in a death camp, such as Auschwitz, or possibly they perished from starvation, forced labor or the ubiquitous disease that existed in Nazi concentration camps. So, it was to be a fictional account.
I committed myself to creating a story of young lovers who became trapped within the horror and brutality of the Holocaust, as I imagined happened to countless young Jews, although not necessarily my ancestors. My hope was also that this story would be inspirational, perhaps as holocaust education for young people. Nowhere else today is it more important to teach about the Holocaust than with our children and grandchildren. A novel is a good choice for Holocaust education. Rather than dry historical accounts that go in one ear and out the other, a coming-of-age love story can engage youthful minds in a way that non-fiction does not. In the words of writer and philosopher George Santayana, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
I was also able to ground portions of the novel in fact, based upon my 100-year-old mother’s memories. As a child in Russia, she witnessed the brutality and terror of pogroms against her Jewish relatives. And, while these experiences occurred before the Holocaust, they provided significant grounding for important character development. She will soon be 101 years old, yet she can recall with perfect clarity the terror of Russian anti-Semitism.
MA: Please tell my readers about Jacob’s Courage.
CW: Jacob’s Courage chronicles the dazzling beauty of passionate love and enduring bravery in a lurid world where the innocent are brutally murdered. This is a tender coming of age story of two young adults living in Salzburg at the time when the Nazi war machine enters Austria. The historical novel presents scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Follow lovers Jacob and Rachael from their comfortable Salzburg homes to a decrepit ghetto, from there to a prison camp where they became man and wife. Revel in their excitement as they escape and join the local partisans, fighting their Nazi tormentors. Finally ride the crowded, fetid train to the terror of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stung by the death of loved-ones, enslaved and starved, they have nothing to count on but faith, love and courage. From desperate despair, to unforgettable moments of chaste beauty, Jacob’s Courage examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality.
MA: How did you develop your protagonists’ characters…I understand you have two?
CW: The primary protagonist is Jacob, a 17-year old Austrian. He’s a very normal young man, eyeing the transition from secondary school to university. Jacob has some of my unique character weaknesses. It was important that my protagonists appear as normal young people, just like anyone else. The secondary protagonist is Jacob’s true love Rachael. Rachael is everything a young man would want; she is beautiful, bright, charming, deeply in love and fiercely loyal. Together, the young lovers are confronted with the most horrifying experience imaginable. To survive, they have only themselves to count on. They were not heroic individuals until they reached the precipice of destruction. I imagine that each of us wishes that we would become heroic under such circumstances.
MA: What are their strengths and weaknesses?
CW: Jacob Silverman is a very normal 17-year old. His thoughts focus upon three things: attending university, becoming a physician and, most of all, his precious love Rachael Goldberg. The young lovers had everything to look forward to, until Germany invaded Austria.
One night, in a terrifying nightmare, more real than life itself, Jacob finds himself older, emaciated and weak, in a large brick building with a roaring fire. He soon realizes that men wearing striped pajamas are burning the bodies of dead naked women and girls. Jacob awoke with acrid smoke in his lungs and a premonition that he would play a role in saving his people, who had been almost completely destroyed.
Sleeping inside of this normal boy was a future leader of men in combat. Yet, to reach that critical point in his life, Jacob would face starvation, sickness, brutality, forced labor and the death of his loved ones. He would need to find uncommon strength of body and spirit; and he would require good fortune, including the ability to play virtuoso violin.
MA: I imagine that with your subject matter, you had plenty of possible antagonists to develop.
CW: With Nazi Germany, it’s not difficult to create a credible antagonist. I created one particularly vicious antagonist, a commandant at Theresienstadt called Strobel. In that concentration camp, Strobel gained complete control over Rachael. This evil man followed her around the camp and made it his business to know everything about her. The result was very ugly.
In reality, the typical Holocaust survivor resided in several different ghettos and camps. Incarcerated Jews (and tens of thousands of others) became a source of free slave labor for The German Armed forces and for German industrialists. They were moved from place to place, as their slave labor could best assist the Third Reich. In addition, concentration camp commandants were often transferred. So, it would have been unusual for the typical prisoner and commandant to have been together very long. But, there were certainly many colorful commandants, guards and kapos at each camp.
MA: Did any of your family’s real-life experiences factor in to the plot at all?
CW: Certainly my fears and desires as a teenager became part of Jacob’s personality. He was brighter than me and far better behaved. Yet, I felt comfortable with his character development. I was far more worried about developing Rachael’s character. It’s a challenge writing a major character about someone of a different gender. Nevertheless, I believe that teenagers, especially young lovers, have some very common personality characteristics. My challenge was more in portraying how those characters changed and developed when faced with the most terrifying experiences imaginable. Holocaust survivors were not the same people that they were when the Holocaust began. No human could absorb the unrelenting daily terror, the death and murder of loved ones, the physical abuse, brutal forced labor and years of starvation and sickness, without it changing their personality. The lucky ones remained sane – and even that is arguable. My characters also had to change, yet without losing the better parts of their psyche. Without passionate love, they likely could not have managed it.
MA: So, what’s in your future writing plans?
CW: I recently completed a children’s book and I’m almost done with a science fiction novel. I’m thinking about writing another Holocaust book, or possibly a sequel to Jacob’s Courage. One thing I will try to avoid in the future is a book as long as Jacob’s Courage. At 524 pages, it was a serious investment in time. Yet, I could not have covered the final seven years of the Holocaust with less material. In fact, at my publisher’s urging, I removed some parts of the manuscript. My science fiction novel will come in at about 200 pages, a much more rapid commitment to reading. Whichever way I turn, I will always be writing something.
MA: You sound like you keep very busy with your writing! Will we see Jacob or Rachael again in a follow-on to Jacob’s Courage?
CW: Because Jacob and Rachael became heroic figures in my Holocaust novel, there is a natural pilot for a sequel. And, because they had to wait a long time in a displaced persons camp, there would be an increased likelihood that they would have immigrated to the Holy Land. They also had simultaneous dreams about being in a place that they later learned was Palestine. With Jacob’s leadership and combat experience, he would be a natural for an officer position in Israel’s nascent armed forces. Rachael would also have a natural role to play in the start of the Jewish nation. So, stay tuned.
MA: I will! Is there anything else you would like to add?
CW: Writing is a talent. Some people are born writers. The rest of us envy them. Still, writing is a skill that can be cultivated. If you think that you might have the ability to be a successful writer, maybe you do. Take writing courses at your local college or university. Participate in continuing education courses. Read books about how to develop your writing skills and take on-line courses. While it’s true that the vast majority of us will never become a renowned author, it feels pretty good to cash a royalty check. It could happen for you. Never give up!
And for those of you who could care less about earning money from it, just enjoy! It feels great to create stories about unknown people in unforeseen circumstances. Whether anyone reads it or not, it will always be your unique creation. For us, writing is not a matter of dollars and sense. It’s a matter of love.
MA: Thanks, Charles. I encourage all my readers to visit Charles’s blog: Jacob’s Courage