For the past year I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with Steven Wasserman on Grasping at Straws, a book about his family’s experience in Germany during World War Two. It’s an exhaustive document about their escape, culled from the letters between family members, friends, and political officials in Europe and abroad. Wasserman’s task was to assemble and translate all this material, then compile it into a lengthy but extremely readable volume. There are over a hundred pictures in the 500+ page book.
Find out more about the book and read a sample here, at the official website. One reviewer at Amazon says:
“While the narrative, anchored in the family records and historical documents, is laid out straightforwardly and the horrific shape of history is well known, I found myself completely engrossed in the story reading late into the night and picking up the book first thing in the morning. Family members speak for themselves through the letters full of hope, concern, humor, despair, trivial and immensely significant details in a way that’s more powerful than a fictional account would be.”
I asked Steven Wasserman some questions about the process of publishing the book.
When did you get the idea for this book? What did you expect it would be like when you started the project?
For many years I had known about the letters that form the core of the book. However, I didn’t focus on them until I retired.
When did you retire? What did you retire from?
I retired in July 2017 after thirty-eight years practicing law. I was a litigator and handled commercial disputes and represented non-medical professionals in claims brought by their clients.
What was your thinking as you started the process of making this into a book?
I started out thinking I would use the letters to write a summary of our family’s history. I wanted my children to know what our family went through during the Holocaust. As I began to research the people and events discussed in the letters, the manuscript grew. As I learned about the other families whose lives were intertwined with my family’s story, that, too, caused the manuscript to grow until it eventually became a book.
Can you share a summary about your family’s history, for people who haven’t read it yet?
My mother’s family is from Cologne, Germany. They were a thoroughly assimilated Jewish family. My mother’s father and both of his brothers served in the German army in WWI. But when the Nazis came to power, all Jews became objects of hate and discrimination, no matter how much they had contributed to German society. My mother, her parents, and my aunt were able to escape Cologne in January 1939, but only after my grandfather had been imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp for several weeks. They ultimately emigrated to the United States. However, my great grandparents and granduncle were not able to get out. Nor were many cousins and friends of the family. Those who were trapped wrote dozens of letters to my grandparents from 1938-1946 describing what was happening to them in Germany, revealing their fates. I wrote my book to record and preserve their struggles, suffering, and memory.
You certainly do a beautiful job of that. The book is a major accomplishment. What was the writing process like? How long did it take to do the research and sort through everything?
The research and writing continued until I decided I had to close the book, if you’ll pardon the pun, on writing. I could have continued indefinitely, as there is so much to learn and so many avenues I could have explored. For example, I wanted to go to Germany to visit the places I describe in the book so that I could include my own observations about them. However, Covid wreaked havoc with those plans, so I decided to go to press without a first-hand look at the key locations in my narrative. All told, I worked on the project for roughly five years.
So, did the writing go as expected? What was the hardest part of the project, from ideating, to writing, to publishing?
The project became more complex as I learned about the events and families whose fates were intertwined with ours, which I had not anticipated. The hardest part was dealing with what happened to the people about whom I was writing. The events were so horrible, the suffering so great, the cruelty so unimaginable, that at times I had to step away and take a break.
The best part of the process was the help I obtained from people around the world (in Germany, Italy, England, Ireland, Ecuador, and Israel) who had family members who played a part in the narrative or whose jobs put them in a position to help me find information and documents. A number of those people have become close friends. That part has been wonderful.
You mentioned you had to hire translators, which is something I hadn’t thought of. These people must have been really impressed with the kind of documents you had.
My translators were amazed at the number of documents my family preserved even when they were fleeing for their lives. Those materials proved to be a treasure trove for me when I began to write.
It seems remarkable that your family kept such good track of your archives. Was everything all in one place?
I am astonished at how much original material I had available. I am amazed that my grandparents thought to pack family photo albums, old passports, diplomas, diaries, etc., when they were preparing to leave under such fraught circumstances. Even more so, I was astonished that my mother, Renate, and Aunt Erica kept those materials for nearly eighty years before I obtained them. After my mother passed away, my sister saved the files that were in my mother’s home and sent them to me when I started my work.
Did your career as a lawyer help you with your research?
As a litigator, I was trained to do legal and factual investigation, including how to follow leads to delve into topics, find new sources, interview people to elicit information, critically evaluate source materials, and the like. That training was very helpful.
How has the response from your family been?
Extremely positive. Everyone who read the book has learned a great deal about our family history. Reading the letters alongside the history of the time helped put the family’s situation in a broad perspective. Plus, almost none of them had seen the many photographs and documents that I included in the book.
Are you a reader? Have you read other books on this subject that influenced your own work? What do you like to read?
I read quite a few books as part of my research, including Pogrom Night 1938: A Memorial to the Destroyed Synagogues of Europe printed by Synagogue Memorial “Beit Ashkenzaz, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 by Lucy Dawidowicz, Germans No More, Accounts of Everyday Life 1933-1938 edited by Margrete Limberg and Hubert Rubsay, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1945 by Saul Friedlander, No Haven for the Oppressed: United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1938-1945, by Saul Friedman, Dachau – The Official History 1933-1945 by Paul Berben, and more.
For pleasure, I have enjoyed Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. State of Terror, by Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton, is a gripping page-turner. I enjoyed both The Every and The Circle by Dave Eggers as they are very much of our time. I loved A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins and Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague Years by Maggie O’Farrell. Several months ago, I read Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, which tragically is so very pertinent to our current historical moment. Also, Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham was gripping, even though readers know the outcome.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a biography of one of my aunts who became a world-renowned concert violinist, but whose career was cut short by an accident in New York City. I am also in the early stages of planning a book about my grandfather Max Wasserman’s service in the German army during WWI. He kept a beautifully handwritten diary during his service. He also wrote dozens of letters and postcards to his family during the war. Together, they provide a detailed and intimate story of a Jewish physician fighting for Germany during WWI, only to become, in Hitler’s eyes, an enemy of the state barely twenty years later. I am also planning a photo album of public art in San Francisco. That book will focus on the many murals here, including the extraordinary collection of murals in San Francisco’s Mission District.