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Behind the Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column

Summer Reading: World Fiction

Q&A with Pam Jenoff
Author of The Orphan’s Tale

Pam Jenoff writes riveting and compelling novels about characters that lived through World War II either rising to the occasion with acts of courage or bravery or putting their own needs ahead of humanity.


The Orphan’s Tale, her latest tale, is a story of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II. It highlights two vastly different women, a Jewish circus aerialist and a teenage runaway with a baby, who becomes emotionally dependent upon one another. Sixteen-year-old Noa is cast out by her family after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier. Forced to give up her child she seeks redemption after deciding to rescue a half-dead Jewish infant from a train that is bound for a concentration camp. Knowing she must flee to protect herself and the child she seeks refuge with a German circus. It is here she meets Astrid. She is also taking refuge after her Nazi husband, a German officer, chooses his position over his wife. Astrid, an accomplished circus aerialist who starred in her Jewish family’s circus for many years, must now train Noa. It is imperative that everyone in the circus has an assignment to keep the hounding Nazis at bay. The tension mounts as danger surrounds the circus where readers will worry about each woman’s fate.

Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea to write these types of books?

Pam Jenoff: I was a diplomat for the state department in Poland about twenty years ago. I was the Vice Consul for the US Consulate in Krakow and found myself working on many Holocaust related issues. I was very moved by those experiences. I think my books reflect that.

 

Elise: Do you base your stories on real life experiences?

Pam: I do use true stories to inspire my fictional work. For example, in this book, my latest, I found two stories in the Yad Vashem archives. One told of a train of only children headed to a concentration camp and the other about a German circus that rescued Jews. I combined them for this story.

 

Elise: Your stories do not concentrate on the Concentration Camps?

Pam: None of my books go deep into the Camps. Probably the ending of The Winter Guest comes as close as I get, and even that is indirect. In my first book, The Kommandant’s Girl, I wrote about dinner parties going on where fifty kilometers away was Auschwitz. I think some writers are visceral in their approach while others of us write through a different lens.

 

Elise: Having lived in Poland did you gain a certain perspective that influenced your writings?

Pam: As a Jew I have a different perspective, connection, and moral obligation. But I also think my perspective is different after living among the ordinary Poles for 2 1/2 years. I saw a lot of different facets going on. I remember talking with people who emphasized they were an occupied nation where three million Poles died.

 

Elise: What is true in this story?

Pam: The circus owner did rescue a Jewish family. He is in Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile for saving Jews. I think many do not know that there were centuries of Jewish circus dynasties in Europe that were largely wiped out at the end of the war. There was also this gradual degradation where normal lives were stripped away. The circus character Astrid was inspired by a real life circus performer who did hide with a circus and did fall in love with a clown named Peter. Also true is that a Nazi German officer was married to a Jew. In real life he defected with the family.

 

Elise: Do you think you have a certain writing style?

Pam: All of my books have women heroines during WWII. Some of my characters are very courageous, while others only think about their own survival. This was very true in my book The Winter Guest. When I write I think what would I have done during the war? What individual choices did people make with a definite range of responses? I also write about the traditions for the authenticity and beliefs of my characters.

 

Elise: What do you want readers to get out of the books?

Pam: People during WWII lived their lives even under the most awful of conditions. If you take the women of my books and put them in a certain circumstance what path have they experienced? During the war they are tested and because of the unusual circumstances they had to grow with it. They have individualized human responses that many times are complex.

 

Elise: Can you give a heads up about your next book?

Pam: It will be a fictionalized version based on twelve women who were secret agents for Britain in occupied Europe. They went missing and were never heard from again. It is a story of what might have happened.

MyShelf.com and Elise wants to thank Pam for taking the time to give this interview.

www.pamjenoff.com/



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