Matryosh­ka Dolls, 2009, Pho­to by CGP Grey

Jai Chakrabar­ti spoke with Jen­nifer Ros­ner about her new nov­el, Once We Were HomeThey explored the his­tor­i­cal sources and accounts of indi­vid­u­als who worked to retireve Jew­ish chil­dren from the homes… who’d har­bored them” after WWII that inspired Ros­ner’s char­ac­ters, the strug­gle of these chil­dren to feel a sense of belong­ing, and the belief-sys­tems that influ­enced how these adults act­ed on behalf of the children. 

Jai Chakrabar­ti: How did this book first arrive for you — was it, for instance, through an image, an idea, an over­heard sto­ry, or some­thing else? 

Jen­nifer Ros­ner: The first threads I wrote (the sto­ry­lines of Oskar and Ana) were inspired by a con­ver­sa­tion I had with a Holo­caust sur­vivor. She told me that, in the years after WWII, she worked to retrieve Jew­ish chil­dren from the homes of Chris­t­ian Poles who’d har­bored them. So much destruc­tion had tak­en place on Pol­ish soil, and anti­semitism was still ram­pant; it felt imper­a­tive to retrieve the remain­ing chil­dren – whose par­ents had per­ished – and return them to their Jew­ish roots. Even­tu­al­ly (and often with intense nego­ti­a­tion) many of the Chris­t­ian res­cuers agreed to give up the chil­dren. How­ev­er, in the face of refusals, oth­er means were resort­ed to, includ­ing just tak­ing the chil­dren as they could. The woman allud­ed to dif­fer­ing reac­tions by the chil­dren who were retrieved in this man­ner. I began to imag­ine how fraught it must have been, par­tic­u­lar­ly for those chil­dren who’d formed close bonds with their Chris­t­ian fam­i­lies after los­ing their fam­i­lies of origin.

I lat­er delved into oth­er cas­es in which chil­dren were stolen in wartime based on the mis­sion or belief-sys­tem of var­i­ous adults. The thread in my nov­el that tells Roger’s sto­ry is loose­ly based on the Finaly broth­ers, Robert and Ger­ald Finaly, who were hid­den and then tak­en on the run by Church offi­cials seek­ing to save” them when Jew­ish rel­a­tives peti­tioned for their cus­tody. The thread con­vey­ing Renata’s sto­ry is based on his­tor­i­cal accounts of Pol­ish Chris­t­ian chil­dren who were wrenched from their fam­i­lies to be Ger­man­ized” in accor­dance with a plan set out by Himm­ler. With each nar­ra­tive, I’ve sought to explore par­tic­u­lar children’s devel­op­ing iden­ti­ties with­in a land­scape where adults move them in accor­dance with some con­cep­tion of either redeem­ing” them or bol­ster­ing a group.

All that’s to say, I began with true accounts! As my fic­tion­al char­ac­ters took shape, and par­tic­u­lar objects acquired mean­ing in their lives and in their sto­ry­lines, I also found images to be quite inspir­ing. I cre­at­ed a board with pho­tographs of nest­ing dolls and box­es, spin­ning tops, feath­ers, French school books, and oth­er objects. 

JC: Matryosh­ka dolls play an impor­tant role through­out your book as a recur­ring theme and in some cas­es as a lit­er­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The con­cept of nest­ing one body with­in anoth­er, or of a fam­i­ly pro­tect­ing itself and deter­min­ing who is in” and who is out” was an idea that I found com­pelling. Can you tell me more about why you chose this image?

JR: The idea of fit­ting” was impor­tant from the start, most sim­ply because the children’s sur­vival depend­ed on it. Addi­tion­al­ly, there was the emo­tion­al long­ing for close­ness, for feel­ing snug and safe amid dan­ger. Renata’s dolls, nest­ed one inside the oth­er, rep­re­sent fam­i­ly — espe­cial­ly a line of moth­ers — and shared ori­gins, as the dolls are carved from the same wood. Yet, Rena­ta has only the small­est, sol­id doll with her when she is tak­en away from her family.

Oskar’s nest­ing box­es are also designed to fit inside one anoth­er, largest to small­est, and his deter­mi­na­tion to mas­ter join­ery mir­rors a deep desire to find his way to fit­ting in and feel­ing ground­ed lat­er in life — in Judaism, in Israel, and so on. 

The Matryosh­ka is made from a tree’s wood, same as Oskar’s box­es, Ana’s spin­ning top, and Roger’s writ­ing note­books. Its nar­ra­tion of the inter­sti­tial chap­ters serves to con­nect the four chil­dren of the nov­el (while also reveal­ing Renata’s secret past), and each of their ongo­ing search­es for root­ed­ness and place.

JC: Roger, the bud­ding child philoso­pher, won­ders, Are there real­ly roads to good and evil?” Once We Were Home beau­ti­ful­ly explores moral ambi­gu­i­ties as they relate to Jew­ish chil­dren who were hid­den with and tend­ed to by Chris­t­ian care­tak­ers dur­ing the Holo­caust. As a writer and as a philoso­pher, I’d love for you to delve deep­er into Roger’s question. 

JR: Roger strug­gles to under­stand his con­nec­tion to the (Jew­ish) par­ents who he has lost and can bare­ly remem­ber. Most acute­ly, he strug­gles with his sense of iden­ti­ty, giv­en his Jew­ish ori­gins and Chris­t­ian upbring­ing, and the Church’s activ­i­ty after the war to keep him away from his relatives. 

The idea of being on a wrong road, or of not being right at one’s core, is part of Roger’s strug­gle with his sense of self, and the nature of a soul. If Roger is of his par­ents” and they couldn’t be Saved, how could he? 

But he also ques­tions how Faith can lead to keep­ing chil­dren (or tak­ing them away) from where they feel root­ed. This is rel­e­vant for the oth­er sto­ry­lines as well. As a bud­ding philoso­pher, Roger con­sid­ers the ways belong­ing might depend on iden­ti­ty, and so he delves into this sub­ject mat­ter, ask­ing: what makes some­one who he is, con­tin­u­ous­ly over time? Can he be the same per­son if his beliefs in G‑d change?

As a philoso­pher, I sought to high­light the moral ten­sion with­in the his­to­ry that under­girds my nov­el. Jew­ish sur­vivors felt an imper­a­tive to return Jew­ish chil­dren to their roots; Chris­tians (tru­ly believ­ing in Sal­va­tion) feared for the souls of the chil­dren they har­bored; the chil­dren, caught in the midst of it all, strug­gled pro­found­ly with form­ing bonds and find­ing a sense of belonging. 

After the Holo­caust, the retrieval of every Jew­ish child felt cru­cial to the rebuild­ing of the near­ly-anni­hi­lat­ed Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. But, for some chil­dren, being removed from fam­i­lies where they’d found love and a sense of home after endur­ing the loss of their first fam­i­lies was exceed­ing­ly painful.

JC: Through the char­ac­ters in this nov­el, we explore belong­ing in its many forms. What does it mean to belong to a tribe? What does it mean to have a Jew­ish soul?” I’d love for you to fur­ther explore these ques­tions as they relate to Once We Were Home

JR: I’d like to begin answer­ing this ques­tion with some­thing quite per­son­al. Our two daugh­ters were born deaf (due to reces­sive gene muta­tions com­mon among Ashke­naz­ic Jews) though my hus­band and I are hear­ing.” As we sought to raise our daugh­ters with­in our fam­i­ly, we met with the rare (but still-held) opin­ion that our chil­dren shouldn’t be raised by us; rather, they belong in the Deaf com­mu­ni­ty and should be raised by Sign­ing Deaf peo­ple. It was star­tling to me to think that where our daugh­ters belong” might be deter­mined by the state of the cil­ia in their ears, rather than by fac­tors such as attach­ment and emo­tion­al inti­ma­cy, not to men­tion our parent­age! Yet, for the Deaf com­mu­ni­ty as a col­lec­tive, our two chil­dren (raised by hear­ing par­ents in a hear­ing, speak­ing world) could be lost to them – and there are real ques­tions of whether that com­mu­ni­ty will per­sist if deaf chil­dren (90% of whom are born to hear­ing par­ents) rou­tine­ly inte­grate into the hear­ing world. 

A major ten­sion in Once We Were Home is that between col­lec­tives and indi­vid­u­als. After the Holo­caust, the retrieval of every Jew­ish child felt cru­cial to the rebuild­ing of the near­ly-anni­hi­lat­ed Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. But, for some indi­vid­ual chil­dren, being removed from fam­i­lies where they’d found love and a sense of home after endur­ing the loss of their first fam­i­lies was exceed­ing­ly painful. 

That said, many of the reclaimed chil­dren embraced Judaism and found solace in a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and the feel­ing of Jew­ish belong­ing. The ages at which they were hid­den and retrieved, the nature of the con­nec­tions they forged and how much they remem­bered of their roots, all played roles in the children’s adjust­ment. Many of the oper­a­tives who worked to return Jew­ish orphans to the fold sought to hon­or the last wish of the children’s deceased par­ents: to leave descendants. 

JC: As I read this book, I felt not only the deep love and com­pas­sion you held for your major char­ac­ters, but was also moved by the atten­tion you gave your more minor ones. Tell us about your process for con­struct­ing a more minor (though impor­tant in many ways) char­ac­ter – like Eva – in this nov­el. Is there a char­ac­ter who you feel most close to? 

JR: The woman I met – who worked in the post-war years to reclaim Jew­ish chil­dren – loose­ly inspired the char­ac­ter of Eva, though many oth­er his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and sources also came into play in the devel­op­ment of her char­ac­ter and sto­ry­line. I came to adore this woman and we stayed in touch until her pass­ing. I viewed her action as rich with moral com­plex­i­ty (while she may have viewed it, more sim­ply, as sav­ing Jew­ish orphans”), and I under­stood her deep com­mit­ment to the Jew­ish peo­ple and to rebuild­ing Judaism. 

Oth­er sec­ondary char­ac­ters grew organ­i­cal­ly in rela­tion to the major char­ac­ters, based on who they need­ed in their lives as they inhab­it­ed their sto­ries. Who else lived in the Pol­ish vil­lage, the con­vent, the Children’s Homes? Who else worked on the archae­o­log­i­cal dig, or sat around the sem­i­nar table at school? What role might these minor char­ac­ters play in the emo­tion­al lives of my main char­ac­ters, sup­port­ing them, chal­leng­ing them, cre­at­ing obsta­cles and also path­ways to con­nec­tion and growth? How might their actions and reac­tions deep­en the themes of the sto­ry? In this nov­el, I love near­ly all of the sec­ondary and ter­tiary char­ac­ters (apart from Madame Merci­er!), and I val­ue the tex­ture they bring, though I prob­a­bly feel clos­est to Szymon.

JC: Tell us about your research process. As you were con­nect­ing with pri­ma­ry or sec­ondary sources, what sur­prised you or defied your orig­i­nal expec­ta­tions of the sub­ject matter? 

JR: The numer­ous and var­ied sto­ries of child dis­place­ments dur­ing and after WWII stunned me. I worked with sev­er­al his­to­ri­ans to dig deeply into the emo­tion­al after­math of such events. Many gen­er­ous, thought­ful schol­ars from around the world gave their time, read­ing my work and talk­ing with me about the fic­tion I was cre­at­ing, root­ed in these true events. In my exten­sive read­ing, I was quite moved by the archival tes­ti­mo­ny of sev­er­al Jew­ish oper­a­tives who clear­ly under­stood the chal­lenges of the children’s re-inte­gra­tion. In research into the Ger­man­iza­tion pro­gram, I was struck by how UNR­RA work­ers, charged with retriev­ing Pol­ish chil­dren from Ger­man homes and return­ing them to their birth fam­i­lies, faced the same painful prospects of cre­at­ing addi­tion­al rup­tures for chil­dren who’d already endured sig­nif­i­cant trauma.

On a research trip to Israel, I found the pol­i­tics of archae­o­log­i­cal explo­ration in Jerusalem after the 1967 war (just pri­or to Renata’s dig) to be very inter­est­ing. Anoth­er thing that defied my expec­ta­tions was how deli­cious the shak­shu­ka was, which I enjoyed on the beach in Tel Aviv! 

Jai Chakrabar­ti is the author of the nov­el A Play for the End of the World, which won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for debut fic­tion, was long-list­ed for the PEN/​Faulkner Award and short-list­ed for the Tagore Prize. He is also the author of the sto­ry col­lec­tion A Small Sac­ri­fice for an Enor­mous Hap­pi­ness. His short fic­tion has received both an O. Hen­ry Award and a Push­cart Prize and has been anthol­o­gized in the Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries and per­formed on Select­ed Shorts by Sym­pho­ny Space. His non­fic­tion has been pub­lished in The Wall Street Jour­nal, Fast Com­pa­ny, and else­where. Born in Kolkata, India, he now lives in New York with his family.