The Story Behind the Story

Dana Mack, author of All Things That Deserve To Perish, is an historian, journalist, and musician. She is also the author of two non-fiction books: The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family and The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions. No doubt we could all learn something from a book on marriage! However, today, Dana is here to talk about the story behind her new novel …

The idea of writing a novel about a  late nineteenth century German-Jewish woman who finds herself drawn into a fragile mixed marriage came to me nearly forty years ago, when I was a graduate student in History at Columbia University.  My German History professor, Fritz Stern, had just completed a biography of Bismarck’s banker, Gerson Bleichroeder. Reading it, I landed on a story that struck me. Apparently, Bleichroeder’s daughter, Elsa, was  a wallflower at her first court ball, not because she was unattractive, but because she was Jewish. The Prussian noblemen present cut her – this was an anti-semitic political demonstration!  

Forty years later, I incorporated that historical incident into my novel, All Things That Deserve To Perish, The reader of this article might wonder how it was that this small incident made such a profound impression upon me. After all,  I am an American Jew, and a fourth generation Californian on three sides.  Why should I care about a late nineteenth century rich girl who doesn’t get a dance? 

My family’s historical roots were in Germany, and many of my grandparents’ friends were German emigres. From my earliest childhood I understood something of the admiration German Jews had for the culture of their adopted country.  And I sensed  their profound resentment of the German people, who so cruelly rejected their sincere efforts to prove themselves loyal German citizens.  As a lifelong student of German and Jewish history, I have run across many historical incidents suggesting that long before Hitler’s rise to power,  German Jews fell victim to vicious anti-semitism;  and this, not  withstanding their significant contributions to Germany’s economic, scientific and cultural achievements. 

For these reasons, I have taken on a sort of mini-mission to try to disabuse the reading public of the widespread idea that the Holocaust was the responsibility of one man — namely, Hitler.  The Holocaust had its roots not only in the criminal dispositions of the Fuehrer and his coterie,  but in toxic attitudes of racial prejudice and distrust that were widespread not only in the lesser educated population, but even among the German elites. It’s not easy to reach people with this news.  But I determined early on that one day when I had time,  I would pen a novel that would explore this phenomenon through the prism of the most intimate of human relationships —  courtship and marital ties . 

 All Things That Deserve To Perish, in fact,  is a love story.  It is the story of a wealthy and intellectually gifted Jewish woman who falls for an impoverished Prussian nobleman despite her suspicion of his romantic motives.  The plot premise is not at all unlikely, considering the historical background.  Intermarriages between Prussian aristocrats and rich Jewesses, while not everyday occurrences, were common enough, by the end of the nineteenth century, that they were commented upon by contemporaries. And not all of these marriages were simply exchanges of a dowry for a title. Many aristocrats considered Jewish women of the “better”  classes interesting and alluring enough to be considered attractive as potential wives.  Jewish women tended to be much better educated than their Christian counterparts —  intellectually engaged, and  outspoken.  In fact, intermarried or not, German “salon Jewesses”  — Jewish hostesses who brought artists, intellectuals and aristocrats into their homes for chamber music and and discussion —  served a very special function in elite society in that they brought together thinking people from different fields of endeavor and different socio-economic backgrounds – people who would normally not have had the opportunity for social contact. 

The unhappy fact of many German intermarriages, however, was that wives of Jewish origin, despite religious conversion to Christianity,  faced social prejudices and open slights in the new circles they inhabited. And not only they suffered:  their children were looked down upon as half-breeds, sullied by what was often termed  the “black stain” of Jewish heritage.  More than this, Jewish women who intermarried very often had to deal with the knee jerk racial prejudices of their own husbands, who more often than not discouraged them from maintaining ties with their families and community of origin.   

My background as a student of German and Jewish history was not the only inspiration for All Things That Deserve To PerishI am a partner in a mixed marriage. I married my non-Jewish husband in 1983. We met while I was researching my dissertation in Vienna, Austria. Soon after we married, we moved from Austria to Luxembourg, where my husband  worked for the European Community. As a new wife and mother living in Europe, I found that I was drifting farther and farther from my Jewish identity. I even became shy about disclosing it at all.  The reason for this was that in my interactions with Europeans I witnessed a kind of reflexive anti-semitism – a general discomfort with Jews, and a distrust of Jews and the Jewish religion.

Indeed, It was while living in Luxembourg that I originally worked up the plot of All Things That Deserve To Perish as a movie treatment.  Being involved also in other writing projects, the treatment soon fell by the wayside, to be picked up and turned into a novel only decades later.  But I am convinced that my experience as an American Jew living abroad among people who had very primitive ideas about the Jewish people laid the foundations for a lot of the situational tone of my novel. 

I have tried to fashion All Things That Deserve To Perish  as a story that engages the reader in thinking about a host of  matters that remain challenging to young couples today —  issues of  preserving ethnic identity and fighting racial prejudice being only two of these.  I hope that my novel  — as a story of a potent, if contentious love between two people from very different ideological and socio-economic backgrounds — will be relatable to the reader, whether or not he or she is interested in German-Jewish history.  In fact,  I think any one of us will recognize, in the romance of my main characters, some familiar gender power struggles, as well as what I hope is a compassionate portrait of  family formation.  

All Things That Deserve To Perish by Dana Mack ~~ The year is 1896, and Elisabeth (‘Lisi’) von Schwabacher, the gifted daughter of a Jewish banker, returns home to Berlin from three years of piano study in Vienna. Though her thoughts are far from matrimony, she is pursued by two noblemen impressed as much by her stunning wealth as by her prodigious intellect and musical talent. Awakened to sudden improvements in the opportunities open to women, Lisi balks at her mother’s expectation that she will contract a brilliant marriage and settle down to a life as a wife and mother. In a bid to emancipate herself once and for all from that unwelcome fate, she resolves to have an affair with one of her aristocratic suitors — an escapade that, given her rigid social milieu, has tragic consequences. All Things That Deserve To Perish is a novel that penetrates the constrained condition of women in Wilhelmine Germany, as well as the particular social challenges faced by German Jews, who suffered invidious discrimination long before Hitler’s seizure of power. It is also a compassionate rumination on the distractions of sexual love, and the unbearable strains of a life devoted to art.

Thank you for sharing the background to your novel, Dana. It’s an important topic and one that deserves our attention. I wish you great success with All Things That Deserve To Perish.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.