Reading Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ in the age of Trump

“But why did you go,” my mother asked him, “when it was bound to upset you like this?”

“I went,” he told her, “because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

While this may sound like someone reacting to another surreal and disturbing moment in the loony Trump presidency, for example the January 6 storming of the Capitol Building in Washington by far right extremists, it is in fact an extract from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel ‘The Plot Against America’.

The people “in charge” are the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his far-right cronies in the Republican party, who in Roth’s re-imagining of American history, have swept to power in 1940 (defeating FDR) on a promise of keeping the country out of the War in Europe (“Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war” is their slogan) and maintaining cordial relations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey as they adjust – with increasing fear – to life under the anti-semitic policies of a populist leader amid the darkening perceptions of Jews in mainstream American life.

As with many of his books, Roth used his own family as the model for the fictional one in the novel.

He tells the story from the remembered perspective of his seven-year-old self living in a tidy second-floor flat in the “southwest corner of New Jersey’s largest city” which he shares with his father Herman, a hardworking insurance salesman, his loving mother Bess and his willful 12-year-old brother Stanley.

“Our homeland was America.

Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed,” narrates Philip.

Soon after newly inaugurated President Lindbergh has flown to Iceland to meet Adolf Hitler and sign an agreement of peaceful relations between America and Germany, the Roth family take a long-planned holiday to Washington DC to prove to their children that America is not a fascist country, despite who is in office.

But things soon turns sinister when after returning to their hotel from a day’s sightseeing, the Roth’s find their bags packed and lined up in the hotel foyer, because the room they have booked is no longer available.

“Dear, let’s just go,” she (Philip’s mother)  beseeched my father. “Mr Taylor [the Roth’s tour guide] found us a room nearby.”

No!” my father cried and he threw off the hand with which she tried to snatch his  arm. “This policeman knows why we were evicted. He knows, the manager knows, everybody in this lobby knows.”

Later on in the trip there is an ugly incident in a Washington café involving  another diner, who refers to Walter Winchell, the famed New York columnist and radio journalist – a central character in the novel who uses his public platform to denounce Lindbergh – as a “loudmouth Jew with too much power”

“Loudmouth Jew. And for the second time in less than forty-eight hours,” Roth’s young narrator remarks.

Philip Roth, an American literary giant

Philip Roth says he got the inspiration for the book from a line he read in historian Arthur J Schlesinger’s (no relation) book ‘A Life in the 20th Century’ about the isolationist wing of the Republican Party who wanted to nominate Charles Lindbergh as the 1940 presidential candidate.

“It made me think, ‘What if they had?’ and I wrote the question in the margin. Between writing down that question and the fully evolved book there were three years of work, but that’s how the idea came to me,” Roth said in a September 2004 essay he wrote in the New York Times.

He said in a separate NYT interview in 2004 that Lindbergh’s name was “loaded” because he was a hero to the entire world for his record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris.

“Then in the late 1930s he ceased being a hero in our household because he began to seem like an anti-semite. His diaries….show that he was essentially a white supremecist. Jews were distatestful to him. They were inferior to him,” Roth said.

After the family returns from Washington, Lindbergh’s newly created sinister Office of American Absorption (OAA) creates a program called “Just Folks” designed to get young Jews to work in rural farming areas. The Roth’s elder son Sandy, a gifted artist, signs up and goes to work in Kentucky where he can “live on a farm…draw all the things there. Tractors. Barns. Animals. All kinds of animals”.

To Sandy, who hides a sketch of Charles Lindbergh in his portfolio under his bed, the farm experience is idyllic. But to Herman Roth, Just Folks is merely an anti-Semitic plot to separate Jewish boys from their families.

Herman sees everything the Lindbergh administration does in its true light. This puts him at war with his eldest son and his naive sister-in-law Evelyn, who is engaged to be married to Newark’s conservative Jewish leader, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.

It is Bengelsdorf, who endorsed Lindbergh at campaign rallies, that helped legitimise the aviator’s anti-war and anti-semitic rhetoric that swept him to power in a landslide. Bengelsdorf is then appointed as executive director of the OAA.

Like Sandy, Evelyn refuses to believe Lindbergh has evil intentions against the Jews because her husband-to-be is part of his administration. She calls her brother-in-law Herman “another Jew afraid of his shadow”.

Telling the story of America’s rapid decline under Lindbegh, Roth brilliantly weaves in reimagined historical events and real political figures of the times into the story including, most chillingly, a state visit to the White House by Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (executed in 1946).

Evelyn attends as the partner of Rabbi Bengelsdorf  where she dances with Von Ribbentrop, appearing in news reel footage that Philip watches when he sneaks into the neighbourhood cinema.

“I found him a very charming gentleman and highly intelligent….” says Evelyn of her Nazi dancing companion.

While reading the novel, amid the November presidential election and all its craziness, I could not help think about Donald Trump, a populist and far right sympathiser who unlike Lindbergh did become US president and whose four years in office were marked by chaos and a rapid disintegration of American democratic values. Many have called Trump a dictator.

It also made think of all my fellow Jews around the world, especially in America, who supported President Trump because he is a so-called friend of Israel (that is the most common explanation I hear). However, they conveniently brush aside or willfully forget that Trump has been a strong supporter of the far right white supremacist movement, which is no friend of the Jews.

Poster for the HBO miniseries.

Perhaps they would identify with Roth’s brilliant creation Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who in his pursuit of power, stoops so low as to dine with Lindbergh’s Nazi friends.

In an interview with the New York Times in January 2018 – a few months before he passed away aged 85 – Roth said that while Charles Lindbergh may have been a genuine racist and anti-semite, he was also because of his flying feats a “genuine American hero”

“Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac, “ says Roth.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Plot Against America is a riveting historical novel that will surely resonate with readers in the post-Trump age as we ponder who might be the next popular figure to make a claim for the White House on a platform of lies and disinformation.

Philip Roth said in the same 2004 NYT essay that because the events he depicted in his novel did not happen in America despite many seeds for them occurring being present (other virulent and influential anti-semites at the time of Lindbergh included carmaker Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose Jew-hating radio show was broadcast to tens of millions), it shows how “how lucky we Americans are”.

While Joe Biden has promised to restore America’s democratic values, that luck may have run out.

(Footnote: The Plot Against America has been made into an HBO miniseries by David Simon, the creator of The Wire (one of the best TV shows of all time).

It stars among others Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel and the great John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf – I am eager to see it.)

The lucky lives of Judy and Alex Resofsky

Throughout her life Judy Resofsky considered herself lucky.  No doubt, her husband Alex did too.

Judy and Alex arrived in Australia in 1949 when they were in their early twenties, having both survived the horrors of Hungarian ghetto life and the notorious Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland, to which many Hungarian Jews were deported in 1944.

At her funeral last month in Melbourne, Judy and Alex’s daughter Kathy Janovic told mourners the incredible story of how her mother had escaped the gas chambers.

On the day, she and others were to be murdered, the gas chambers had miraculously malfunctioned and she was spared.

Later, when the concentration camps were being evacuated and demolished, as the Russians advanced across Europe, Judy was one of thousands of emaciated Jews sent on a death march from Praust (Pruszcz Gdański) in North Western Poland.

At one stage during this horrendous ordeal, she and other women were resting in a barn when Russian soldiers entered and started to rape the women. Judy jumped out of a window and landed close to a Jewish Russian soldier, who saved her.

This was just another example of her mother’s good luck, her daughter Kathy said in a loving tribute to her warm, kind and generous parents.

One of eight children, born in Nyirbartor, in Eastern Hungary on July 5, 1926 to Adolph and Berta Winkler, and their first born, Judy was the only of her family to survive the mass extermination of European Jews by the Nazis.

Her husband Alex Resofsky, who also recently passed away, was born in the same Hungarian town of Nyirbator two years before Judy in 1924.

The second child of Mor and Berta Resofksy, Alex and his eldest sister Margaret were the only ones in their family to survive the holocaust.

After the family had been rounded up in the Sirna Pusata Ghetto, they were deported to Auschwitz. Alex’s mother and siblings did not survive the selection process and were murdered by the Nazis.

Alex passed through three more concentration camps – including the notorious Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald camp networks – before being liberated at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

He was part of the Bricha underground movement that helped smuggle Jewish holocaust survivors out of Eastern Europe into what is today Israel.

In 1949 he sailed to Australia with his sister and future wife, Judy.

Here they lived for the next 69 years, making a life for themselves in Melbourne’s flourishing Jewish immigrant garment trade (supplying David jones with mens knitwear) and where they had three children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

By all accounts – I sadly never met them – Alex and Judy were much-loved and treasured members of Melbourne’s close-knit Jewish community,and were actively involved in the important work of the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

A report from the JHC in September 2017 includes a picture of Judy and Alex along with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are 24 people in the photo.

resofsky family

Alex and Judy with their family, taken in September 2017 (Credit: Jewish Holocaust Centre)

 

The JHC report notes that through the generosity of the Resofsky’s, the centre was able to put its vast and important collection online, and that they did so in loving memory of their parents, Mor and Lenke Resofsky; Jeno and Berta Frisch; Adolf and Berta Winkler and all their siblings.

I only recently came across the incredible survival of the Resofskys while researching a story I was writing for The Australian Financial Review. It was about a shopping mall they owned near Geelong, and which their children recently sold.

It would have been a great privilege to have met Alex and Judy and heard their story of survival against the odds, and about their successful and happy lives in Melbourne.

Deepest sympathies to their family and friends.

 

The power of radio: a review of “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-see All the Light We Cannot See is a historical novel by American author Anthony Doerr that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Doerr, who lives in Boise, Idaho, tells the story of the coming of age of two children in the build up to and later outbreak of the Second World War in Western Europe.

There is the story of beautiful blind French girl Marie-Laure Leblanc who lives with her doting father in an apartment in Paris and loves reading, especially the adventure stories of Jules Verne.

Alongside her tale, Doerr narrates the story of  German boy Werner Pfenning, who grows up in an orphanage with his sister Jutta in a harsh coal mining town.

The war breaks out and Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris and the Nazis to live with her charismatic aunt Madame Manec and her reclusive uncle Etienne in their tall, narrow house in Saint-Malo, a walled French maritime town on the English Channel.

Over in Germany, Werner, a sensitive and kind boy, becomes old enough to be sent to work down the mines – a job which killed his father – but is saved from this fate by his ability to fix radios.

After skilfully repairing the radio of a Nazi commander’s girlfriend, Werner is selected to attend the elite Nazi academy, The National Political Institute of Education, where he receives formal training in electronics and helps create a gadget to locate enemy radio transmissions, but where he is also exposed to cruel Nazi ideology about the ‘master race’ and witnesses first hand its brutal methods.

Marie-Laure meanwhile must cope with the disappearance of her beloved father, who never returns from a trip to Paris, and learn to use the wooden model of Saint-Malo that he crafted for her, to help her navigate the streets of the walled town.

As the war heads towards it destructive conclusion and the Nazis invade Saint-Malo the two young characters are drawn closer and closer through the power of radio:  Werner, still only a teenager, has been drafted into the army, where his job as part of a truck unit that rumbles through the decimated countryside is to use the electronic device he helped design, to detect the locations of enemy radio transmissions (and eliminate the perpetrators); at the same time Marie-Laure collects bread from the local bakery with coded message for the French resistance baked into the loaves, that her uncle then reads out through a secret radio broadcast from the top floor attic of their home.

anthony doerr

Anthony Doerr

In an interview Anthony Doerr gave on Idaho Public Television he revealed that the title of the book, All the Light We Cannot See, referred to the invisible electro-magnetic waves that powered radio broadcasts during the Second World War and that today power things like mobile phones. (I thought it might refer the ability of a blind girl, to see the world vividly through her imagination).

Doerr says the idea to put radio at the heart of his story came to him about 10 years ago when he was on a train pulling into Penn Station in New York and a guy was getting more and more angry because his phone call kept dropping out.

“How did we get to the point that we took this technology for granted? …All this invisible light that carries messages. I felt we had forgotten what a magical thing that was,” he said.

In Europe during the war it was radio which had this magical power to connect people who were thousands of miles apart and which played a crucial role in the outcome of the war.

“When I was thinking about strategies for writing this book, all I knew was that I wanted to have a blind girl reading a book (Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) over the radio to a boy,” Doerr says.

On a trip to France, he visited the beautiful town of Saint-Malo and says he was amazed to discover it had been practically flattened by American bombs and then restored almost brick by brick.

“I knew somehow the boy would be trapped and needing this radio transmission as some kind of life line,” Doerr said in the same interview.

He spent 10 painstaking years writing and crafting the complex book and was rewarded with it winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming a huge commercial success.

While it is a brilliant story with many memorable characters and a powerful message about bravery and human decency in the face of terrible circumstances , I was a little disappointed with Doerr’s decision to write it in short chapters that not only move back and forwards between the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner , but also move back and forwards in time, between 1934 and the end of the war.

I found it created a disjointed rhythm and was sometimes confusing, requiring that I page back to see what period of time he was were referring to understand where I was in the sequence of events.

Also, at more than 500 pages, I felt it was unnessarily long and could have been even more powerful as a shorter book. While sometimes Doerr’s verbosity is warranted – he loves delving into how things work, the history of a minor event or character and delivering incredibly detailed descriptions – at times it feels overdone and rambling.

But, then again I am someone who likes the pared-down writing style of Hemingway, Orwell, Bukowski and Carver so maybe that’s just me. Others readers may love luxuriating in all the detail: after all it is an epic tail stretched out over a vast canvas, indeed it has major Hollywood film written all over it.

As a follow-up, if you have not yet read it yet, I suggest Australian writer Anna Funder’s All That I am, also set during the Second World War, about a group of German refugees who flee to London to escape the Nazis.