An Interview with Barbara Stark-Nemon, author of Even in Darkness

Even in Darkness

Barbara Stark-Nemon is the author of Even in Darkness, an historical fiction novel. Here is the official description:

Spanning a century and three continents, Even in Darkness tells the story of Kläre Kohler, whose early years as a dutiful daughter of a prosperous German-Jewish family hardly anticipate the often-harrowing life she faces as an adult—a saga of family, a lover, two world wars, a concentration camp and the unconventional life she builds in post-war Germany. As the world changes around her, Kläre makes boundary-crossing choices in order to protect the people she loves—and to save herself. Based on a true story, Even in Darkness highlights the intimate experience of Kläre’s reinvention as she faces the destruction of life as she knew it, and traces her path beyond survival to wisdom, meaning, and—most unexpectedly—love.

Read on for Stark-Nemon’s interview, as well as an excerpt from the book.

Q. What inspired you to write Even in Darkness?

A. Even in Darkness is based on the life of my great aunt, who alone among her siblings did not escape Germany during the Holocaust. Her story of survival—the courage and strength she had to remake herself and her life in the face of unspeakable loss—has been an inspiration to me throughout my adult life. Hers is a beautiful story and having come to know it in depth I wanted to share it and create a legacy for her.

Q. You researched the book thoroughly. Did you know from the beginning how extensive your research would become?

A. Yes and no. I’ve known since one of the visits I made to my great aunt in Germany many years ago, that I wanted to write her story, so I started interviewing her (she was already over 90 years old) and the priest, who is the other main character in this story. I also interviewed my parents and grandparents. I already knew a lot about my grandfather and great aunt’s family from Sunday nights around the dinner table. Then my aunt died, and the priest sent me all her personal papers, including over 50 letters that her son had written to her during and after the war from Palestine, where he had been sent at the age of 12. Those letters deepened and changed what I understood about all their lives in a way I couldn’t have predicted.

Q. Where did you begin your research and where did it lead you?

A. I traveled to Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and to Israel to trace all the histories and see all the places I learned about in my grandfather’s stories and later, in the trove of personal papers my great aunt left to me. I was able to interview even more people related to this story, walk the streets, photograph the homes, take trains over the same routes to the concentration camp, look out over the hills surrounding the kibbutz where all my characters lived out their lives. In archives and museums I learned details of births, deaths, marriages, businesses, deportations, displacements, escapes and emigrations. All this knowledge fed my imagination for the parts of the story I didn’t and couldn’t know.

Q. How did you feel reading letters written by your ancestors? What did you learn from these letters?

A. This was one of the most thrilling and challenging aspects of writing Even in Darkness. To translate these sixty-five-year-old letters and hear the voice of my mother’s cousin as a 19-year-old pioneer in Palestine with his description of his escape from Germany and the early years of his life half a world away was both fascinating and did more than anything else to make that time and his character live for me. The exhaustion, desperation and heartache of his parents, having just survived years of persecution under the Nazis, and then three years in a concentration camp and displaced person camp, can be heard in his youthful assurances that one day it would be safe for his mother to visit, brushing off the dangers he faced, and his exuberance for all that he was training to accomplish on the kibbutz he and other young pioneers were starting.

Q. What kinds of considerations were there in incorporating real letters into your novel?

A. The biggest challenge was to capture the voice, the history and the language of the letters and still work within the story structure of the novel. It was the most poignant and concrete example of the constant balance I had to maintain as I was writing Even in Darkness between what really happened to the people on whom the book is based, and what worked for purposes of writing a good novel.

Q. What was the most surprising part about your research? Did you uncover any family secrets?

A. There were some surprises. Through interviews with cousins in Europe I learned a different perspective about other members of my grandfather’s family, whom I knew only though his stories. I learned about my mother’s cousins who were hidden in a convent by nuns. I learned about the personal decisions about faith and influence in the Catholic Church at that time that had enormous impact on my family. I learned that another great aunt was a beautiful singer and evaded arrest by singing for a German officer. And I learned that what people had to do to maintain their safety and their sanity during the dangerous years of the 1930s in Germany resulted in boundary crossing behaviors that were both courageous and painful.

Q. What was the hardest part about writing fiction around events and people that really happened and really existed?

A. As I’ve said elsewhere, Even in Darkness is not just my first novel. It is a story of my heart and the finest tribute I can craft to two remarkable people and to other Holocaust survivors everywhere. To separate my personal attachment to the real people and events behind the book enough to insure a tight, compelling novel was a really interesting challenge for me as a writer. I also felt very sensitive to and responsible for the privacy and the legacy of other family members. Finally, this is not your typical Holocaust survival story, and the very things that make it unusual might be painful to people who would have a hard time with some of the decisions my characters made.

Q. Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a biography or memoir?

A. The simple answer is, there were too many missing pieces in the story. I didn’t know all the facts, but felt I understood from the point of view of the characters. It was a way to use all the compelling reality of the family story with the immediacy that fiction allows us to maintain. In the first year that I worked on the book, I participated in a wonderful workshop with the author Elizabeth Kostova. I had recently come back from a research/interview trip to Germany with much new information. We worked the story out both ways: as a memoir and as a novel. In the end, I realized I wanted to write a novel, this novel.

Q. Were there any unexpected obstacles you encountered when you began writing Even in Darkness?

A. I thought I could work full time, finish raising three boys, do volunteer work and write a novel. I had no idea how much I would love the research and the writing, and how much I wanted to devote ALL my time to it!

Excerpt

1913, Norderney

If I say yes to Jakob Kohler, I could make a nice home for him. Mutti and Papa like him . . . He is serious about me and wants to make a good life. The argument against the match lay pressed at the edge of a sigh that Kläre Ente struggled to hold back. Her thoughts focused with the steady rhythm of pedaling and the deep breaths she was able to take, having loosened her corset, untying the knot that lodged in her chest. A sweet scent of clover and raspberries floated on the breeze as Kläre cycled down to the North Sea village.

She conjured Jakob Kohler’s deep brown eyes and the inscrutable expression on his large face. Tall and thin, he comported himself with little passion, but with the self-assurance of a man no longer a mere youth. Kläre wondered for the hundredth time how his large hands might feel if allowed past the strictures of propriety and his curious reticence. These thoughts no longer shocked her, but she experienced a pensive doubt as to how to weigh them in her decision.

In these unsettled times, her father, Jonah, had remained in Hörde to tend to the family livestock feed business, leaving the conduct of holidaymaking to Kläre, her mother, and her two sisters. Here, in this sleepy seaside village, they were removed from the insidious pressure of impending hostilities between Germany and England that plagued daily life at home in Hörde.

A woman from the village approached on a bicycle and Kläre auto­matically moved to the right of the path, still lost in thought. A moment later, however, she stopped, intent on the approaching figure. Only yesterday, near this very spot, two boys barely out of knee pants had ridden toward her. One of them had suddenly veered into her path, and reflexively, Kläre had steered away into the brambles of the hedgerow. She had not fallen, but her leg had become entangled in her skirts and the heavy steel of the bicycle had banged painfully against her thigh. The boys laughed as they raced on, and unmistakably, she had heard “Jew!” as their bicycles receded behind her.

When had the florid Christian neighbors pedaling their way to and from the shops lost their stolid place in the scenery and begun to etch menace into the landscape instead? Kläre filed away the need for this new wariness for later consideration. The approaching woman passed with an unsmiling nod, and Kläre rode on, returning to her thoughts.

Jakob Kohler’s courtship had been brief. He’d met her father through a supplier. The Entes, who were good businessmen with a reputation for honesty and acumen, sought out the young attorney’s counsel as it became more difficult to comply with the conflicting regulations of the Imperial government. Jonah Ente worried quietly to his family that the loosening of economic strictures on Jewish businesses, with their sub­sequent success in Hörde and elsewhere, would feed the anti-Semitism that he believed lay close to the surface of the German social order—an order to which the Entes eagerly adhered.

Kohler’s mild, unassuming manner and meticulous knowledge of regulations assisted the Entes in maintaining their business. Kläre never knew when or by whom the decision was made to arrange her introduction to the young lawyer. An invitation was extended, and Jakob Kohler visited on a Sunday.

Kläre’s sister Frieda and her husband Oskar had come from Dülken, where Oskar had his own feed business. Like her mother, Frieda was quiet, dutiful, and devoted to the skills of homemaking. Oskar was large, loud, and raucous and fit in well with the Ente men. His booming voice, boisterous laugh, and continuous banter filled the sitting room, leaving Kläre to study her prospective suitor. A faint smile lay uneasily on Jakob Kohler’s face as he listened to the explosive Oskar and his ribald jokes. Kläre watched as Jakob glanced at Jonah Ente, perhaps for an indication of the patriarch’s concern at the impropriety of such language and humor in the presence of women.

Finding no apparent objection from the head of the household, Kohler remained passive until Jonah and Oskar moved to the study to discuss shared business interests, and the youngest Ente daughter, Trude, was summoned by her mother to the kitchen. Left with Frieda and Kläre, Jakob politely began a conversation about Frieda’s home in Dülken and Oskar’s business. Never addressing Frieda’s obvious pregnancy, he spoke briefly and quietly until Kläre finally asked, “Have you long been in the law?” Her steady gaze penetrated her guest’s detachment.

“Since the death of my father three years ago, I have been the pri­mary Rechtsanwalt in the firm, but for two years before that I was his assistant.” Jakob’s response was mild, but it answered the gentle chal­lenge of her entry to the conversation.

“My brother studies the law in Munich,” Kläre said, “but I fear, should we go to the war, he will fight before he has a chance to enter a practice. As it is, he spends much of his time with a saber.” Kläre’s eyes fell to her hands, which were resting on the perfectly pressed folds of last year’s dress. She wondered briefly if this man had noticed that the dress should be shorter, the skirt slimmer, the bodice looser to be current in style, but she decided immediately that he had not noticed, would not notice.

“Naturally, if there is war, I must serve,” Jakob said without warmth.

Raising her eyes once more, Kläre watched him stand as he caught sight of her mother. A tall lace collar and carefully pressed sleeves soft­ened Johanna Ente’s strong, intelligent face. Dark hair shot with steel grey was captured neatly in a bun at the back of her head.

Johanna stood in the doorway of the sitting room, glancing at Kläre, a trace of disapproval flickering across the space between them as Kläre reached up to tuck a wayward curl into its pin. Frieda began to rise awkwardly from her chair, but Kläre waved her sister back and stood quickly to assist her mother.

If there is war, I must serve. She mused over these words, so dif­ferent from her brother’s, who wrote as if fighting would be a more adventurous version of the saber duels of his Jewish fraternity. Kläre poured coffee, and felt her color rise as Jakob Kohler’s eyes followed her. She handed him a cup and then a slice of her mother’s scrumptious apfelkuchen.

The afternoon visit had nearly concluded when Jakob Kohler, beginning his formal leave-taking, turned to Kläre. “It was a pleasure to meet you today, Fräulein Ente. Perhaps I may again have the oppor­tunity to see you.” He extended his hand to hers and bowing slightly, searched her face for a moment.

“That would be nice, yes,” she answered.

Moments later, he was gone.

Kläre cleared the dishes, noting her mother’s studious avoidance of comment. Not for the first time, she wished that her mother, whom she loved and revered, was more approachable about affairs of the heart.

Frieda was still seated in the sitting room, eyes closed, with one hand on the side of her swelling belly in the age-old contact of a mother feel­ing, from inside and out, the quickening life of her child. She opened her eyes and patted the seat of the chair next to her.

“Klärchen, did you like him?” Frieda’s brown eyes and dark hair contrasted utterly with her sister’s fair coloring.

“He seems like a nice man.” Kläre spoke slowly.

“Only nice?” Frieda leaned toward her sister. “You speak about the squirrels in the garden with more interest than that.” She dropped backward into the chair with a short gasp and closed her eyes as she continued. “You will like to be married, Klärchen, but”—she once again looked directly at her sister—“to the right man, so get to know him a little. It’s a long life you will spend together with a husband. He looks very serious, this Kohler. Do you feel any spark with him?”

“I don’t know exactly,” Kläre responded. “He’s older. He has a pro­fession already. I don’t think he’s looking for a silly girl with romantic dreams.”

“Ya, but what are you looking for, Kläre?” The sisters stared at one another for a long moment before Kläre dropped her troubled gaze and fingered the pleats of her skirt.

There had been a number of further occasions: more Sunday cof­fees, a dinner, and a walk home from the Red Cross, where Kläre vol­unteered to learn first aid—her hedge against the helplessness she felt in the run up to war. During this time, Jakob worked frequently with her father and uncles and slowly got to know them in their business and occasionally in their homes.

For the most part, Jakob was formal and unobtrusive. He rarely began a conversation, particularly of a personal nature, but he always responded to the direct questions that Kläre found opportunities to ask him.

“Are you close to your family?”

“I have lost many family members and we are spread across several states. I care for my mother, but my sisters can do more of what she requires. I don’t speak much to my brother. He is also an attorney.” A mask of disappointment stole across Jakob’s features. Kläre did not ask more, though it pained her to imagine such a separation.

“Do you enjoy the theater or the museum?”

“I cannot say that I choose often to go. Perhaps if I knew more, or had someone to go with . . .”

Kläre blushed. She was transported by a fine play or the well-done painting, and dreamed of a husband who would take her to Cologne and Berlin. While cultural offerings in Hörde were meager, her mother had always insisted on taking the children to Dortmund and even to Cologne to see the symphony, the opera, and ballet.

“Do you read?”

“I read quite regularly in the law.”

“Do you go to the dances or to the beer garden with your friends?”

“I do what most men do. As you may have noticed, my conversation is not fascinating.” Kläre gazed up at Jakob’s profile as he walked solidly beside her and knew that this man would not glide effortlessly across a dance floor, holding her confidently in his arms, but perhaps—for her—he would learn . . .

On this occasion, Jakob took her elbow and guided her along the path in the public garden, staring straight ahead, seemingly unable to speak and attend to the physical contact between them at the same time. It was pleasant to be steered carefully toward her street, and Kläre felt a mild excitement at the idea that some threshold of familiarity had been crossed.

Other small things changed. Jonah Ente, having tried to engage Jakob in the banter he shared with his father, brothers, son, and son-in­law, recognized that it was not natural to the younger man, and—with some care, Kläre thought—adopted an inviting but more formal tone when he was present. Jakob, whose reserve suited Johanna, was now greeted with one of the matriarch’s rare smiles when he visited. When asked to join the family for Passover dinner, Johanna explained, “Our observance is mostly in memory of our parents. We aren’t strict.”

“I haven’t had much training myself,” Jakob replied. “I find I haven’t much use for it, though I believe in being Jewish.” Johanna’s approval beamed from her smile as she served Jakob a steaming plate of brisket, roast potatoes, and stewed fruit. Seated next to him, Kläre wondered what Jakob meant. I believe in being Jewish. To her, the practice of Judaism had belonged in the home of her grandparents, both now gone, and in the Sabbath mornings of her early childhood, when she’d gone to synagogue with her grandfather and uncles. Since then, religion had faded from the Entes’ family life like a wistful dream—remembered, but overtaken by the waking demands of daily life, and the menace that associations with the word “Jew” increasingly brought. Still, Kläre felt the bond with other Jewish families—in their education, a certain brand of humor, recognition—even as the outward manifestations of observance fell away. Perhaps this is what Jakob meant.

And so it happened, without drama, and in the midst of rising fear and concern for the world outside their home, that the Entes found themselves regarding Jakob Kohler as more than an acquaintance, more than a business associate, and more than a casual suitor to Kläre. It came as no surprise to anyone other than Kläre when Jakob presented himself to her father with an offer of marriage to the eighteen-year-old girl. Given consent, Jakob quickly made arrangements to visit Kläre, and with more intensity than he had ever spoken to her, asked her to marry him.

Stunned, Kläre was silent, searching the unusually eager face before her, her hands wrapped in his warm ones. “I am so honored that you would ask me such a thing,” she finally said softly. “Please, let me speak to my parents. We go next week for a holiday; you will have my answer when we return.”

A flicker of hurt passed across Jakob’s face, but he immediately restored his composure and pleasant demeanor, and said only, “I would very much like to have a marriage soon . . . There is much talk of war, and I don’t know when I might need to join the army.”

Kläre stood on her toes and brushed her lips to Jakob’s smooth, shaven cheek. It was unseemly to be so forward, but Kläre wished now to act on the feelings that stirred within her. Jakob pressed his eyes closed for a moment—then, looking directly at her, and with a power she had not previously ascribed to him, he pulled her to him in a swift embrace.

“Thank you,” he said, and let her go.

It was now but ten days later, and the Ente women were settled into the village of Norderney and the routine of a holiday framed by the daily deepening of charges, counter-charges, threats, and counter­threats between Germany and its neighboring countries. Many of the holiday regulars were absent this year, either out of concern for safety and mounting instability, or, more often, because of financial difficulties.

At eighteen years old, Kläre already longed for the simpler days of her childhood in Hörde, when school, helping with cooking and sewing at home, and especially the magical Friday Sabbath evenings at the elegant home of her grandparents had held a warm predictability. On those nights, all the cousins and their mothers would assemble, and no sooner had Kläre settled herself on the scratchy sofa in the large sitting room when the door would rattle and the hall fill with the sound of stamping and animated voices as the Ente men arrived.

The younger children would fly to the door with boisterous greetings for their fathers, uncles, and grandfather. Kläre would wait patiently for the reward of her father’s strong arms lifting her and drawing her close to the damp, smoky wool of his suit. A long and delicious dinner would follow. Eventually, the grown sons and their father would move from prayer to discussion, then to stories, and then to laughter, jokes, and play. Kläre would find her way to her father’s lap, and her brother Ernst would stand among his uncles, learning the arts of argument and storytelling.

Kläre felt the sheltering memories of those halcyon days drain away on a sigh as she steered her bicycle down the final hill, the sea spar­kling in front of her. Carriages, perambulators, mothers, and children crowded the streets and Kläre found it easier to walk the bicycle the last 100 meters to the rented house near the end of the seashore lane. An unfamiliar carriage stood before the door. Kläre leaned her bicycle against the rail and was about to enter when the door opened and her brother Ernst appeared before her.

“Ernst! My God! What are you doing here? We didn’t expect you.” Her brother stiffly allowed her to throw her arms around his neck and then push him back. “What is this uniform? What has happened?”

“I’ve joined the army. We are forming a cavalry unit: Frisch, Rosenmann, and I.”

“No, Ernst, but why? There is no war declared. Jakob says he will wait and then join. Can you not do this as well?”

Ernst’s amusement at his sister’s outburst overcame his momentary annoyance at her questions. He took Kläre’s arm and strolled in the direction of the seaside path.

“Wait? Wait for what? We must have an army.” He smiled wickedly at his sister and changed the subject. “What’s all this I hear about Jakob Kohler? Jakob this, Kohler that: Suddenly all I hear is his name. What are you thinking, my little sister?”

Kläre looked at her brother, always filled with the importance of the moment, yet lovingly attached to her, his closest sister. The strong and stocky man before her had a vital air of assurance that anchored the very sunlight around him. Even so, she could still see the schoolboy, a knapsack strapped to his back, bursting into the house flushed and breathing hard, exuding the smell of fresh air, wool, and hurry, his hair standing wildly around his thin face as he reported some fight or trans­gression that would demand her worry, her mediation, in some way.

Surely, Ernst would not understand her distress. For him there was always a clear path, a right decision. His smile now told her that in her absence, someone had spoken to him about Jakob’s proposal.

“I . . . I am thinking of marrying him,” Kläre said quietly. She con­tinued before Ernst had a chance to say a word, more urgently this time—“But really, Ernst, must you do this?”

“Klärchen, don’t you understand?” he said, his face grave. “There will be war. Jews cannot sit and wait. We have to fight harder and more bravely than anyone to prove ourselves.” Ernst’s tone was sharp, but his look was by turns proud and pleading.

Meeting her brother’s pale blue eyes, in this holiday town where there was no real holiday, Kläre understood only that he was leaving for war. Fear for his safety and the inexorable change that was upon them all sent a chill coursing through her. The air seemed to vanish from the sun-filled scene, throwing the sea wall and waves behind it into high relief. Kläre stared at her brother, at the colorful sash draping down across his broad barrel chest, at the buttons of his uniform, glinting in the sunlight—and in that moment, her girl’s dreaming gave way to a woman’s decision. This was no time for selfish notions of romantic love. Kläre Kohler. She would have to get used to the sound of it.

Author headshot_Low ResBarbara Stark-Nemon grew up in Michigan, listening to her family’s stories of their former lives in Germany, which became the basis and inspiration for Even in Darkness, her first novel. Barbara holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Art History and a Masters in Speech-language Pathology from the University of Michigan. After a 30-year teaching and clinical career working with deaf and language disabled children, Barbara became a full-time writer. She lives and works in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

Purchase your copy of Even in Darkness here.

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