Today, Traveling With T has a guest post from AJ Sidransky. He is the author of Forgiving Maximo Rothman. What is Forgiving Maximo Rothman about? I am so glad you asked!
I believe that this guest post written by AJ will tell you enough to interest you- particularly if stories of history are your bag!
Guest Post from AJ Sidransky
As a child my Uncle Max was the most interesting man I knew. Why? Because he spoke Spanish and regaled me with tales of his life in the jungles of Santo Domingo. Later, when I learned the details of his history his stories took on an element of romance that led me to write my debut novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman.
Born Max Grunfeld in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900 he fought in World War I then found himself in the newly formed nation of Czechoslovakia. The 1920’s were tough times in Central Europe. Unable to fund a business or an education or emigration he was eventually married off in an arranged marriage to a pleasant though shy woman, Helen Bokor, the youngest of thirteen children with a wealthy father.
His father-in-law supplied a large dowry. The dowry bought a hotel, a restaurant and a general store in the small city of Stitnik in central Slovakia, near the Hungarian border. Life was good for a while. Then came Hitler, Fascism and World War II. By May 1940 my uncle and aunt found themselves stranded in Italy, refugees running out of money and options at the same time. That’s how they ended up in Santo Domingo, more commonly known to Americans as the Dominican Republic.
Raphael Trujillo, then dictator of the small island nation, desperate to ingratiate himself to the American government, offered to take up to 100,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany at the Evian Conference in 1938. Trujillo though had ulterior motives. Though dark skinned himself, he was a vicious racist. He lightened his own skin with pancake makeup. He thought if he imported 100,000 white, Jewish, mostly male refugees from Europe the refugees would intermarry with the local people and thereby lighten the skin tone of the Dominican nation. Only 854 eventually came, my uncle and aunt among them.
The story of Sosua, the settlement they founded on the north coast of the D.R., was not at all well known, certainly not until the last couple of years when both my book and a documentary film about a youth project in Washington Heights centered on the story emerged. It remains though a very touching and life affirming tale of desperate people willing to do anything to begin again, of two impoverished, damaged communities that come together and lift each other up from tyranny, of perseverance, rebirth and shifting identity and most importantly a tale of love. These were the things I wanted to talk about in my book.
While the initial inspiration for the novel was the story of my aunt and uncle I learned a good deal through research about the lives of other settlers in Sosua. It became clear to me that the most successful of the settlers were those who adapted to their new life and circumstances. I tried to impart that story to the second half of Maximo Rothman’s personal tale. Maximo journeys away from the settlement and lives among the Dominicans. He transforms himself. This transformation helps him to know himself again and rediscover his capacity to love.
The evening breeze picked up the strands of Annabelle’s hair blowing them back gently into my face. We stood silently on the ramparts of the old fort overlooking the sea. The sun set in the distance over the mountains towards La Isabella where Columbus landed in Paradise. I wrapped my arms around Anabela’s waist then buried my face in her hair, kissing the back of her neck and breathing in her scent. I too had crossed the Atlantic to discover paradise.
“Que linda,” Annabella whispered, looking out towards the horizon. “What a beautiful color.”
“Si,” I said, nibbling at her cheek. My hands massaged her stomach gently.
“What a beautiful color, every inch of you.”
She slapped my hands gently, laughed and kissed me.
“You make me happy.”
“Igual,” she said. “We should get home. We have a busy day tomorrow.”
“No, just a little longer,” I said, pulling her closer to me, the warm breeze caressing us as the waves lapped gently at the shore below. “I want you for myself,” I said, her beautiful face inches from mine.
She kissed me again, this time with passion then whispered in my ear, “You have me always amor.”
Many people ask me what happened to the refugees. The truth is most of them left after the war, to the United States, Canada, a few to Israel. Those that stayed built a life and the most successful business on the island, a dairy co-op that supplied milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt and of all things salami to the many hotels and supermarkets throughout the D.R.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Santo Domingo in the past few years. It’s my second home now. I love it there. My best friend is Dominican. He has a house there and we visit every winter. When we first became friends and I told him my uncle had lived in Sosua, he said, “you know brother, they made very good salami.”
Happy Reading and Bookishly Yours,
T @ Traveling With T