Safe in America explores lives of Jews on WWII homefront

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When her brother contracted the AIDS virus in the late 1980s, Marcie Hershman started wondering how she could live with the inevitability of his death.

"I thought: How do people live with the certainty of loss? How do they make it through their days?"

The search for answers led Hershman back in time, back to her family members and the other American Jews who desperately waited for bits of news from European relatives engulfed in World War II.

The result of her quest is her second novel, Safe in America. Hershman will do a reading and book signing on Wednesday, June 14 at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books in Larkspur.

Safe in America tells of three generations of a fictional American family as they struggle through the 1930s and 1940s. Although they are proud Americans, the Eichenbaums find themselves frustrated by strict U.S. immigration quotas that prevent them from saving family members in Europe. In addition, they worry about a son sent to fight on the front lines of Europe and try to save another son from the draft.

"Think of the complications, the emotional complications," 44-year-old Hershman said.

Lest the family settle comfortably into a post-war sense of security, the novel bypasses several decades and zooms into the 1990s, when a family member is dying of AIDS.

"They're American, but not protected from life," she said. "There is no immunity."

For Hershman, a resident of the Boston suburb of Brookline and a senior lecturer in fiction writing and journalism at Tufts University, Safe in America marks her second novel about the Holocaust.

Tales of the Master Race , her 1991 novel, also delved into the Holocaust from the perspective of individuals on the periphery: German villagers who continued their daily routines as Jews were hauled away.

Hershman said she wanted to get into the hearts and heads of collaborators, like those who allowed her great-grandmother to be torn from her home in a village along the Hungarian-Czechoslovakian border in 1944.

The author created a cross section of Germans who continued meeting lovers, closing business deals and sending their children to school in the midst of their Jewish neighbors' demise.

"Some of these characters I felt bad for. Others were truly vile. Some were passive," she said.

For Hershman, who lost nearly every European relative in the Holocaust, her second novel hits closer to home.

Safe in America is set in Cleveland, Hershman's hometown. Like the fictional family, her grandparents immigrated to America in the first quarter of the 20th century and spent years awaiting word from their parents, siblings and other relatives trapped in Europe.

Hershman recalls her grandmother telling wonderful stories of climbing trees and swimming in rivers as a child in Europe. But the stories were always cut off prematurely because her grandmother didn't know what happened to most of her relatives.

"I was always sensitive to what couldn't be said," Hershman said. "I always felt a great tie to what was lost."

Like the novel's characters, Hershman also had to deal with the potential loss of a sibling to AIDS. Her brother, Robert, died three months ago after surviving for nearly a decade.

Hershman purposely tied the AIDS epidemic into a novel about the Holocaust because she believes these tragedies share similarities — particularly for relatives and friends who face inescapable loss.

Her novel also focuses on the theme of physical and psychological safety for Jews. America has always been considered a place of refuge, she said. But that sense of security only goes so far. Living in America could not and still cannot protect American Jews from the emotional fallout of the Holocaust.

"I think we're shadowed by it, many of us," she said.

Even the material wealth and social mobility many Jews have found in America does not create immunity from that inner voice asking: "It can't happen here, can it?"

Although the novel's focus on uncertainty and uncontrollable events might appear depressing, Hershman said she actually considers Safe in America an uplifting tale.

That's because she sees one positive element enduring amid constant tragedy: the connection that cannot be erased between people who love one another.

"It's not a grim message," she said.