Novel takes artistic approach to reconciling past

When Elizabeth Rosner signed up for a workshop for descendents of Nazis and Holocaust survivors, the last thing she expected was to realize how much they had in common.

“I expected the other group to be somehow opposite,” Rosner said of her experience in an “Acts of Reconciliation” workshop run by an Oakland drama therapist. “But we were all weighed down by history that didn’t really belong to us.”

The realization deeply affected Rosner, a Berkeley poet and novelist, causing her to explore the subject more than 10 years later in her newest novel, “Blue Nude.”

Rosner will be speaking about her book 2 p.m. Sunday, June 4, at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley.

“In the workshop we compared notes on our inheritance of a traumatic legacy. I got to see it from both sides,” she said. Rosner attended several of the workshops over the course of a few years.

Initially Rosner, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was reluctant to write another novel on the legacy of the Holocaust — especially from a German perspective. Her first novel, “Speed of Light,” was an exploration of the relationship between survivors and their children.

When Ballantine agreed to publish her first novel she was given a two-book deal with complete artistic freedom over the second.

Ultimately, she chose to portray a German artist named Danzig, the son of a Nazi stormtrooper, and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, an Israeli model named Merav..

“Blue Nude” traces their intersecting lives. Both expatriates, the two meet in a San Francisco art school and form a tenuous artist/model relationship.

Following a long artistic dry spell, Danzig finds inspiration in his new model. In turn, Merav internalizes his gaze and embarks on a journey of self-exploration.

Throughout the course of this relationship Danzig meditates on his treatment of women and on his shame at his family’s Nazi past. Merav explores the pain of a romantic tragedy and the implications of leaving Israel.

But the two never discuss their backgrounds. “By the end very little needed to be said since they had already exchanged so much non-verbally,” Rosner said.

While “Blue Nude” shares a theme with “Speed of Light,” it is more about the human experience than the Jewish experience.

Rosner said she related to Danzig on many levels, but she still felt uncomfortable taking on pieces of someone else’s history. “I was nervous about climbing into a German’s skin. It was a bit daunting,” she said.

Rosner has dabbled in painting, dancing and artist modeling, and was intrigued by the model/artist relationship. “I was and still am fascinated by the mysterious process of creating,” she said.

“I know how it feels to stare at a blank page or to have to destroy in order to create.”

She also knows how it feels to be on the other side.

In college, Rosner modeled for an artist and was able to explore her relationship with her body. She tested her ability to not dwell on imperfections. “It was a complicated experience, something that I have been trying to write about ever since.”

“Blue Nude” resonates beyond the characters and their stories. “The more we are able to see one another as human the more hope there is for peace,” Rosner says.

“If you’re at peace with yourself you become capable of reconciling with others.”

For a schedule of Rosner’s Northern California talks, visit for information.“Blue Nude,” by Elizabeth Rosner (Ballantine Books, 224 pages, $22.95).