Converting Fact to Fiction: A Portrait of my Mother-in-Law

I’m writing a novel drawn from my family’s history, and my mother-in-law is the model for one of the main characters. As I’m poring over the details of her life the way I know them, I wonder and ponder how to present them.

Her life has been complicated, more complicated than most. She was the fourth child of a Jewish family born in the nineteen-twenties in northeast Romania, in a place called Bucovina, known for its rolling hills and lush soil. Her father — a lawyer — died of a heart condition when she was only twelve years old. In her adolescence, and as antisemitism became rampant, she became a communist sympathizer, hoping for a better world, where everyone was equal. During the war, before graduating from high school, she was deported, at age 17, along with her entire family and tens of thousands of other Jews to Transnistria, an area in the Ukraine, between the rivers Dniester and Bug. The territory was occupied and administered by Romania, allied, at the time, with Nazi Germany. The conditions were harsh and primitive. Her grandmother and aunt did not survive. After the war ended and they returned to Romania, behind the advancing Soviet Army, she took her high school equivalency exams and enrolled in Medical School. She fell in love and married a Jewish communist writer who led the main communist newspaper in Bucharest. Four years later he died leaving her and their daughter to fend for themselves. Another four years went by before my mother-in-law remarried. Her second husband was a gifted engineer, methodical, obsessive, and goofy at times. He was a Zionist. I met them both in the late sixties in Bucharest. In 1970 they immigrated to Israel, settled in Haifa and began a new life.

My mother-in-law was always quiet, reserved, and introverted. She was polite, but distant. She was a doctor, and very successful at that. Clearly, she loved her profession, and derived a lot of satisfaction from it. She worked into her late sixties, and over the years built a solid reputation. Yet, all along, she was not entirely fulfilled. After we moved to America and our children were born — her grandchildren — my parents-in-law divided their lives between Israel and the United States. They passed away more than a decade ago.

I planned and prepared for a long time to write a novel based on our family history and, in 1999, my mother-in-law was generous enough to agree to be interviewed by me. We met in the evenings, and I recorded her stories, fifteen full hours of them. She seemed happy talking about her past.

Now, when I try to walk in her shoes, I understand that I know the facts, yet there are so many subtle and strong feelings that I only vaguely begin to understand. Why did a young Jewish girl in prewar Romania start believing in communism? What did she think and feel during those three days and three nights as they rode in a cattle rail car through Transnistria, destination unknown? Did she know what they did to the Jews in Poland? How does one abandon the belief in communism and the trust in the new Soviet system, and agree to leave for Israel, a capitalist country with unique problems of its own? How does one emigrate, start over in mid-life and adjust to a new country, language and culture? What could be amiss in one’s life to a point that years of reasonable financial and professional success and a stable family life could not erase?

I will have to work at it, and imagine it. Select certain facts, create scenes, describe love and despair, hope and anger, eliminate characters, and invent dialogues. Build a dramatic arch.

In a way I’ve done this before, after the parents passed away and we dealt with their belongings. We took their lives apart, selected what we thought was important and eliminated the rest. We sold what could be sold, donated what we could donate, and took some things home. We went through their documents and books, and we looked at their slides, postcards and photographs. We read old letters. We filled a number of dumpsters — I think about seven of them. And I wrote about the whole experience in a short story called Herr Octavian.

Now I have to do it again — this time in the spiritual realm. It is difficult, but is it sad? And how sad is it? That’s what’s great about being a writer. One shapes characters. Instills life. Anew.

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