Manfred Wolf: Holocaust Documentarian

Author Manfred Wolf

When Manfred Wolf published his 2014 Holocaust memoir, Survival in Paradise, he did not realize that he was helping to fill out the story of a Holocaust hero who had not yet had a Spielberg to tell his story.

Wolf's memoir begins with the story of how his Dutch Jewish family escaped the descending darkness of the Holocaust of World War II in Europe and arrived at their final sanctuary in the Caribbean island of Curacao.

Although only seven years old when his family fled the Nazis, Wolf had vivid memories a few months of uneasy sanctuary in the summer of 1942 in Vichy France – where the invading Nazis briefly allowed a puppet French government to rule – while his family plotted their escape from Europe.

Wolf had a child's image of a dashing, chameleon-like figure, fluent in French and with shadowy relationships to government officials, who could procure travel papers. He could help refugees fleeing the Nazis find safe routes out of France.”

War refugees there found a landscape of shifting alliances. Where you could never be sure who your friends were. Where life or death decisions had to be made every day. Wolf's family made several desperate attempts to leave Vichy France.

Once they were taken into custody by the French police and only escaped because Wolf's mother charmed a certain officer and convinced him to let the family leave custody. They finally were able to cross into Spain in the nick of time thanks to a Dutchman named Sally Noach, an independent business man.

Noach provided Wolf's father with the travel documents needed to leave France just days before the Nazis invaded Vichy France and the border to Spain closed for good.

Mention of Noach in his book attracted the attention of a major UK film studio, Pinewood Studios, which was making a documentary about the life of Sally Noach. Wolf was recently contacted by the producer and director, who scheduled an interview with him when the film crew was touring the U.S. hunting down Holocaust survivors like Wolf, whose lives had been saved by Noach.

Soon, Wolf found himself on camera in his Sunset residence being interviewed by Noach's daughter, Lady Irene Hatter, about her father.

Wolf had a child's image of a dashing, chameleon-like figure, fluent in French and with shadowy relationships to government officials, who could procure travel papers. He could help refugees fleeing the Nazis find safe routes out of France.

He recalled that his father made more than one desperate approach to Noach before he was able to gain Noach's assistance in fixing documents for Wolf's family so that they could travel to Spain. Wolf recalled some similarities of Noach to the hero of Steven Spielberg's film, Oskar Schindler. Noach had many sides, was self-centered as well as benevolent. He enjoyed his prominent role in the community as a fixer for desperate refugees.

In conversation with Wolf, Lady Hatter filled out the profile he had of her father as being a can-do type, not so much a thinker as a doer, and relatively fearless. Lady Hatter showed Wolf a 1942 letter to Noach that his father had signed along with a dozen other refugees thanking him for his role in saving their lives.

Noach was active for almost two years in France assisting Dutch refugees escape Europe. His connections and daring were such that he was even sometimes able to get refugees freed from detention camps and save them from deportation. Like Wolf's family, Noach himself escaped days before the Germans overran Vichy France in 1942.

Like other young Dutch men of fighting age, Noach fled to England. After recovering from psychological trauma caused by so many close calls in Vichy France, he spent the rest of the War in intelligence work for the Dutch government in exile.

After the War, Noach lived a relatively quiet life, running a small business. Although recognized by the Queen of the Netherlands for his service in Vichy France, he never gained widespread recognition as a Holocaust hero.

The movie Schindler's List helped throw a spotlight on other heroes that helped Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust. But unlike Schindler and most of the other figures later gaining public recognition, Noach was himself Jewish. Wolf believes that the British documentary about Noach may help show that there existed Jewish Holocaust heroes and not just victims.

Charles Pfister and Manfred Wolf live on the Westside

Politics is war by other means

Jon Golinger

From the front lines of hard-fought campaigns, environmental lawyer and veteran activist Jon Golinger offers a memoir and action manual, published by the Bay Guardian Press. Saving San Francisco's Heart: How to win elections, reclaim our city, and keep SF a special place is aimed at those who are alarmed by the transformation of San Francisco into "the most expensive, economically unequal, and increasingly homogeneous city in the nation." Yet, the advice therein will benefit any grassroots electoral campaign against powerful interests. Golinger maintains that "dedicated organizing combined with real passion and a smart message can defeat any amount of money".

The book features the inner workings of 3 successful underdog political campaigns he helped organize; Aaron Peskin's 2000 supervisorial campaign - exemplifying the neighborhood-empowering District elections that overcame Mayor Willie Brown's "juice politics", the "No Wall on the Waterfront" ballot referendum against the City Hall-backed 8 Washington luxury condo development, and the reclamation of the Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) from corporate interests affiliated with Mayor Ed Lee.

Among many interesting anecdotes is his recounting of the sordid scramble for the Mayor's Office in 2011 after Gavin Newsom's election as Lieutenant Governor. Having managed David Chiu's successful 2008 District 3 Supervisor campaign, Golinger and other progressives felt betrayed when ambition drove Chiu to cast the vote that put Ed Lee in Room 200.”

Golinger addresses effective voter outreach and messaging, volunteer mobilization, petition signature gathering, campaign fund-raising, candidate visibility, coalition building and endorsements. Included is an informative section covering 4 types of citizen ballot initiatives and how to use them. He demonstrates why the grinding labors of research, outreach and coalition building are vital when outgunned by formidable opponents. Eschewing dirty tricks, he hilariously depicts the upending of sleazy maneuvers by conniving adversaries. Ultimately, defeating big money and political clout boils down to organizing because; "Power is organized and organization wins elections".

Among many interesting anecdotes is his recounting of the sordid scramble for the Mayor's Office in 2011 after Gavin Newsom's election as Lieutenant Governor. Having managed David Chiu's successful 2008 District 3 Supervisor campaign, Golinger and other progressives felt betrayed when ambition drove Chiu to cast the vote that put Ed Lee in Room 200. Thereafter, corporate interests flourished while housing costs and evictions hollowed the public ecosystem. However, Golinger finds hope in the 2-year drive to recapture the DCCC from "the real estate lobby." Through the "completely unglamorous and grinding job of recruitment," a 22-candidate Reform Slate was assembled for the 2016 DCCC elections. He reveals the reformist campaign strategy as well as the schemes and smears deployed by his opponents. By resorting to "person-to-person individual contact," exposing chicanery, and coping with attack ads, the progressives hurdled a huge funding disparity to capture 15 of the 24 open seats.

There is much to learn from Golinger's analyses of successful campaigns. But for each win there's a corresponding loss. If anything is missing from this guide-book, it would be autopsies of campaigns where he didn't prevail. Perhaps that's not an omission. A resourceful optimist, Golinger also illustrates how losses generate resources for future wins.

Dr. Derek Kerr is a San Francisco investigative reporter.

December 2017

Local Pulitzer Prize Winning Author

Matt Richtel discusses his life and work at Bookshop West Portal

It is not every town or neighborhood that has a Pulitzer-prizing winning author in its midst. But our West Portal district does. And, while journalist and author Matt Richtel etches out the angles of complexities of technology and contemporary issues he delights in the everyday life of the neighborhood.

When this reporter asked him his thoughts on the honor of being awarded a Pulitzer Prize he said. "I no longer get any more milage with it with my wife. I still have to do chores around the house," he laughed.

But joking aside, Richtel sees it as an honor, especially being awarded for important work. In 2010 his NY Times series on the dangers of texting and driving "put the issue on the map," he said. "It is very gratifying."

As society changes we are introducing things that are a mismatch with us as humans."Things like 'multi-tasking.' "Our human brains just are not built that way, despite the popularity of the concept."

That, then became the basis for the non-fiction book, A Deadly Wandering, which has since gone into its 12th printing, and besides being a NY Times Bestseller, it continues to be held in esteem; it is included on the 'required reading' lists of many schools and colleges. Born in L.A. but raised in Colorado, Richtel got his Bachelor's from U.C. Berkeley, then transferred to Columbia School of Journalism where he secured his MS. He joined the staff of the NY Times in 2000 after working as a reporter covering Palo Alto and the Silicon Valley and its tech industry for The Peninsula Times Tribune and then for the Oakland Tribune.

Even with this stellar journalistic and literary distinction, Richtel is not one to rest on his laurels, no matter how comfortable or prestigious. His current novel Dead on Arrival which was featured at Bookshop West Portal on August 22, is already being heralded by critics, comparing it to a Michael Crichton thriller. Yes, it is set in San Francisco with a connection to Colorado, among other things.

When not writing about tech, he is delving into such complicated subjects as immunology and cancer. But beneath the serious subject writer, and the mystery-thriller genre author, he has a fun-loving humorous side. "I like to write songs," said Richtel. And if that were not enough creative outlet, he has also been the creative force behind a syndicated comic strip called Rudy Park.

He enjoys tennis and basketball when not at the computer. And, Richtel considers technology something exciting — not something to be feared, a marvel as well as a great tool. "It is because of technology that I am able to write for the NY Times with my bosses in New York on the East Coast while I get to live here in San Francisco. Telecommuting makes that possible," he said.

Yet, he cautions that it is the pace of change, due to technology, that contributes to humanity's "blind-spot." Civilization over the eons has established many building blocks. "What's different about now is that knowledge (and data) is building on itself. As society changes we are introducing things that are a mismatch with us as humans." Things like 'multi-tasking.' "Our human brains just are not built that way, despite the popularity of the concept." Hence the closer look at the dangers of texting while driving. And hypocricy, the other aspect that technology seems to bring out, more these days according to Richtel, "It is a major blind-spot. Technology can also make us both smart and lazy," he said. Optimistically, the tech tools we have today can help humanity look at its blind spots. "Take advantage of technology but don't let it distract you," he said.

Perhaps it is the balance that he strives to achieve which helps him be so successful at what he does. His wife Meredith, and his two children are the anchors in his life and San Francisco is the harbor.

Richtel savors the small-town like atmosphere of West Portal. "I enjoy hanging out at Greenhouse Cafe on West Portal Ave, it is where I do some of my writing," he said. Richtel is in good company there, it is were locals go to relax, study and indulge in the 'Nutella Latte.' And, naturally his most favorite spot on West Portal Ave is Bookshop West Portal.

To obtain a copy of author-journalist Matt Richtel's book 'Dead on Arrival' visit Bookshop West Portal web site at: www.bookshopwestportal.com, and check out the calendar in the Westside Observer for their upcoming author events.

Jonathan Farrell is a local journalist.

September 2017

Local Author Martha Conway

San Francisco-based author Martha Conway read from her historical novel, The Underground River, on June 20 at Bookshop West Portal that Tuesday evening. The enthralled audience was impressed. This reporter talked to her after the gathering.

"With this third historical-mystery novel, are you secure in your niche as a writer?" I asked her because Thieving Forest was a departure from what she had initially been accustomed to, a mystery 'whodunit' story. Yet with Thieving Forest, Conway surprised everyone, including herself, as her work is emerging, prolifically, on a path all her own. I also wanted to know if she had an inkling towards writing in another genre. Here is what she shared with me.

She replied, "I've gone from writing mystery to historical mystery to historical fiction, and so I'm afraid to say I will stay within any one genre. But I love historical fiction. Use of historical genres are more and more fluid, so people like me can explore different ways of telling a story without getting penalized. It's a great time for genre-bending fiction."

In Underground River the year is 1838, "so there is no war going on, said Conway. But there is a lot of tension between the North and the South. The Ohio River, which is the natural division between the North and the South, is a common place for runaway slaves to cross over to get to freedom."

"I approached this novel thinking, how does a person go from being a bystander in a political movement like abolitionism to being an active participant? This question is relevant for us today," she added.

Fellow writer Carole Bumpus, who also wrote a historical novel, applauded Conway and is eager to read Underground River. Bumpus shared her thoughts about using history to tell a story. "(Historical) facts give you structure, but also can provide pitfalls if you don't have your facts accurate! Readers will not continue to read if they feel you have lied to them! This form of story-telling can be tricky, but also worth the challenge!"

The genre of historical fiction is something that has been going on for centuries, and is something that has been used throughout world literature. Historians cite the ancient epic The Iliad as one of many examples. They also point out that use of history to form a novel is not exclusive to our Western culture. The Tale of the Genji and Romance of The Three Kingdoms are ancient stories from Asia which provide a glimpse of life during various dynasties and eras from the 12th to the 16th Century.

Conway's confidence and self-assuredness is undeniable, and it has been wonderful to recognize the creative changes that have occurred over the years as she has progressed and grown stronger in her writing. Yet naturally I wanted to ask...was it any easier/harder this third time? "Every novel is hard in a different way, Conway said. You think you learn the tools, and then find that with your next novel you need different tools. It keeps the process interesting."

What did she see as the most important challenge she faced putting this novel together?

"Trying to understand how people could rationalize slavery. That was hard for me to imagine," she said.

Any similarities with the three that she might see? "They all feature strong female protagonists who get the job done," she said. Conway, even with that very first mystery story, 12 Bliss Street, has always had a deep and profound sense of what women bring to any situation.

I told her I saw her ability to bring up the subject of cultural/ethnic diversity within common ground. The Los Angeles Times mentioned her latest novel and its subject, the Underground Railroad was a "powerful symbol of resistance." It is a subject that can be examined even more closely than ever before, especially now in this age of information and furthering forensic technology.

Conway said, "Yes, I'm very interested in how characters in different cultures or ethnicities relate to each other. The search for the common ground is key, This isn't always possible. I want to show all sorts of interactions, even the failures."

Are you more confident to write about these things now than when you began with Thieving Forest? "Yes," she said, and by the reviews (some describing it as "a page-turner") her audience will only grow, eager to read what more she has in store.

Bookshop West Portal is pleased with Conway's work, as it has been selling and attracting people to reading/book signing events. Located on West Portal Avenue at the very heart of San Francisco's West Portal neighborhood, it is among the few but vital book stores that have survived the impact of the digital/tech revolution.

Will she do a bit of genre-bending? Her readers and I among them are eager to find out. To learn more about author Martha Conway and her latest novel Underground River, visit her web site - www.marthaconway.com

Jonathan Farrell is a local journalist

July / August 2017

Locally-based author Martha Conway at the Woman’s National Book Association panel which presented three other authors that evening at Bookshop West Portal: Carole Bumpus, Lisa Alpine and moderator for the evening, Elise Frances Miller. Photo: Jay Miller

Local Author Martha Conway

Fall has been an exciting time for local author Martha Conway. This past Oct. 29, she appeared at BookShop West Portal in a panel sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association. She read an excerpt from her novel Thieving Forest which now has gone to audio format. “It was pretty nice,” she said. “After the audiobook company contacted me; the whole process was very easy, from negotiation to production. They move fast!”

Thieving Forest is her second novel, and so far it has sold 13,000 copies and counting. “That’s including ebook, paperback, and hardcover combined; and I am happy about that,” she said. Her first novel 12 Bliss Street was a contemporary satirical crime mystery, set in San Francisco. “It barely sold 2,000 copies,” she said. But despite the modest amount of book sales, 12 Bliss Streetreceived accolades and recognition. When Conway wrote her first novel over a decade ago, she was experiencing life in the work-a-day world of one of the most popular cities in America. San Francisco at that time was going through the beginnings of a major transition, the dot-com boom. Now married with children and very ‘settled down’ so to speak, Thieving Forest emerged from the depths of her imagination and is set in the place where she grew up - Ohio.“I wanted to write something with a broader scope than 12 Bliss Street, she said. As she made steps to explore and research she stumbled upon references to the ‘Great Black Swamp’ in Ohio. This intrigued her because as she said, “I grew up in Ohio and I never even heard of it before. So, I was hooked, I had to find out.”

I was fascinated about what people must have done to survive. A lot of very different cultures lived side by side in that part of Ohio. It was truly multi-cultural.”

Her research lead to the almost forgotten early history of the Ohio territory when native tribes and white settlers often clashed. The Great Black Swamp covered over 1,500 square miles stretching across three states from Indiana, through Ohio to Lake Erie in Michigan. It is hard to think of the Ohio of today with cities like Toledo and Bowling Green. Those were constructed out of a vast wetland. Portions of it still exist but, as to what it had been, is literally all covered up by modern life. As Conway jotted down ideas she knew she was on to something. “I did not want to get caught up with the Civil War era, that would have lead me down a very complicated path.” Yet, as I began to ponder those earlier pioneer days, I was fascinated about what people must have done to survive. A lot of very different cultures lived side by side in that part of Ohio. It was truly multi-cultural.”

Thieving Forest has recognizable elements that many readers would know, such as The Little House On The Prairie aspect. But unlike the Laura Ingall’s story of a family of sisters growing up together in a rural setting, Thieving Forest is very gutsy and heart-wrenching. It’s realism is very much a novel for grown ups. The novel has received several honors, among them the North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction. As the book continues to gain fans, a movie might not be too far off. Meanwhile, the San Francisco-based author is busy promoting her books, leading workshops, such as one of the workshops in Stanford University’s “One Day M.F.A,” program, and raising a family.

Jonathan Farrell is a local free lance reporter. Feedback: jonathan@westsideobserver.com

December 2015

Interview

Dr. David Watts: A New SF Based Mystery!

It isn’t often that you get a page turner that will tempt you to keep reading even while sitting in traffic—not since Shogun first came out.

If you like to read mysteries (and who doesn’t?), local writer Dr. David Watts has so succeeded in his first venture in the medical mystery genre, it makes you want him to write a sequel right now and get them both on screen as soon as possible. The Lucifer Connection is set in San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love. And suddenly there’s a murder so ingenious it just looks like an unfortunate outcome of a common malady. And that’s how Jack Barnasone, an unsuspecting doctor, gets caught in a web of evil that threatens to take him down before he can solve the mystery.

I moved from poetry (which I still consider my epicenter in the writing world) to radio commentary, to short stories, to essays (which I never in this world thought I would write), and then finally to a novel.”

Protagonist Barnasone makes use of Watts’ own medical background with all the truth and wisdom of that experience. The Lucifer Connection is not just historically accurate, but rich in poetic detail that takes the reader back to the era without sticky nostalgia as it twists and turns like the best scenes in a great noir film. It’s such a blast to know the streets Watts describes in rich visceral detail, and walk down them with the variety of strongly drawn characters that you are hoping and wondering will escape their dangerous challenges. In the interview below Dr. Watts talks about the writing of the novel and other life experiences.

LAF: What inspired you to write this novel?

David Watts: I had a little chunk of time in an impossible schedule one August and I decided if I ever was going to write a novel it would be now. I asked myself what would excite me most and came up with 1. A mystery novel, 2. San Francisco, 3. The Summer of Love and 4. an outside the box, renegade doctor who gets caught up in a web of evil and has to work his way out. It had all the elements I love most and, I thought, might be appealing to a wide audience. I pictured it mentally as a visual experience filled with images that would be suitable for the big screen just in case it was successful enough. After I finished the first draft in a six-week all-out effort, I just couldn’t stop tinkering. I knew there was a pretty good story hidden in there somewhere and I had to tease it out, had to get it to the point where I, myself, would want sit down and read it. That’s the acid test right there.

LAF: What do you love most about writing?

DW: Discovery. You learn so, so, much. Here’s the deal. You pick a setting and a time you love and put characters into it that are quirky, interesting, full of surprises, have strengths and weaknesses and then. . . you throw something really awful at them. Only by forcing them out of their comfort zone do you learn what makes them tick, what makes humans in general tick. That’s when you learn about human nature, its resourcefulness, its flexibility, its ability to fail and start over to innovate something that works for the situation at hand.

I got to know my characters really, really well. I even felt I could ask them what they would do in this situation they were facing and get a pretty good answer.

LAF: When did you first begin writing?

DW: Writing seriously? In the mid-eighties. I was going through some tough times and instinctively thought that writing would teach me what was affecting me so. It was poetry I started with and although I wrote mostly schlock that no one would dare publish, the process worked to give me more insight, more understanding. I was hooked. I moved from poetry (which I still consider my epicenter in the writing world) to radio commentary, to short stories, to essays (which I never in this world thought I would write), and then finally to a novel. The writing eventually did get better. Sharon Olds says if you love poetry long enough it will love you back.

LAF: What do you consider to be your strengths as a writer?

DW: Insight. I’ve done the dues work: writing courses at San Francisco State, attendance at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Teaching poetry to students at the Fromm Institute. Etc. Etc. When I first started writing I thought I could just sit down and spew out a good piece of literature. How naïve. I was missing the tools. So I went back and got some. What the craft allows (if I’m right about this) is not to think so much about that aspect of the process but to concentrate on peeling away the disguise, the cloaking we all wear and revealing the mysterious movements of the human spirit. It’s all about people. Getting into what makes them so interesting and getting it on the page.

LAF: What of your professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

DW: Balance. Maybe it’s a bit bizarre but I feel so centered being able to have a really great practice of medicine and at the same time play music in a first-rate orchestra, teach poetry to an enthusiastic audience, invent a medical instrument for gastroenterologists, and raise a really wonderful family. Upon that wide base of experience I am able to see more clearly into the kinds of interesting personalities that make for good literature. As you may suspect, this knowledge also works well in the efforts to help patients find their personal path to health and healing.

LAF: What have been the most challenging experiences you’ve had in your career?

DW: Trusting my instincts. Being able to move my career from straight academic medicine to clinical medicine where my talents were better suited. Being unafraid to be a television and radio host while I kept my practice going, all things which raised a few eyebrows but by then I knew that to “follow your bliss” meant having the courage to take a few chances.

LAF: When you run out of ideas, if ever, where do you seek inspiration?

DW: Never run out. Stafford said he never got writer’s block, he just lowered his standards. What that means to me is to shut down the “editor,” the internal, critical voice that says, “you can’t do that.” We are all creative but most of us keep it under wraps. For me, if things get slow I just move into a nonlinear zone in my head and let surface whatever will. That’s when creativity of the kind that seems wild but strangely authentic comes to the page. That’s the best stuff.

LAF: Who would you say has helped you the most professionally? Personally?

DW: My wife, Joan. Without her unflinching support I would be confined as a clam.

LAF: Who are your heroes?

DW: The ones who keep writing good work without much recognition.

LAF: If you were to give advice to someone wanting to be a writer today what words of encouragement and/or warning would you offer him/her?

DW: Get your craft in place. Then reach deep into yourself for the hard truths. Have the courage to say what you think and keep pushing when the resistance to your work inevitably comes up.

LAF: If there were one thing you would want to be remembered for, what would that be?

DW: Adding a human touch to this complicated life we lead.

LAF: If you weren’t a writer/physician, what do you think you would have enjoyed doing?

DW: Most anything. It’s all terrifying and wonderful.

LAF: How would you say your medical practice has aided you in your writing and vice versa?

DW: The more experiences you have the deeper the well of your strengths. Everything I do, the writing, the music, the media hosting and producing, the raising of children in a balanced environment. . . all of that makes me a better doctor. Medicine is not just the application of science to the life situation, it is shaping science to fit the personalities and prejudices and anxieties of the patients. Not all scientific truths will be seen as true by someone with pneumonia or cancer. You have to make them truths within their own way of thinking, their own personalities, their very individual and special life. As for medicine helping writing, many of the same skills are required. A keen sense of observation. A no-nonsense attitude about discovering truth. The courage to be different. And, of course, a love of people.

LAF: What’s up next?

DW: The sequel. I already have a mental sketch in place. It’s going to be a wild one.

LAF: Thanks so much for talking with us and for your fabulous writing!

DW: You’re very welcome!

The Lucifer Connection is available —ask for it at your local bookstore!

Linda Ayres-Frederick

November 2015

Book Review

Local Writer’s “Survival In Paradise”

Part of the magic in a literary work can sometimes be ingested from what is between the lines. This is true of the autobiographical book, Survival in Paradise, subtitled Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curaçao, by Manfred Wolf, a long-time San Francisco Sunset District resident. The author, who in the beginning of the narrative is seven years old, sees his happy life in an affluent warm family in Germany turn into a horrific flight from internment and possible death.

What has been walled off in a dark corner of his mind is suddenly released in a torrent of argument when a middle-aged Jewish woman at a party lectures him on how hard World War II was for Americans as well as Europeans—since they couldn’t buy sugar or decent underwear with elastic waistbands. To his puzzlement, in America even the Jews seem oblivious to the real depths of the Holocaust story and its full ramifications.”

Along the circuitous escape route from Germany to Holland to Southern France, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal and eventually South America, there are many close calls and experiences, even to the extent of watching fellow travelers caught and shipped out for Auschwitz—and desperate refugees reaching the end of their money or planned escape routes and doing away with themselves. The family finally makes it to a tropical place of safety in Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, where the author manages to focus on the colorful, carnival-like, engagingly chaotic cultural environment, putting the darkness behind him.

Later, as a seventeen year-old, thinking that he has excised the mass of dark memories, the author goes on to Brandeis University in New England.

There he is immersed into an environment of fellow-students and faculty who are mostly Jewish, but something is bottled up inside him. Compared with the easy-going, wisecracking American students, the author, although endeavoring to put on a casual, happy face, is a brooding, enigmatic presence. What has been walled off in a dark corner of his mind is suddenly released in a torrent of argument when a middle-aged Jewish woman at a party lectures him on how hard World War II was for Americans as well as Europeans—since they couldn’t buy sugar or decent underwear with elastic waistbands. To his puzzlement, in America even the Jews seem oblivious to the real depths of the Holocaust story and its full ramifications.

Although the ostensible purpose of the author is to describe his own coming to terms with his family’s horrific near-unsuccessful escape from a hellish end, he seems to, almost inadvertently, chronicle a history of the entire range of varied reactions by many of the cohort of fleeing Jews to the danger and impending demise. As Wolf tells it, many of them apparently well knew the fate that awaited them if caught. One can imagine an effective European Jewish grapevine transmitting data back and forth across the continent. 

And down below that adult data stream is the author, looking up and being exposed to adult conversations, which were, due to their dire subject matter, sadly unfit for tender ears—but which his precocious mind was storing, and partially repressing.

Among the people in this odyssey is Max, Wolf’s father, formerly an affluent, dynamic factory owner, who is often seen during the family’s flight as distracted, almost unbelieving of where he is finding himself, though—as the story relates—resourceful when it counted. There is Bertha, the mother, gregarious, assertive, using her personality to directly engage the officials who hold the key to their ability to escape from Europe. There is the couple who, after failing several times to run the border between France and Spain, throw themselves under a train in their desperate reaction to the terror of impending arrest and imprisonment. And there is the man who, losing his hope for escape at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo, hangs himself.

The author’s turning point, a kind of epiphany, comes at Brandeis when one cold, New England night an unstable fellow-student dons a Nazi Army uniform and stands at attention on a precipice, outside a dorm window several stories above the campus, possibly poised to do away with his own life and perhaps the whole repository of dark memories along with it. The student returns to his room and, in a beautifully rendered scene, the author shows how this affects his own thinking and feeling, and how he then committed himself to his own future, irrespective of the awful facts of his, and the world’s, undeniable history.

This book is recommended reading for several audiences. For youth, because it is a classic coming-of-age story, for adults because it provides understanding of the ripples of evil that can emanate from dark places in the human soul and spread throughout the world, and that should never be forgotten but acknowledged and used as a catalyst to somehow yield some improvement to all of our collective souls.

October 2014

Stories In The Sand: Lorri Ungaretti

A New History of the Sunset from 1847-1964

Let’s face it. The Sunset is not San Francisco’s most glamorous district.

It lacks the panache of Telegraph Hill, Union Square, Nob Hill, or the Embarcadero. As a tourist destination it’s hardly in the same league with Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Russian Hill, Chinatown, or even the newly transformed South of Market.

Yet the Sunset is a solid, substantial family neighborhood with its own history, traditions, institutions, and landmarks. Before moving here, I had lived in Pacific Heights, Telegraph Hill, and the Haight-Ashbury, and like many people I chose the Sunset to settle down and raise a family.

After 50 years in the Sunset, I thought I knew everything there was to know about it. I was wrong. Lorri Ungaretti, who grew up here, has done a years-long job of intensive research, pored over innumerable documents, interviewed dozens of old-time residents, and written what must be the Sunset’s definitive history.

the original settlers who nevertheless braved wind, fog, and sandstorms to “homestead” in the dunes. It was then federal land that was considered to be “out west” from San Francisco. The effort of the city to claim these “Outside Lands” was a decades-long legal battle with the federal government before the boundaries of the city were finally extended to the ocean.”

You will learn here, for example, about how the area was originally thought to be a desert of uninhabitable sand dunes and about the original settlers who nevertheless braved wind, fog, and sandstorms to “homestead” in the dunes. It was then federal land that was considered to be “out west” from San Francisco. The effort of the city to claim these “Outside Lands” was a decades-long legal battle with the federal government before the boundaries of the city were finally extended to the ocean.

It was Mike de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, who envisioned the possibilities of the Sunset and promoted the idea of a world’s fair in the new Golden Gate Park, at the Sunset’s northern boundary. The fair drew millions of people in 1894 and encouraged commercial and residential building in the adjacent district. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that the subdivisions were extended westward to Ocean Beach by such builders as Henry Doelger, who specialized in standard-design homes affordable to young families. Doelger showed his high opinion of the Sunset by building a home there for his own family.

Book CoverA few sand dunes remained, however, through the 1950s, and Ungaretti remembers trudging through one of them as a child living across the street from Lincoln High School. Long-time residents told her that in the early days the roar of the lions at the San Francisco Zoo could be heard at night across the district. Some of them remembered how the kids used to play in the “mountains of sand” and frequented swimming holes at places where creeks from inland were dammed by the highest dunes en route to the ocean.

Like most histories, this one is not all sweetness and light. Ungaretti describes how restrictions on who could rent or buy in the neighborhood were written into original house deeds and discusses a statewide battle over whether racial minorities could legally be excluded from residential areas such as the Sunset. The practice involved a statewide election and ultimately became a test case in the courts.

Ungaretti profiles some of the people who lived in the Sunset years ago. For example, the award-winning tennis player Alice Marble grew up in the Inner Sunset and had an adventurous life. We also learn about the neighborhood’s registered landmarks and other fascinating buildings, including St. Anne of the Sunset, the large church that can be seen for miles and features a frieze conceived and created by a Bay Area Dominican nun.

If you’re a resident of the Sunset, I would recommend an observation by writer Wendell Berry: “You don’t know who you are, until you know where you are.” Read this book and find out who and where you are.

Harold Gilliam is a San Francisco based writer, newspaperman and environmentalist,, book author and former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner newspapers. The “Harold Gilliam Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting”, given by the Bay Institute of San Francisco, is named in his honor.

May 2012

West Portal Writer Celebrates Publishing DebutEthel Rohan photo

"I have to write, it's what I am meant to do. I have always had this preoccupation of being 'incomplete' in various ways, not physically incomplete, but looking at the incompleteness of the spirit. That's what guided the stories in this collection."

Sitting with West Portal writer Ethel Rohan, I am struck by her intensity and dedication to the craft of writing. An accomplished and prolific magazine and short story author, she has recently celebrated the publishing of her first novel. In the debut, Cut Through the Bone, she has given us a set of 30 stories, most spanning only 3-4 pages, but in those pages we are teased with prose in which there are no pat endings and where every word and phrase counts. We have to "guess" what happens next, a little unsettling for those of us that "want to know."

bookcover: Through the BoneRecently, the writer celebrated the launch of the book with 200 friends and family at the United Irish Cultural Center, a logical place for the Dublin-born wordsmith. "It was one of the most special nights of my life," she said. "The release of the book is every writer's dream, and it has helped me to put aside the angst and self-doubt that all writers share. I've spent three years in my office/dungeon asking myself, am I delusional? Is my writing any good?"

When I ask her where she draws the stories from, she explains that she "honors the stories that come out. The stories center on the fears that each character has and somewhere in there are my own fears. Fear is universal and we all know suffering. Fear keeps us from moving forward. Through my fiction it is a safe place to see and explore these places and feelings that drive us."

In reading the stories, the elements of uncertainty and fear are everywhere and yet the reader is drawn to the characters and wants some sort of resolution, but is denied, left to ponder "what if?" She explains that the ideas are very family- centered, often times focusing on historical ideas of family function and dysfunction and the emotions that are involved.

The writer is currently completing her next project, a first novel, which she is busy shopping to agents. "Set in Ireland, it's the story of a 47 year old Dublin bus driver. I've been working on it for nine years. It's tentatively titled, "Kisses with Teeth."

Born in Dublin, Rohan came to San Francisco 18 years ago for a three-month vacation, and decided to stay, eventually graduating from Mills College with a Master's Degree in Fine Art. She jokes that she had to come all the way to San Francisco to find her Irish-born husband. The couple lives in West Portal, raising two daughters.

The literary world is also taking notice of her work. She has been invited to give a reading at the Frank O'Connor Literary Festival in Cork (Ireland) during September, and the novel was long listed as a finalist for the Story Prize Award in 2010.

In closing I asked her what she wants to leave her readers with when they are reading her work. "I would like readers to appreciate the power of imagination and story telling. The words can transport us, and make us ask 'what if?' I hope the readers also are able to think and be empathetic towards the characters, by disengaging judgment to look beyond the superficial."

Cut Through the Bone is available at BookShop West Portal, from Amazon.com and other literary outlets. For more information about the book and the author visit her website at ethelrohan.com; or go to the website for the book, www.darkskybooks.com.

June 2011