August 23, 2019

Rose’s Quest

The hiding places in the title of Daniel Asa Rose’s new memoir refer to the haylofts and cellars where his relatives hid from the Nazis during the war years, and also to the suburban tool sheds and coat closets where the author crawled into during his childhood in a mostly gentile Connecticut town. The title also alludes to the author’s efforts to avoid his Judaism. Traveling to Europe to find his family’s hiding places in Belgium and France with his two young sons, Rose comes to see that hiding places are “not merely dark holes of concealment” but also “places of revelation.” The trip leads him to understand the links between present and past, his own connections to his family’s past and to the Jewish future.

“Hiding Places: A Father and His Sons Retrace Their Family’s Escape from the Holocaust” (Simon & Schuster) is the account of a trip more than 12 years ago when he was recently divorced and his now-grown up sons were 12 and 7. The story of their adventures – from scant clues they manage to track down many of the places they seek – is interwoven, in alternate chapters, with his reminiscences of growing up. Rose says it took him 10 years to write the book because it was such a “massive undertaking, dealing with my forebears, my children, my religion.” It took him considerable time to find the right voice, one that captured the irreverence of his children – one son exclaims, when he sees the number tattooed onto a relative’s arm in Brussels, “Boy, you really don’t want to lose your phone number!” – and was still respectful toward the Holocaust.

“I had to lighten it for a new generation, while at the same time pay homage,” the author, a novelist, essayist and travel writer who has won several awards for his fiction, says. Friends and relatives were surprised by his decision to take the trip with his young sons. It was an effort to reconstitute their family after the divorce, to reclaim their roots, to show the boys their history up close where it would make a difference to them. While traveling, he realizes that his sons are the ages of young relatives who were killed in efforts to escape.

Rose grew up in Rowayton, adjacent to Darien, “the proverbial anti-Semitic hamlet of “Gentleman’s Agreement.” His mother had escaped from Bel-gium in 1939 and frequently told him fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm along with the all-too-true stories of her relatives’ experiences hiding from the “Not-sees,” who “didn’t see things normal people saw.” As a kid, he was embarrassed about being Jewish, being different. On the rare occasions when the family attended synagogue, he wore an unseen transistor radio, tuned to Cousin Brucie. His worldly diamond-dealer great uncles, survivors who were the family patriarchs, and other relatives made him aware of his heritage, but he was largely unin-terested. He explains that the trip was also a kind of atonement, for the years spent making fun and mimicking his stuttering relatives who survived Hitler’s Europe.

On their trip, the three meet up with relatives in Brussels who are kind but leery of their mission, but they introduce them to another relative, who changed his name from Jacov Pesach Morgenstern to J.P. Morgan – another kind of hiding – whose diaries become the basis for their quest. Through a series of seemingly serendipitous events, they manage to find many of the places they’re looking for and also find a little-known concen-tration camp in France, near the Pyrenees, abandoned but still in its original condition.

One son, mystified by the connections they make, suggests that “maybe we’re on like invisible railroad tracks that steer us into the things we want,” and the other says, “It’s like we’re inside a video game and God is playing us.”

Rose writes well, with wit and humor and attention to telling details. From the very beginning, in fact just after the table of con-tents, readers learn that “Hiding Places” is no ordinary memoir. In an author’s note, he explains that he has “taken pains to tidy and pace the narrative, to conflate some of the characters in order to lend focus to the structure, and occasionally to imagine details in an effort to convey the deepest sense of the sagas recounted herein.” Although he sticks strictly to the facts when it comes to details of the Holocaust, his other accounts are admittedly not literal. He sees the book as on the “cutting edge, expanding the notions of what nonfiction is, redefining what the memoir is.” His approach raises important questions about how events like the Holocaust are recorded and passed on, as the generation of survivors and witnesses is aging.

The trip was life changing for all of the Roses. The author, now remarried and the father of sons who are 2 and 5 (the older boys are 20 and 24), says that he’s on a path of increased Jewish iden-tification but still “in flux, still living among the Yankees” in a small Massachusetts town near Providence, Rhode Island. He’s working on a new book that’s a sequel, again weaving his own life stories with a larger story.