What would you do, if you found an artistic masterpiece that had been stolen during the Second World War?
The inspiration for AND AFTER THE FIRE, By Lauren Belfer
When I was growing up, World War II felt very close. Most of my grandmother’s relatives had disappeared during the Holocaust. Today when I see headlines about art looted during the war, with these stories often expanded into books, documentaries, and feature films, the subject feels compelling to me. What would I do, if I found an artistic masterpiece that had been stolen during Second World War?
In my family, art and music were important, and when I was young, I took piano lessons, as well as art lessons sponsored by the local museum. Years later, on a whim, I signed up for a course about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Although I wasn’t especially familiar with Bach’s work, I’d played some of his keyboard pieces during my lessons, and I’d attended holiday performances of the Brandenburg Concertos.
What I learned in the class surprised me. Bach’s music was more varied and magnificent than I’d ever imagined. But the sacred music sometimes carried an edge of religious contempt, of lashing out against Catholics, Muslims, Jews. Not a shock, of course, for Bach’s era, but hard to come to terms with after World War II and my own family’s history, and even harder to come to terms with because the music was so astonishingly beautiful. Was this exquisite music actually preaching a message of contempt?
One evening as I was walking home after class, I thought, what if I did find a work of art stolen during the war—not a painting, but an unknown choral masterpiece, a cantata, by Johann Sebastian Bach, and what if its content was, by modern standards, prejudicial and inflammatory?
This was the inspiration for my novel AND AFTER THE FIRE.
To research the idea, I read everything I could find about Bach and his family; the history of the Jews of Germany; the recovery of art that had been looted during the war. I cast a wide net. As always when I write historical fiction, I sought out letters, diaries, newspapers, and documents, to try to recapture what people were actually thinking at the time, as they lived their lives from day to day, without knowledge of the future. I examined paintings, drawings, and photographs, to conjure up a sense of the eras I’d be writing about. I decided to begin the novel with the theft of a fictional Bach cantata manuscript by an American soldier in the ruins of Germany at the end of the war. Then I shifted to present-day America, where a young woman, I called her Susanna Kessler, struggling to recover from a devastating act of violence, inherits the manuscript. She is driven to figure out what it is, and what to do with it.
Susanna’s questions about the cantata led me to explore a pivotal moment in German history: late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Berlin, where Christians and Jews mingled freely in literary and musical salons. I learned about the renowned musician Sara Itzig Levy, student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and great-aunt of composers Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Hensel. I’d played piano pieces by Felix Mendelssohn; I’d heard about his sister Fanny, her work suppressed because she was a woman. These individuals sparked my imagination.
On the surface, Sara Levy’s world appeared glittering, cultured, and harmonious. But as I continued to read letters and diaries, I realized that the confidence that Jews like Sara Levy felt regarding their place in German-speaking lands was misguided. Prejudice continually lurked beneath the surface. Sometimes hatred emerged forthrightly, in murderous pogroms, and at other times insidiously, as with an incident in 1811, dramatized in the novel, at Sara Levy’s home. I wanted to bring Sara and her family and friends to life, to explore the compromises they made, and the assurances they gave themselves, as they tried to navigate a hostile society.
I visited Germany four times to research the novel. My travels centered on Berlin, where Sara Levy and much of her family had lived, and Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn had lived and worked. Because of my family’s experiences in the war, I felt anxious planning my first trip to Germany. When I arrived in Berlin, however, I was surprised to find that I felt not only comfortable but very much at home. In my experience Germans have done an exemplary job in confronting the past and trying to atone for it. Only in Weimar did I feel awkward, when my husband and I drew stares during breakfast at our hotel as well as on our walks around the city. I can offer no explanation for the attention we garnered, but it was sufficiently disquieting that I included it in the novel. Also in Weimar, the concierge at our hotel refused to recognize the existence of Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp, described in every guidebook, located just outside the city. Why? I don’t know. This scene, too, is recreated in the book, and Susanna Kessler’s confusion paralleled my own.
During the years I worked on the novel, my family’s past came into the present through the discovery of long-forgotten letters and photographs. These led me to travel to the lovely Ukrainian city of Lviv, its fanciful architecture reminding me of fin de siècle Vienna. From there, I followed my family’s story to the village of Bratkowce, about an hour and half from Lviv, and finally to the mass grave in the farmland outside the nearby town of Stryj.
Originally, the word holocaust meant a consuming fire. What happens to those who remain alive after the fire, and to their children and grandchildren? How do they reconcile themselves, can they reconcile themselves, to what happened? I was thinking about these issues when I stumbled upon the words and after the fire in Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio ELIJAH, quoted in turn from the Old Testament. The phrase seemed to bring together the multiple strands of the novel, and I used it as the title.
AND AFTER THE FIRE took five years to research and write. The book unfolds across hundreds of years, on two continents, with a broad range of characters and their stories. When I reached the end, I finally understood that I was actually writing one story, urgently relevant to today’s concerns, told through the prism of a problematic artistic masterpiece and the individuals who must try to grasp its history, and their own.
Lauren Belfer’s second novel, A Fierce Radiance, was named a Washington Post Best Novel, an NPR Best Mystery, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her debut novel, City of Light, was a New York Times bestseller, as well as a number one Book Sense pick, a New York Times Notable Book, a Library Journal Best Book, and a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. It has been translated into six languages. AND AFTER THE FIRE comes out from Harper in May 2016.