How a diplomat took on the Shoah

By Anne Sebba, April 11, 2008
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The Diplomat’s Wife
By Pam Jenoff
Mira, £6.99

Pam Jenoff’s first book, Kommandant’s Girl, had a striking cover of a Nazi in a greatcoat with swastika arm-band, locked in a clinch with a blonde woman in a red coat. Its author recalls: “initially, I had a visceral reaction against the picture, but I realised it provokes discussion about the Holocaust and that’s good. There are a lot of grey areas… it’s hard to judge people who had to live through these events.”

When Jenoff, who was born in Maryland but grew up in Pennsylvania, was a young diplomat working for the US State Department (having started at the Pentagon), her posting to Cracow in the late ’90s came at a critical time. Suddenly, issues that could not be resolved in Poland during Communist times — restitution of Jewish property and preservation of the concentration camps — came to the fore. Poland wanted Nato and EU membership.

“As a 24-year-old Jewish girl living on my own in the city, I was a natural to work on these tangled problems,” explains Jenoff. “In Cracow, the Jewish community became my second family. Although I came from a Reform background, I started going to Orthodox services most Friday nights and to the rabbi’s home on Shabbat.” She also went to Auschwitz almost 50 times — a key part of her job was escorting visiting VIPS to the camp, one of whom was current presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

After two years, Jenoff returned to the US and re-trained as a lawyer. One week before 9/11 she started a new life as an attorney. “That event made me realise that if I wanted to be a writer I had to get started,” she says.

She had plenty of raw material. She had left Cracow with one particularly strong image in her mind of a frightened mother and child walking across the main square during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Not knowing how to use it, she enrolled on a creative writing evening course enticingly entitled: “Write your novel this year.”

Then, fortuitously, she found herself on a train chatting to Shoah survivors who told her some extraordinary facts about the Cracow resistance, in particular about the bombing of a café frequented by Nazis.

Five years later, Jenoff had her cherished image form the opening scene of Kommandant’s Girl, which in turn became a 100,000 international bestseller — including a Polish edition.

Her current, second, novel, The Diplomat’s Wife — set against a Cold War background — takes the character Marta from her first, a character who, she says, “just came to me and demanded that her story be told”.

Jenoff, now in her mid-30s, has been writing stories since she was six and had her first published in a Jewish children’s magazine when still at school. Even now, with two books under her belt, she gets up daily at 5am, writes until 7am, and then goes off to work.

Married five months ago, and wanting to “have kids and write lots more books”, this is a seriously active woman.

She did an MA in history at Cambridge and found time while there to cox the men’s rowing team. Oh, and she is also a karate black belt…

Anne Sebba’s Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother is published by John Murray

    Last updated: 5:02pm, May 13 2008