Friday, May 03, 2019

Uncovering little-known chapters in history through family lore, an essay by Julie Zuckerman, author of The Book of Jeremiah

A warm welcome and happy release day today to Julie Zuckerman, author of the novel-in-stories The Book of Jeremiah.  I read her post avidly since I seek out fiction that's connected to family history research.  Hope you'll appreciate her essay as well.


Uncovering Little-Known Chapters in History
Through Family Lore 
Julie Zuckerman

From an early age, I was fascinated by the family tidbits I’d hear from my mother and other relatives. I made elaborate family trees, thrilled I could fill in the names and birthplaces of at least eight of my great-great-great-grandparents. Like most Jews of Eastern European descent, my relatives were born in shtetls, small villages, in the Galicia region of what is now Poland, or in areas of Russia or Lithuania. The migration to the United States of my immediate ancestors began with one set of great-grandparents, who arrived in the 1880s on their honeymoon, and finished in 1929, when my then-17-year-old grandmother and her two younger brothers joined their father and an older sister already in America.

I captured micro-details in hand-written notes or early word processing programs (“He was tall and had a sense of humor” or “Her three children were very bright”). Some bits had slightly more narrative to them, such as this note from a conversation with my great-uncle, who never lost his thick Galician accent: [sic] “There was no problems. We had no problems, but in 1919 there was a pogrom and 22 people died. The pogrom was on a Thursday morning…”

With so many family details and characters filling my head, naturally I used many of them as inspiration for various plotlines and backstories in my new novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah. There is mention of someone dressed as a woman and smuggled out of Russia to avoid the Czar’s army (inspired by my great-grandfather), civil rights volunteers in Mississippi during Freedom Summer (after writing the story, I learned my uncle was one of them); and Jeremiah himself, who serves in the U.S. Signal Corps during World War II (inspired by my grandfather).

The Book of Jeremiah spans eight decades, from the Depression to the modern age, with stories jumping back and forth in time. Conducting research was one of the highlights of the writing. I’d delve into a historical event, or Google things like “Depression-era Bridgeport” to see photographs and get an idea for a detail, and I’d come away with new ideas for characters or the plot.

One example that unfolded this way was the knowledge that my relatives were—and are—Zionists who believed Jews should have a homeland. For example, David Ben-Gurion, who later became Israel’s first Prime Minister, stayed with my great-grandparents on an early fundraising trip to Albany. The need to realize this vision became more acute, of course, once the horrors of the Holocaust were well-known.

Photo of the author's grandfather in the Army

In 1947, the United Nations approved the Partition Plan to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but it was clear the surrounding Arab countries were gearing up for war. Shortly after the UN vote, President Truman—urged on by his formidable Secretary of State George Marshall—invoked the Neutrality Act, making it illegal to supply arms to either side of the brewing conflict. Frightened by the prospect of what would happen to the 600,000 Jews in Palestine, not a few of whom had already survived the concentration camps, American Jews mobilized their support behind The Jewish Agency, the highest political body of the Jewish people, and its defense wing, the Haganah. My great-uncle and my cousin, a teenager at the time, became part of network of gunrunners, smuggling arms and supplies to the Haganah.

My uncle and a friend would pack up guns, their wives serving as lookouts, and they’d make deliveries of the packages to somewhere in Queens, with “Hadassah” written on the boxes. My cousin remembers walking through Grand Central Station, nervous as hell, carrying a stash of guns in his gym bag. The gunrunners were helped by dozens of non-Jews as well: Irish-American longshoremen and police officers, even the mayor of New York, who sympathized with their cause.

In researching this chapter of American Jewish history and working this family tidbit into my story “Clandestiny,” the most fascinating character I came across was Adolph “Al” Schwimmer. Schwimmer was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force in World War II and awarded a medal of valor for his service. In 1947, at the request of Ben Gurion, he left his job as a flight engineer at TWA to recruit fellow airmen and buy planes for the Israeli Air Force-in-formation. He headed a vast aircraft smuggling operation, which included purchasing and refurbishing used aircraft, including U.S. military planes, which were flown to Israel via Florida and Czechoslovakia under the guise of a fictious Panamanian airline. Over 30 bombers and cargo planes were acquired in this manner. Schwimmer was nearly arrested several times before fleeing to Canada and then to Israel, where he continued to help the nascent Israeli Air Force during the War of Independence. Schwimmer – Ben Gurion said at the time – was the Diaspora’s single-most important contribution to the young state’s survival.

author Julie Zuckerman
Shortly after his return to the United States in 1949, Schwimmer and five others were tried and convicted of violating the Neutrality Act. The judge stripped Schwimmer of his voting rights and his veteran benefits and slapped him with a $10,000 fine, but he did not sentence him to any jail time. Schwimmer went on to move to Israel, where he founded Israel’s largest aerospace company. Though Schwimmer never asked for a pardon – he worried that a second Holocaust might be perpetrated should Israel lose the war—but President Bill Clinton granted him one in 2001.

A few months after I wrote the first draft “Clandestiny,” in which one of plotlines takes inspiration from Schwimmer’s story, he passed away on his 94th birthday. The full story of how American Jews like Schwimmer and my relatives helped the young Jewish state is too complex for the space allotted, though I remember thinking at the time of my research that if I should ever write a biography, I would be honored to write his. According to one obituary, Schwimmer resisted all appeals to write his memoir, asking, “Who would be interested?” From the small amount that I learned through my research, I can imagine many who would be.


Julie Zuckerman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including The SFWP Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Salt Hill, Sixfold, Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis, The Coil, and others. The Book of Jeremiah, her debut novel-in-stories, was the runner-up in the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and is due in May 2019. A native of Connecticut, she resides in Modiin, Israel, with her husband and four children. Learn more at

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