One-Minute Book Reviews

August 3, 2009

Clara Kramer’s ‘Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival’ – A Teenager’s Holocaust

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:25 pm
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A first-person account of hiding in a bunker during the Nazi occupation of Poland

Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival. By Clara Kramer. With Stephen Glantz. Harper/Ecco, 339 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Clara Kramer tells us early in this book that when Nazis arrested Jewish leaders in her town in Poland in 1941, her mother donated “her wedding band” to help ransom them. More than 150 pages later, she says that her family had to pay a monthly fee to the Christians who were hiding them in a bunker, and when her parents ran out of money in 1944, her mother gave “her wedding ring”: “We didn’t sell it until now.”

This first quote comes from the story told in Clara’s War with the aid of screenwriter Stephen Glantz. The second comes from one of its excerpts from the teenage diary said to have inspired the narrative. The inconsistency between the two quotes – one of a number involving substantive facts – shows a problem with this book: Its publisher bills it as a “biography,” but it reads more like a novelization of a life.

As Clara’s War has it, five thousand Jews lived in Zolkiew, Poland, at the start of World War II, and about 50 survived. Clara Kramer was one of the lucky ones. She survived the Holocaust because an ethnic German named Valentin Beck hid her family and others for more than a year in a bunker under his house, “a space no larger than a horse stall.” Beck had a reputation as an anti-Semite, a drunk and a philanderer, and he appears to have had complex reasons, not all of them noble, for sheltering Jews during the Nazi occupation of Zolkiew. He often summoned one of the women in the bunker to his living quarters for trysts, and the affair may have begun before she arrived. His infidelity enraged his wife and, when it came to light, imperiled everyone under his roof.

If Clara’s War is accurate, the Becks were nonethess heroic, saving 18 Jews, and have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. Valentin’s acts of kindness included bringing the teenage Clara composition books and a blue pencil that she used to keep a diary, now in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But it is hard to know how accurate the book is. With Glantz’s help, Kramer describes many scenes in a detail few people could recall even with the help of a diary, such as line-by-line conversations complete with gestures and facial expressions. Some events serve literary purposes that seem too neat. One occurs in the prologue when the author is 12 years old and her sister leaves the shelter of an apple tree to look at bombers overhead – a foreshadowing of a disaster that will occur later. You never really see how 18 people could have survived in a crypt-like space the size of “a horse stall,” though the book has a diagram and says that the bunker still exists and the author and others have returned to it.

Kramer kept in touch with others saved by the Becks, and they and their descendants presumably have confirmed much of the story in Clara’s War. Even so, you wish the book had fewer inconsistencies and cinematic flourishes. The excerpts from the diary in the Holocaust Museum are fascinating in their own right, and you hope that readers someday will have a chance to read the entire journal in straight-up form.

Best line: “My father, like every Jewish business owner in town, had his business confiscated by the Nazis. We had to wear the white armband with the blue Jewish star above the right elbow. Any offense was punishable by death. The day the order for the armbands came down, none of us could leave the house until my mother had embroidered them. It took Mama over two hours to do one armband.”

Worst line: “My father’s family was so religious that they had had considered it irrelevant to have their weddings recorded by the state. So even though we went by the name of Schwartz in our day-to-day life, all of our official papers, including my birth certificate, bore the name of Gottlieb.” Why Gottlieb? Was Gottlieb carried over from previous generations not mentioned in the book? Or did ultra-religious Jews choose it because it means “God love”?

Published: 2009 (first American edition), 2008 (British edition from Ebury Press, part of Random House).

Watch a video of Clara Kramer talking about the Holocaust and her book.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to Clara’s War: All But My Life, a beautifully written memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein and a pillar of Holocaust literature.

Furthermore: Kramer lives in Elizabeth, NJ. She helped found the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University in Union, NJ. Glantz is a screenwriter. The inconsistencies cited in the first paragraph of this review appear on pages 43 and 219 of the book and can be confirmed by using the “Browse Inside” tool on the HarperCollins Web site to search for “her wedding band” and “her wedding ring.”

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 17, 2008

Miracle on 82d Street — ‘The Red Leather Diary’ Tells the True Story of a Journal That Found Its Way Back to Its Owner Decades After She Abandoned It

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:28 pm
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A young reporter learned what the phrase “sex and the city” used to mean when she set out to find the owner of a red leather diary that turned up in a Dumpster at 82d Street and Riverside Drive

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal. By Lily Koppel. Foreword by Florence Howitt. HarperCollins, 321 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

One of Florence Wolfson’s high school teachers sent a note to her parents saying that she had an unhealthy need for attention. Lily Koppel never says so directly, but the comment seems to have meant: Your daughter believes she deserves as much attention as a boy. It is this quality above all that gives piquancy to the teenage journal that Wolfson kept from 1929–1934, then abandoned.

Koppel was a 22-year-old reporter when the red leather diary turned up in a Dumpster at an apartment building at 82d Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. With the help of a private detective, she tracked down its author, who was in her 90s and living in Connecticut and Florida. Florence Wolfson Howitt told her that she had married an oral surgeon, raised two daughters and developed – to her regret – “a country-club mentality” at odds with her youthful independence and ambition.

But she agreed to cooperate on The Red Leather Diary, a book that intersperses excerpts from her diary with Koppel’s reporting on its era. Koppel evokes capably a time when Mr. Kool, a penguin in a top hat in Times Square, promised that “even if you cough like crazy, Kools still taste fresh as a daisy.” But this book belongs to the young Florence Wolfson, who kept her diary between the ages of 14 and 19. Wolfson emerges from its entries and photographs as brainy, perceptive, beautiful and, for the Depression, rich. She had a gift for attracting men and women, whether she was touring Europe or vacationing in the Catskills or holding a salon for the poet Delmore Schwartz and others in her parents’ Upper East Side apartment. More unusually for a woman of her era, she claimed right to enjoy the benefits of her appeal: She had affairs with women at Hunter College and in Italty with a man who claimed to be a count.

“Reading ‘Hedda Gabler’ for the tenth time,” Florence writes in one entry. “An interview with Bruno Walter – a vigorous, intense man whose sincerity & love for music are so creative – made me feel degenerate,” she says in another entry, made while she was working on the Hunter literary magazine. “I know now that obscurity for me is disastrous – Have not the respect for people which flatters them and believe implicitly in the superiority of my taste,” she says in a third. “Result – conflict.”

Koppel doesn’t probe too deeply into how Wolfson made peace with the obscurity that nonetheless found her when, after a period as a freelance writer, she seems to have made her husband and children her career. And Koppel writes at times in a gee-whiz tone that makes her appear less worldly her subject was at a similar age.

In a sense, that’s the point of The Red Leather Diary — few young women are as as worldly. Wolfson laments to Koppel that people don’t “think and live philosophy” anymore. “I can’t imagine my grandchild or great-grandchild or anyone writing this,” she says of her diary.

The comment rings true. Wolfson’s sense of herself didn’t go underground in adolescence, as Mary Pipher has said that it does for many girls, despite her parents’ belief that her main task was to find a rich husband. The Red Leather Diary leaves you with the sense that if Ophelia was revived in Florence’s life, she was revived not during her teenage years but during her marriage. It also suggests that work on this book helped to restore her feeling of independence. How nice to know that, for a certain kind of woman, it’s never to late to put Ophelia to rest.

Best line: From Wolfson’s teenage diary: “To Gertrude’s tonight and met boys who shocked me into respect – brilliant, thoughtful, gentle and mentally fastidious – the conversation sometimes oppressed me – it was too logical.” Gertrude is Wolfson’s friend Gertrude Buckman, who married the poet Delmore Schwartz.

Worst line: Koppel says that when Wolfson began graduate school at Columbia University, “St. John the Divine was on its way to becoming the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.” Gothic cathedrals were built during the Middle Ages. St. John the Divine is Gothic Revival, an architectural style also called neo-Gothic. Koppel also reports that Wolfson tried on coats “in one of the shops on Princess Street” in Edinburgh when she appears to mean Princes Street.

Editor: Claire Wachtel

Published: April 2008

Read an excerpt at:

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle You can read more of her comments on books and life by searching for “Janice Harayda” on Twitter or subscribing to her Twitter feed.

One-Minute Book Reviews is a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It does not accept free books from editors, publishers, authors, or agents or others whose books may be reviewed on this site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


July 14, 2008

A Review of ‘The Red Leather Diary’ — Coming This Week

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:45 pm
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In 2003 the journalist Lily Koppel found a battered red leather diary from the 1930s in a dumpster front of her New York apartment building, which was being renovated. Koppel saw that the journal had belonged to an intelligent and high-spirited woman whom she tracked down with the help of a private investigator and found to be in her 90s and living in Connecticut and Florida. In The Red Leather Diary Koppel tells the true story of the life of Florence Wolfson Howitt, who helped her see her own youthful experiences in a fresh context. A review of the book will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews later this week.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reseved.

April 3, 2008

‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’ – New in Paperback

Filed under: Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:49 pm
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No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club (Plume, 240 pp., $14, paperback) isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary or the masterpiece from which it descends, Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Virginia Ironside bravely assaults fashionable clichés of old age in this comic novel, subtitled Diary of a 60th Year, which has just come out in paperback. Among the ideas scorned by her diarist, Marie Sharp, are that people help their heirs by planning their own funerals and that a funeral shouldn’t be funeral but rather “a celebration” of a life. Marie is also bold enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” A review of and reading group guide to No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 29, 2007

Virginia Ironside’s Comic Novel, ‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’

An English grandmother hasn’t had sex in five years and isn’t sure she wants it

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is a backlash building against all those articles that say that you’re never too old to don a zip line and swing through a Costa Rican jungle? First Nora Ephron told us in I Feel Bad About My Neck that it’s “sad” to be over 60. Now Virginia Ironside writes in this fictionalized diary that the great thing about being old is that there are so many things you can’t do. “You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping!” her heroine tells an obtuse therapist. “It’s a huge release!”

This concept could be a tougher sell in U.S. than in Britain, where Ironside writes an advice column for the Independent. Her diarist, 60-year-old Marie Sharp, calls herself “old.” How many Americans in their 60s do you know who describe themselves that way? Don’t look to Ironside to soft-soap you with you with euphemisms like “older” for “old” and “midlife” for “anywhere between 40 and death.”

If Marie is blunt, she isn’t mean-spirited. She is kind, cheerful, active and devoted to her friends and a newborn grandson who lives near her home in west London. And although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – if a nice, rich, attractive childhood friend doesn’t change her mind.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the comic masterpiece from which Helen Fielding’s novel descends, E. M. Delafield’s great Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Ironside’s book has much more to say about being old – sorry, “older” — than bestsellers like The Red Hat Club or Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. And Marie’s opinions, if not the plausibility of the plot, give her story its own appeal.

Ironside mounts a worthy assault on many popular beliefs that were overdue for it, such as the idea that people help their survivors by planning their own funerals (and that funerals shouldn’t be funerals at all but rather “a celebration” of a life). And Marie is the rare heroine bold — or perhaps reckless — enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” Naturally, Viking has published a reading group guide the novel.

Best line: “I don’t think those oldies who spend their lives bicycling across Mongolia at eighty and paragliding at ninety, are brilliant specimens of old age. I think they’re just tragic failures who haven’t come to terms with aging. They’re the sort of people who disapprove of face-lifts, and yet, by their behavior, are constantly chasing a lost youth.”

Worst line: Marie makes a show of not wanting to learn Italian but seems unaware that her French needs help. For example, she thinks “Champs-Elysées” and “allô” have no accents. (My computer can’t show the one on the capital e.) Marie also quotes a French guest as saying “allô” in person. The French use “allô” only on the telephone. And isn’t credible that Marie’s guest would say this face-to-face, even as a bastardized “Hello,” when the correct bonjour is universally known. Marie also has an odd way of trying to show a friend that she knew what she “was talking about” in a discussion of AIDS. She speaks of “the HIV virus” when the V in HIV stands for “virus.”

Reading group guides: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007. You can find the Penguin guide in the reading groups page at

Published: April 2007


You may also want to read: Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006), reviewed on this site on Oct. 14, 2006, and archived with the October posts:

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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