Monthly Archives: December 2007

BOOK BEAT 60 – Bernd Wollschlaeger

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   December 26, 2007 – January 1, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

There is a Yiddish word – beshert – that means something like “destined” or “meant to be.” For Bernd Wollschlaeger it seemed “beshert” that he should find his way to an embrace with Judaism and to Israeli citizenship. The son of a German tank commander who was decorated for  serving his country faithfully and who turned a blind eye to Nazi monstrosities, Bernd Wollschlaeger walked a path that had little logic or predictable progression. At various steps along the way, a compelling spiritual energy urged him along. Dr. Wollschlaeger, who is now a family physician and addiction specialist in Miami, tells his story in “A German Life: Against All Odds, Change Is Possible.” 

The story is framed by a scene at the Bamberg cemetery in December of 2004. After estrangement and long absence, the Jewish Miami doctor visits the graves of his Catholic parents, graves curiously located near a wall that separates Christian from Jewish burial plots. Across the wall from where he stands are tall gravestones bearing the Star of David. It is Wollschlaeger’s fate to psychically hover above that wall, his identity in a complex flux of pain and joy, of historical and familial forces and deeply personal longings and choices.

The body of the book tells of a young boy’s curiosity about things that no one wished to talk about. Born in 1958 into a non-practicing Catholic family, young Bernd is driven to ask questions about Germany’s Nazi past. He finds what he comes to understand later as a collective, willed amnesia. His father is a classic case of the “just following orders” patriot, a man who seems haunted by repressed guilt feelings, but who nonetheless insists that he had done nothing wrong and who was proud of his war record. Still, the alcoholism and abusive outbursts barely mask deep-seated conflicts within the war hero turned civil defense administrator. There is a buried self-hatred that turns him into a cold, cruel, distant parent – one who cannot give or receive the love of his son and finally poisons that love. The truths Bernd seeks are ones that his father cannot face.  

His protective mother is generally ineffective in bring her husband and son together; she is also hiding parts of the past, though she is more open emotionally.

A turning point in young Bernd’s life is the 1972 Munich Olympics. He is attracted to the Israeli athletes and their national flag, saddened at their death by Palestinian terrorists on German soil, and outraged at the attitudes that his father and countrymen reveal. A year later, he is stirred by the Yom Kippur War. Bernd’s continued quest for understanding continues to alienate him from his father and, to some extent, from his German identity. The usual generational rebellion of a teenager is complicated by Bernd’s personal quest. In 1979, while a dentistry student at the University of Bonn, Bernd views the American television series on the Holocaust that is shown for the first time in Germany. At about the same time, he hears about and attends a peace conference in Koblenz featuring Arab and Jewish Israeli youth.

“Beshert” also means something like “soulmate,” the person with whom one is destined to unite.  A gorgeous young Israeli woman whom Bernd meets at this conference seems for a while to fill this role. Vered certainly becomes his muse, his inspiration, and when he finally decides to visit Israel, she is an important part of his motive and his education. But the country itself is really the soulmate, the beloved, and eventually – after serious self-questioning and extensive study leading to his conversion to Judaism – the man now known as Dr. Wollschlaeger (he had switched from dentistry to general medicine) makes aliyah (immigrates under the Law of Return) to Israel. The author details his experiences as a medical officer in the Israel Defense Force, and he records as well his complex and meaningful encounters with Israel’s Arabs.

The more recent years in Wollschlaeger’s life, including his two marriages and relocation to Miami, are handled in summary fashion, as the main theme of his personal transformation is largely complete when he adopts Israel as his spiritual and political home.

Though plagued by sloppy proofreading, “A German Life” (published by Emor Publishing) is a colorful, moving, and highly informative narrative. A spiritual quest rooted in contemporary history, it is an important contribution to the literature of self-creation.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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BOOK BEAT 59 – Linnea Sinclair (2)

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   December 5-11, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

So, imagine yourself as a gorgeous, hardbodied chick – good-looking and toned because, like most of your kind, you’ve been genetically engineered a bit. You are a commander bucking for captain in a space warrior career in which there is still a bit of a glass ceiling for women. Your mission takes you to the low-class dirt planet, Earth, far from your own world of sophisticated technological advances and intergalactic transport. The subservient, robotic creatures that your scientists have devised, for “good reasons” of course, have undergone alterations and are now a threat – and Earth has become their breeding ground. Indeed, an Agent previously sent to report on these Zombies has instead been silenced by them.

You have been raised to think of Earthlings as inferior beings, and in many ways they are. Still, these “nils,” as they are patronizingly called, are not so very different from your people. Many of them speak a language that (conveniently) is almost identical to a language known to the humans in your world (or galaxy or system or whatever it is). They have a rudimentary technology, and their security organizations are not unlike the Guardian Force in which you serve. Their projectile weapons are unexpectedly effective when your advanced armaments are compromised. As you later discover, they have, by comparison, an abundance of delicious fresh water as well as bliss-inspiring foods like peanut butter and pizza.

How backward could they be? 

Or pretend you are a homicide detective who works out of Bahia Vista – a mid-sized city on the Gulf Coast of Florida that could easily be mistaken for St. Petersburg. Ready for vacation, you are plunged into a strange case involving a mummified corpse and unusual computer-like gadgetry. Low and behold, this edgy, alluring alien babe named Jorie Mikkalah comes into your life, becoming a reluctant and mysterious partner in the mummy case, which suddenly turns into a crisis of cosmic dimensions.

It is a romance? Is it sci-fi fantasy? Is it satire? RITA-award winner Linnea Sinclair’s “The Down Home Zombie Blues” is all three. Most of all, it is great fun.

In watching the conjoined missions of Sergeant Theo Petrakos and Commander Jorie Mikkalah unfold, readers will find themselves readily accepting the premises that Sinclair offers. The author works two sides of the street in order to make her “what if” believable within the covers of the book. On the one hand, she herself has done the imagining and pretending in such detail – has created such a rich texture of circumstance and sensory experience and human psychology – that it is easy to suspend disbelief and join the adventure.

Beyond the credibility factor is Sinclair’s engaging flight of whimsy. The Tampa-St. Pete Florida that is the novel’s main setting takes on new dimensions as she embroiders it with the alien perspective of Jorie and her shipmates. Sinclair has fun with her genre as well, paying homage to the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” sagas through light-hearted allusions. It’s as if Theo Petrakos knows something about how Jorie’s spacecraft travels because he has grown up on Star Trek episodes. Jorie wonders how Theo, a nil, can grasp such advanced principles. And there is a Wookie-like being in a walk-on part.

Those of us who have watched enough “Star Trek” know how often viewers were teased with relationships or at least temptations between Captain Kirk and alien super-femmes. Sinclair has developed something like that, though Theo is not from the future. He is fully one of us. High-spirited sex spices Sinclair’s novel, which also probes serious relationship issues such as loyalty to the yearnings of the heart versus one’s responsibilities to duty and to the codes of one’s civilization. These two attractive figures wrestle with such conflicts in credible and meaningful ways.

But let me not turn “The Down Home Zombie Blues” into something heavy. Through her dynamic and well-conceived major characters, her rounded supporting cast, her engaging and far-ranging vision, her narrative skill, and her playful tone, Neapolitan Linnea Sinclair has provided a lively and provocative entertainment. And I haven’t even told you about the Tresh or the veterinarian, or that the title song is included.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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