Gloria Garfunkel is a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University. She has published short stories, flash, microfiction and memoir in Natural Bridge, Eclectica, Six Sentences, and a collection called A Perilous Calling and she will be publishing stories in several upcoming journals. She currently posts stories at the online writing community Fictionaut.
Gloria Garfunkel interview with Meg Tuite First off I want to say “WOW!” This group of stories most definitely packs a punch. And your choice of narrator is brilliant. A six year old girl trying to understand the Holocaust, Chanukah vs Christmas, the adults around her that she attempts to interpret and overlay with her knowledge of the fairy tales she reads and a God that she cannot incorporate into her world.
“My fat fairy tale book had far more impressive rescue missions than God’s Chanukah lights trick.”
“My friends claimed Jesus walked on water, but so could I when the pond froze. Maybe God was getting old, or wearing down like a battery.”
Tell me about this first story “Birds of Prayer. 1. Snowflakes Like Stars of David.” Was this the first story of the collection that you wrote and if so, can you remember what the first inspiration for this was?
The stories all began with writing my mother’s own story about the Holocaust that I heard over and over my whole childhood. This particular story was a gradual expansion of the actual slaughtering of the chickens, ducks and geese I witnessed on the farm I lived on as a child and that is the central action of the story. I wanted to paint a picture of the context of this isolated Jewish farm far away from the Holocaust, cut off from other Jews, and yet immersed in the Holocaust psychologically and spiritually. I liked the idea of starting off by picking up the koshering Jewish chicken killer at the train station as trains also resonant images of the Holocaust.
Bird of Prayer: The Chicken Killer From Brooklyn and His Satchel of Death.”
“At the start of each school day, I, the only Jew, knowing my parents would completely forbid this, bowed my head over clasped hands, reciting the Lord’s Prayer with everyone else. I rehearsed as a snowflake dancing around the Christ child for Christmas pageants my parents never allowed me to attend. My life might someday depend on such stealthy camouflage, as it once had for my cousin Shifra, twelve years older than me, the daughter of my father’s brother, Isha. She had survived the Holocaust pretending to be a Christian child.”
This amazing narrator lets us know that she is ahead of the game and trying to figure out how to survive, knowing that it can happen again at any turn. Even the adults around her are not giving her the information that she needs. She must infiltrate the enemy in order to find a way to live. She is astute and on her guard listening to all that filters through. Tell me more about the inspiration for this unforgettable narrator.
My Orthodox Jewish parents on a farm had no choice but to send me to public school and they had no idea what went on there, the intense indoctrination into Christianity that took place in public schools in the 1950’s when I was the only Jew in school chanting The Lord’s Prayer every morning and practicing Christmas pageants and carols and Easter egg hunts. I viewed it as secret boot camp for when the Nazis returned and was grateful for the indoctrination.
Birds Of Prayer: The Snow Queen
“Are kosher chickens Jewish once they’re dead?”
God, I love this narrator. Can you tell us more about the collection to come? I cannot wait!
The five more parts can be read on the Fictionaut website and describe the actual slaughters, her reactions and an episode of cutting herself to see what the chickens were feeling. The ending is my favorite, a dream in which she flies over the farm as its protector.
There are five more Serial Flash Stories I’m working on that will be a book. It includes some shorter flashes as well. Each one is focused on a different aspect of Orthodox Judaism and the specific symbols and my own fears related to the Biblical portions associated with that time of year and linked to the Holocaust.
I also have a collection of funny Kafkaesque micro and flash fiction which will likely be a second book ten years from now, at my rate.
Does this amazing young girl have any similarity with you as a girl?
There was never any question in my mind that this girl was me. The question was do I present it in the guise of fiction or come out courageously and be myself in memoir. I wrote many third person versions over many years and eventually, finally, I switched it to first and it clicked and felt true to myself and the events. I also felt guilty using third person because I felt it contributed to Holocaust denial and that no matter the cost to me, I would write what was true. I’m old enough now not to care anymore what people think.
I don’t think of this girl as amazing. She was a child who felt both very frightened by God’s powers and very defiant of him as the biggest hypocrite of the universe. I think of her as thinking exactly as I did at that age. She tried to understand the contradiction between the loving, protecting God my parents believed in with an all-powerful God who let six million Jews die and millions of others, like my parents, much more pious than me, to be damaged for life. I could never understand why my parents stayed loyal to him. Now I realize it was a way to stay loyal to their families, to keep their traditions alive.
Any family stories that were handed down that relate to these tales?
One Yom Kippur a Gestapo had my mother and other prisoners stand in the freezing rain naked for hours and laughed “Where is your God now?” This was a favorite form of Nazi torture. Staying religious for my parents I now realize was their form of defiance against Hitler.
What is your family background? Where did you grow up?
I spent the first happy part of my childhood on a chicken farm in New Jersey with my grandfather and my adolescence absolutely miserable in a claustrophobic Orthodox Jewish suburb in Elizabeth, New Jersey where I made the weird transition from an all-Christian public school to a Jewish parochial school where everyone knew Hebrew and went to services on Saturdays. The suburb was like an Eastern European shtetl with a despotic chief Rabbi who ran the show.
Tell me when you first started writing and what you were most inspired to write about?
Alix Kates Shulman was my first writing teacher in a women’s writing workshop after college. I credit her with helping me to find my voice. At the same time I was an investigative journalist for Majority Report, a radical feminist newspaper edited by Nancy Borman who had tremendous faith in my writing and gave me the most adventurous assignments.
Who are the writers that have had the most influence on you and your writing?
Franz Kafka for a million reasons having to do with his writing, his life, his personality and his three sisters dying in the Holocaust.
Who are you reading at this time?
Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Lydia Davis’ translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.
What advice would you give to new writers out there? What helped you the most?
Being honest with myself and writing what I most fear. Write it over and over from every perspective until it feels right. Avoid writing workshops and spend your money on writing manuals you can skim for information and on the classics. Read, read, read. Read books in translation for other perspectives. Let one book lead to the other. I always read two books at once for the contrast.
If you can afford to, take a sabbatical. Maxine Hong Kingston said that losing her job was the best thing that ever happened to her because it led to her novel.
I spent the last thirty years of my life as a psychotherapist listening to other people’s stories and helping them and now it is my turn to tell my own stories and help myself. Life is short. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
If you had to choose any character from a fairy tale, who would you most want to be and why?
Two heroic girls. Without a doubt Gretel who saves herself and her brother Hansel from the oven of the wicked witch, for obvious Holocaust reasons. And Gerda who saves her friend Kay from the frozen Snow Queen’s death with her hot tears of grief. Strategy and emotion. I feel like Gloria, Gretel, and Gerda appear as the protective bird at the end of my story.
Give me a quote that sustains you when times are difficult.
Jerzi Ficowski, Holocaust survivor, poet, and Christian member of the Polish resistance: “To be silent I lie.”
This very much applies to the silent German “bystanders” and to us, today, as bystanders to Obama funding new nuclear power plants despite Fukushima. If we don’t speak up for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we are complicit in future nuclear holocausts. There are plenty of websites for good information and communication. Start with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRC).
Thank you so much, Gloria, for your pure brilliance! I will be the first in line to get a copy of your collection when it comes out and without a doubt it will be one hell of a long line! I so appreciate the insight you’ve shared with us.
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