Independent Press Award - 2017 WINNER!

I'm thrilled to announce that I've received national recognition through the INDEPENDENT PRESS AWARD®! This award recognizes excellence from small presses and independent publishers.

The INDEPENDENT PRESS AWARD gave 1st place honors to BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN, in two categories – General Fiction and Historical Fiction. The competition is judged by experts from all aspects of the book industry, including publishers, writers, editors, book cover designers and professional copywriters. They select award Winners and Distinguished Favorites based on overall excellence.

In 2017, we had worldwide participation, from London to Australia, from Portugal to Hong Kong, and are so proud to announce the winners and favorites in our annual INDEPENDENT PRESS AWARD. Independent publishing is alive and well, and continues to gain traction worldwide.
— Indpendent Press Awards sponsor Gabrielle Olczak

About the Book:

BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN, by Jack Mayer is based on the true story of a fascist assassin, Ernst Techow, and his complex and harrowing redemption. The novel is also a consideration of how Germany’s Weimar democracy became the Third Reich – a cautionary tale. How ordinary Germans became complicit in extraordinary crimes. Ernst Techow’s history is also the tender story of his inextinguishable passion for his first love, Lisa. Scholars of German history and the Holocaust have vetted the historical accuracy of BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN.

“Haunting echoes of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. . . “  US Review of Books

“. . . a strong, affecting novel . . . a story of immense human failure and touching redemption . . . it stands among the finer recent portrayals in fiction of the most troubling era of modern history.” – Jay Parini – Novelist, poet, essayist and D.E. Axinn Prof. of English and Creative Writing, Middlebury College – author of The Last Station.  

For more information about the award please visit: www.independentpressaward.com

The History of Weimar and the Rise of the 3rd Reich Matters:

 
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana (1863–1952), Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist
 

Santayana enjoins us to recognize the echoes of painful history and do what we can to prevent its recurrence. History is cyclical but we can never anticipate how recurrences will manifest. It’s never identical.

It is our unfortunate nature to project evil onto others as if we are not capable of it ourselves. In considering the history of Nazi Germany we do so at our peril. The Third Reich rose to power in Germany during the Weimar democracy that followed World War I. Germany, the nation that brought us Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Bertold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Schiller and others, an enlightened society with free elections and the rule of law, also brought us Hitler and the Nazis. A plurality of Germans voted for Hitler’s party and he became Chancellor in 1933 through legal parliamentary processes.

As Jochen Bittner noted in the New York Times (May 31, 2016) there were four conditions that cleared the path for the fall of the Weimar democracy and the rise of the Third Reich – economic depression, loss of trust in institutions, social humiliation and political blunder. I would suggest that these conditions exist again today. 

In a time of economic stress, Hitler and the Nazis pledged to “make Germany great again.” Ordinary citizens responded to the appeal of demagogues who used fear, populism, xenophobia, nationalism, bigotry and scapegoating, and the promise that an authoritarian ideology would save Germany from its decline. 

Hitler’s campaign was one of violence against individuals and groups, dependent on fear, and utilizing inaccurate historical analysis and outright lies to mobilize a vulnerable population. They demonized the press and developed a propaganda campaign of savage efficacy. They threatened the judiciary and the press. Few could envision the horrific outcome.

BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN, as historical fiction, animates and illuminates the history of Weimar and the rise of the Third Reich as a cautionary tale for our time as well. It is the story of how ordinary citizens, people no different than ourselves, became complicit in extraordinary crimes. Scholars of history and the Holocaust from Middlebury College and the University of Vermont Center for Holocaust Studies have vetted the historical accuracy of BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN.

Three themes informed my writing:

  1. How did Germans in a constitutional, democracy with free elections and the rule of law choose Hitler and the Nazis
  2. the unfathomable forgiveness of Frau Rathenau’s letter and its consequences, an inquiry into the complexity of redemption
  3. the inextinguishable love of Ernst and Lisa, buffeted by the rising storm-tide of the Third Reich

BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN tells the stories, real and imagined, of individuals embedded in this history. As a writer I use the particular to focus a larger reality.  History has the quality of fractals - similar patterns recurring at progressively smaller scales.  We glimpse a larger whole through examination of quotidian details, the ordinary lives we can relate to, that are the sub-atomic particles of history.

My hope is that by animating this history, readers will recognize the capacity inherent in each of us for unspeakable horror and remarkable goodness – our devils and our better angels.  We, too, have choices to make.  

 

The burden of the Holocaust inspired my deep-rooted mission for social justice

Jack, age 5

Jack, age 5

I was born in New York City in 1948, where German was my first language. My parents had narrowly escaped the Holocaust. My mother was from Mainz, my father from Munich. Some of my family did not escape. I grew up with the ever-present, but largely unspoken burdens of the Holocaust. My parents, my brother and I lived in the Washington Heights section of New York City, where German–Jewish survivors settled after the war. We lived in a street level tenement apartment with my grandmother, “Granny”, and Uncle Fred on Fort Washington Ave and 164th Street. (My father’s parents, Omi and Opi. Also lived in Washington Heights.) Everyone in the neighborhood spoke German. Business was conducted in German, at the butcher, the dairy, the fish store. Our newspaper, the local German language paper, Aufbau (German for "building up, construction"), a journal targeted at German-speaking Jews, a journal that was read around the world, had been founded in 1934. Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Stefan Zweig wrote for the publication. My Granny leaned out the window watching over my brother and me playing on the sidewalk with our German-Jewish friends. 

On those rare occasions when the adults spoke of the horrors they had witnessed and endured during the war, it was in hushed whispers, meant to be kept from the children. The Holocaust was the elephant in our cramped apartment, huge, but unacknowledged, at least to my brother and me. I could feel the ponderous weight of sorrow all around me. It was not articulated, yet it was everywhere; it was the atmosphere. 

When I was five years old and ready to start school, my parents, brother and I moved into an apartment of our own in the Marble Hill Projects seven subway stops uptown on the IRT subway line, in the Bronx. That’s when I learned to speak English and determined that I wanted to be an American. I shunned anything European – anything that suggested the “old country”. My parents’ accents irritated me – embarrassed me in front of my new American friends. Except with Granny, who refused to acclimate to her new country, I refused to speak German. She and Uncle Fred were orthodox Jews who prayed every day. Uncle Fred rocked back and forth – davening – and mumbling Hebrew prayers for everything. We visited every Friday night for Shabbos, and Granny obsessively blessed me and my brother in Hebrew with the Priestly Blessing. It was with pure love that she placed her soft, challah-dough hands on our heads.

"The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; 
the Lord turn his face toward you and grant you peace."

We bent forward to reluctantly accept her blessing, then went off to play again. 

In elementary school I was a behavior problem – the class clown. Every week the teacher sent a note home to my mother reporting on my conduct. I was a mediocre student, but one thing I really loved to do was write stories. My older brother helped me with math, science and grammar. I finally became a serious student in 7th grade, after being inspired by my music teacher, Mr. Gardner, to play the trumpet. I was a really good trumpet player, (1st chair in the all-Manhattan Jr. High School Orchestra) and I learned that I didn’t have to be the class clown to distinguish myself. 

The Holocaust lay dormant for me for many years, until at the age of 16, while on a teenage camping tour of Europe, I visited Dachau concentration camp. I was shocked by what I saw and I remembered the hushed conversations of my relatives about the Holocaust. When I left Dachau I wrote in the visitor’s book at the exit, with adolescent irony, “Never Again???” I was to learn more about Dachau five years later in a most remarkable fashion.

 

In the '60's, I became an anti-Vietnam war activist in medical school at NYU. I joined the Medical Committee for Human Rights, MCHR, a social justice organization of medical people - medical students, residents, leading physicians, academics. I advocated for anti-war causes and cared for people at anti-war demonstrations. In 1969 I was arrested as a medic at a Chicago anti-war riot. 

Jack and wife, Chip 1978 Enosburg Falls, VT

Jack and wife, Chip 1978 Enosburg Falls, VT

My legal case was eventually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court (Mayer vs. City of Chicago, 1971). It established the right of indigents wishing to appeal a misdemeanor conviction, to have their court costs paid by the state. In an article in the New York Times, an Illinois Supreme Court Justice marveled that in the United States a medical student could be legally considered an indigent. Yet, I owned nothing except a microscope and textbooks, and had medical school debts to repay (although small compared to medical student debt today). 

Dr. Jack and his office staff - 1981, Enosburg Falls, VT

Dr. Jack and his office staff - 1981, Enosburg Falls, VT

In 1976, after my pediatric residency at Stanford University and the University of Vermont, I established my first pediatric practice in rural Vermont, on the Canadian border, in eastern Franklin County,. Mine was the first established pediatric practice in the county. In the 1980's I was an anti-nuclear activist and a New England delegate to Physicians for Social Responsibility. I gave lectures and wrote about the medical consequences of nuclear war, protested in favor of arms limitation treaties and against nuclear power plants. As I look back now, I believe my deep-rooted sense of mission for social justice, to repair the world, stems from the burden of the Holocaust that I carried without knowing it.

Silence and denial about the Holocaust is a well-described phenomenon that affected Jewish survivors, soldiers returning from World War II, Germans, Poles, and other Europeans who were occupied by the Nazis. The horror was such that a kind of national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affected nearly everyone. The Holocaust was like the Evil Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter – “That which must not be named.” Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 punctured the abscess of silence. For the first time the testimony of survivors was permitted in court and became an archive of suffering and survival. Elie Wiesel’s “Night” was published. The stories continue to pour forth to this day. 

One evening, as a medical student at NYU, I came home for dinner with my family, something I did regularly. My Omi, my paternal grandmother sat at the table and, as the dishes were being cleared, she asked if I knew the story of my grandfather, Opi, and Dachau. I had never heard anything of this. She proceeded to tell the story of my grandfather being arrested on Kristallnacht in 1938 and imprisoned in Dachau. Omi went to high school with one of the administrative guards at the camp and was able to bribe him to secure my grandfather’s release after 6 months. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. Why did I not know this family history? Many years later, in the 1990’s, my parents were interviewed as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project and my mother produced her identification card stamped “Jew” and her nursing certificate from the Frankfurt Jewish Nursing School from which she graduated in 1938, stamped with swastikas.

My brother and I had never seen these long buried artifacts, which have further inspired my dedication to telling stories left untold. I finally understand my mission with regards to Holocaust history – to be a link in a long chain of storytellers who help us remember. As a pediatrician, I immunize against infectious disease; as a writer, I invoke memory as our best immunization against the atrocities humans inflict upon each other – an ethical immunization that fosters respect, love, and justice against the disease of intolerance, hatred, and violence. 

How I came to write BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN:

Jack, age 5

Jack, age 5

 In 1992 I attended a Yom Kippur service at Middlebury College. I am Jewish, but more secular than observant. As an adult I have made it my practice to at least attend some of the “high holy days” of the Jewish year, most particularly Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – the holiest of the holy days. As a child I had feared this day – it was the day that you prayed for God to “inscribe you in the book of Life” for the coming year. It was the day of reckoning when all my bad deeds from the previous year would be considered before a heavenly tribunal concluding with God’s judgment. If found wanting, I would die. Adding a physical dimension to my existential anxiety, I had to wear a suit, usually new wool pants in September, in New York City’s heat and humidity, that rubbed the insides of my thighs causing painful irritation. I bring some baggage to Yom Kippur services.

Jack, age 16

Jack, age 16

This particular service in 1992 was lead by Rabbi Fritz Rothschild, one of the founders and philosophers of the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism, a modern, progressive doctrine of Conservative Judaism. In his sermon, Rabbi Rothschild told the story of the t’shuvah – the turning from evil – of a young fascist assassin, Ernst Werner Techow, who participated in the 1922 murder of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, the highest-ranking Jew in the Weimar democracy.

On this holiest day in the Jewish year, Rabbi Rothschild told the story of a young man sympathetic with the early Nazis. His redemption was so moving and powerful that I began to research this history with thoughts of a book to flesh out the three themes that emerged – the rise of the Third Reich, unfathomable forgiveness, and the complexity of redemption. In the course of my research I obtained transcripts from the Library of Congress of Techow’s arrest, interrogation and trial. This was all in German and I needed translation help, so I sat in the library every week with Marita Schine, a German woman and a dear friend, translating these transcripts and trying to understand Ernst Werner Techow. His character grew in my mind, but his historical trail was thin and eventually ran dry. I subsequently learned that his redemption, the substance of Rabbi Rothschild’s sermon, was a fable. And so, this story became historical fiction. As I was writing, I kept these two epigraphs of the book before me: 

Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” – Picasso
What are our stories if not the mirrors we hold up to our fears?” – Wally Lamb (This One Thing I Know is True)