About The Sweetness
About the novel
Early in The Sweetness, a young girl asks her grandmother why she is carrying only a jug of sliced lemons and ice water when their family is forced by the Germans to leave their home. "Something sour to remind me of the days of sweetness," she tells the child, setting the theme for what they both must remember in order to survive.
Set during World War II, the novel is the parallel tale of two Jewish girls, cousins living on separate continents, whose strikingly different lives promise to one day connect and converge. Brooklyn-born Mira is the eighteen-year-old daughter of Charles Kane, a hard-working, successful manufacturer of women’s knitwear. Her cousin, eight-year-old Rosha Kaninsky, is the lone survivor of a family in Lithuania exterminated by the invading Nazis. But unbeknownst to her American relatives, Rosha did not perish, unlike nearly all the Jewish population of Vilna the summer of 1941. Desperate to save Rosha during a round-up of their shtetl, her father thrusts her into the arms of Marta Juraska, a Polish Catholic candle maker, who hides the girl in a root cellar─putting her own children at risk. Marta’s husband, Avram─a Jew─is a member of the Judencrat, the council that answers to the Nazis. But when Avram is forced to make a moral choice, everything changes.
Meanwhile, the headstrong Mira—who dreams of escaping Brooklyn for career as a Hollywood fashion designer—finds her ambitions abruptly thwarted. Her father Charles, traumatized at the fate of his European relatives, will brook no dissent in safeguarding his family from the threats of the outside world. All the Kanes must challenge his unuttered but profoundly injurious survivor guilt. They endure the experience of the Jews who got out, revealing how even, in the safety of our lives, we are profoundly affected by the circumstances of others.
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Behind the Book—The Sweetness: the girl on the cover
"So," some may ask, "is that you on the book cover?" I shake my head…no. There’s no need to explain that the child adorning the cover of my novel, The Sweetness, was born years before me; and no need to say "but, we are related," and certainly no need to mention, although we are second cousins, we have never met. Yet what burns inside me is a yearning to tell all, every single detail about the story.
The truth is, though it would take years, writing became a way of breathing life into the girl seen on the cover of The Sweetness, her face unforgettable, her eyes, in particular, haunting and as inquisitive as the persona I created for her in this novel inspired by my family’s complicated history. Her real name, Rosha, is the name I chose to give her. I saw no reason to alter that particular truth. She came into my life quite unexpectedly about fifteen years ago on a chilly, dark, December afternoon while I was visiting my great aunt's tiny studio apartment in Brooklyn─ in a neighborhood where she’d lived for over fifty years, the last twenty as a widow.
When she could no longer travel to spend time with my family, I would try a couple of times a month to visit her and bring lunch … usually fresh bagels and smoked salmon from the city. I could almost mouth her words as soon as she took her first bite: "These are ridiculous … too big for human consumption." Actually, though difficult to please, she was right, and so we ate our lunch in silence, me not wishing to rattle her mood. But I somehow always knew she was glad for my company. In her younger, healthier, days, she often joked saying she was my real mother. My aunt had married late in life and never had kids of her own.
It was after lunch on one of those visits that, instead of dozing off in her favorite tufted high-back chair in the steamy living room, my aunt reached into her linen closet and took down a round metal cookie box, which she placed smack in the center of her kitchen table. Thinking (hoping) maybe the box contained cookies, perhaps even sugar-coated butter cookies, I pried open the lid to find the box stuffed to the brim with tattered documents and letters. With pale arms crossed against her chest, my aunt sat back and gazed out the tiny window streaked with winter's dirt. I babbled on quickly riffling through the floral embossed box, as if searching for the crackerjack prize, and after some minutes I selected a thick envelope yellowed from time. Inside, there was an official looking document from Riga, Latvia─ a telegram addressed to my grandfather, my aunt's older brother, from relatives announcing the birth of their baby named Rosha, who they announced was doing well. The year stamped on the document was 1931.
A sepia photograph slipped from the envelope onto the table, and suddenly there she was … the child, no longer a baby, perhaps five or six years old. I held that photo in my hands for a very long time, glancing up at my aunt whose eyes had quickly reddened. In another photo I recognized my grandmother riding in a horse and buggy and sitting alongside a woman with the little girl, who was the child’s mother. My grandmother, spiffy in a large brimmed hat looked like a sophisticated traveler totally out of her element─ far from her busy life in Brooklyn with her own two children, one of whom was to become my mother.
These photos were taken during my grandparents’ final trip to Europe, right before Hitler came into power causing so many Jews to flee to what they thought were safer places. It was on that same trip I learned, only in the last decade, that my grandfather had urged Rosha's parents to come to America, to join the rest of their family: my aunt, her sister, and two brothers who had immigrated to the states around 1915. Their lives were settled and they all worked hard building a successful knitwear business in New York. Until each of the clan found love and left to get married, they lived together under my grandfather's roof in a large brick and stucco home in Brooklyn, where the only thing unsafe became occasional hurled insults by family members who spent nearly all their days together.
When my aunt said she wanted me to keep the box filled with all her documents, I felt as though she had handed me the keys to my family's mysterious past. Of course I had lots of questions, but she said very little, and to push further I knew would have upset her.
What I do remember about that day was her saying these words: "I should have stayed. I never should have come here."
"But if you had," I answered, "you might have been killed."
And then turning from the window, my aunt said the strangest thing.
"So what," she said, "so what!" She looked more like a belligerent teen instead of a 95 year old frail woman. It was as though her 80 years in America had been nothing more than a handful of seed – that never took root. I would never forget how she looked that day; there was so much sorrow etched across her face. And it wasn’t until she passed away that I began writing my story. It was Rosha’s story, which I eventually alternated with one nearly completed. And it was through the merging of those two parallel tales that a theme finally became clear to me.
At the end of her life, once more, my aunt had to face all the choices she had made, each haunting regret that evolved from merely surviving. It would take me a long, long time, but through the writing of The Sweetness, I understood the reasons why.