Conversation With Author Robert Rosen

Robert Rosen's newest bookexplores the author's childhood growing up in 1950's and 1960's postwar Jewish Brooklyn under the shadow of the Holocaust.
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Recorded at Bob Rosen's apartment in the West Village, NYC on 4/29/15
2015-06-03-1433294298-399863-Bob_Rosen_Author_photo.jpgPhoto by Mary Lyn Maiscott

I was fortunate enough to receive an advanced manuscript of Robert Rosen's freshly completed book Bobby in Naziland: A Portrait of the Author As a Young Jew. Those of you who are familiar with Rosen's previous books, Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography and Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, know that Bob can tell a tight story with a mix of imagination and crisp, smooth prose honed from decades in the magazine business.

Rosen's newest book Bobby in Naziland: A Portrait of the Author As a Young Jew explores the author's childhood growing up in 1950's and 1960's postwar Jewish Brooklyn under the shadow of the Holocaust. The book is a compelling portrait of a time and a place that no longer exists, but is important as both Brooklyn changes, and in that the Holocaust was not really that long ago. Being a Jew was different then. In a way, I think Rosen's book is speaking for a generation that was weighed down with the baggage of the mid 20th Century's horrors, whether he intends to or not.

In the prologue, Rosen describes this book as "a demonstration of what happens when a writer can't decide if he wants to be a novelist, a memoirist, a humorist, a historian, or a journalist." He goes on further to clarify his intentions. "So if you need to call this book something, to categorize it, to pigeonhole it or to brand it, then how about this: Call it 44,000 words, give or take. Or call it a novella. Makes no difference to me."

Bob invited me over to his apartment in Manhattan to discuss it further. Below is an excerpt exclusively for Huffington Post readers.


Robert Rosen 1973

MN: So Bob, your new book, Bobby in Naziland, I'm not sure how much of it I think is fictitious. I'm not convinced.

BR: You don't think it's fictitious?

MN: I think a lot of it actually happened to you.

BR: Yeah, that's absolutely true. I called it fiction. If I had to throw a percentage out there it's probably 85 percent true and 15 percent fiction, which probably a lot of people who call their books memoirs don't even come that close.

MN: As a documentarian I understand that you watch a film, you think since it's a documentary that it's going to be fair. Yet at the same time, I've got to rearrange the things people say so they make sense. I think a memoirist runs up against the same problem.

BR: It has to be. It is so hard to get people to read something and what I tried to do there was to try to not have one boring word and to make that happen, I had to use certain fictional things to make it flow, than to lie. I just wanted to write something that people were not going to put down.

MN: I couldn't put it down because I found the protagonist identifiable. I was born in the 70's but I too have been obsessed with World War II.

BR: When were you born?

MN: 1978. Which means the guilt had shifted from the baby boomers to us (which I may have mentioned in an email).

BR: Yeah you said some interesting things like that. The guilt had transferred from the baby boomers to... wait, what generation are you?

MN: I don't know.

BR: You're too young to be generation X right?

MN: I've heard I'm one of the last years of "X" and one of the first years of "Y", but I think it's a bunch of bullshit.

BR: So right on the border there.

MN: Do you think that that guilt growing up under the holocaust weighs or diminishes as time marches on?

BR: I think it's been diminished, except in certain exceptional cases. The generation who went through that is dying out and with it, the guilt is diminishing, and that was part of the motivation behind the book. Not to make people feel guilty but it seemed important to get down what I remembered from that time -- just incredibly intense feelings that people had about the Nazis. Everybody was Jewish and everybody fucking hated the Nazis and that hatred was just so palpable. It conjured the ghost of the Nazis. Nazis just seemed to be everywhere.

MN: So, Nazis were present in your childhood. Not in a physical way, but in this looming historical way.

BR: It was physical because I write about that box of medals my father had, the sword and the helmet and the swastika. Just to touch it and to have it there all the time -- being so fascinated by it made it more real. So it was physical and people were there. The people with the numbers on their arms. They were there. They were everywhere.

MN: It's interesting that you mention Sophie's Choice by William Styron and the fact that here was a non-Jew who absolutely captures the feeling. Was it his outsider's eye that made his observations so effective?

BR: The way the book came to be, it was a passage in Beaver Street. The opening passage in Beaver Street was set in my father's candy store. In 1961 or so I sort of used that as a device to get that book started. When that was finished and published, I was thinking those early couple of pages there was umm... I just scratched the surface.

There's so much going on there. I started writing down everything I could remember from that time and place. I had 400 pages of fragments and notes; (I thought) all right I got enough of this. What am I going to do with it now? I started reading through it and it was just Nazis, Nazis, Nazis. I didn't realize how prevalent the Nazis were until I started reading through the thing. It just kind of brought it it all back. God, there's Nazis everywhere. Everywhere you turn, Nazi this, Nazi that and that's how the book came to be: Bobby in Naziland. That was the working title. I kind of liked it. Alice in Wonderland.

MN: Do you think it will prohibit sales at all?

BR: What do you mean, the title?

MN: Yeah, I have no fucking idea. I'm not a marketing guy.

BR: I don't know. It will catch people's eyes. If a publisher wants to change it, I don't know -- cross that bridge when I come to it. Now I'm just concentrating on getting the thing published. That is always a long hard road. Nowhere Man was rejected by everybody for eighteen fucking years. Across the board, "No. No. No. No." The reason they gave: The two prime reasons for rejecting Nowhere Man they said, "There is just not enough interest in John Lennon". The other one was "Yoko sues everyone who writes a book about her." The one about there not being enough interest in John Lennon is absurd on its face. And the one about how Yoko sues everybody is false. She doesn't sue a writer for something they have written. She threatens to sue and sues for copyright infringement, as she did with Fred Seaman, but she does not sue writers. There are these hacks whose whole marketing strategy is "I'm going to get Yoko to sue me" and she never takes the bait and never sues writers for something they wrote. But she does threaten to sue.

MN: 18 years! What a fucking schlep!

BR: (laughs) Yeah man, it was a fucking schlep. The finally someone said yes and the book exploded and changed my life and got me out of the work force for fourteen years. What a trip that was. And uh, everybody rejected it. Finally Soft Skull published it. It was just craziness for years. Beaver Street again, everybody rejected it. I finally found this cool little publisher in London, Head Press. I knew about them because they do a literary magazine and they really like Nowhere Man.

MN: Sounds like the movie business. Trying to get a picture made is just like getting a book made.

BR: You must have gone through all the rejection bullshit with Back Issues.

MN: Absolutely. I will go through it with the next picture and the picture after that.

BR: Because that's the way it is.

MN: Let's talk about Bobby in Naziland a little more.

BR: Want another beer? Still working on that one?

MN: Still working on this one. What I find interesting about Naziland is the emergence of your adolescent sexuality.

BR: Pre-adolescent, actually.

MN: It's tied into the obsession with Nazism, and I don't think it's conscious on your part. I think of The Night Porter.

BR: I've seen that, Dirk Bogarde.

MN: Yes, Dirk Bogarde. What I'm getting at is a sexual awakening happening amidst Nazi obsession.

BR: Uh-huh.

MN: Pretty fucking Freudian.

BR: (laughs) I write by instinct.

MN: I'm not being judgy, I just think that's fascinating.

BR: Yeah, I know you're not judging, it's just interesting what you just said. First of all, I'm really glad the book touched you. It got through to you because it's written in a direct way without artifice.

MN: I get the impression there aren't many devices. We are going to draw the story here or there to make it into a literary game. That doesn't interest me. I'm a simple man. I like to read a story from front to back.

BR: An editor somewhere will eventually catch on. You're just ahead of the curve on this one. It has this emotional impact that when someone is wide enough to publish it, it will affect people in a powerful way. Philip Roth said, "It's a curse to have a writer born into the family." My mother is still alive she is 88. The character is pretty much based on her.


Robert Rosen with Mother 1957

MN: Where you at with Nazis now? Are they still plaguing your consciousness?

BR: You read the part at the end with the holocaust denying conspiracy theorists.

MN: Isn't one of these creeps following you?

BR: I don't know if he is following me.

MN: Didn't he give you the impression he was?

BR: Well, on the Internet.

MN: Every asshole is on the Internet. Mind if I grab another beer?

MN: Do you think you will ever make peace with Nazis?

BR: I've made peace with Nazis, they are just fun to write about.

MN: (Laughs)

BR: (Laughs) Really, there's a stupid Nazi coming after me. This guy started accusing me of killing Lennon. I ended up on a list of top three conspiracy theories surrounding the death of John Lennon. The other two people were JD Salinger and Stephen King. I ended up loving my Nazi.

MN: That's some fine company.

BR: I owe it to my personal Nazi. He's really done a lot for me despite his personal intentions. He's kind of slowed down since I started writing about him. I'm not with the CIA. I did not order a hit on John Lennon. Make that clear.

MN: I know what I wanted to ask you. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when you are listening to the Eichmann trials. Want to talk about that a little bit?

BR: Sure. What about it?

MN: I went and found it on YouTube after I read about it.

BR: You didn't know about it?

MN: I read Hannah Arendt's book on it back in college, so I knew all about it, but that was before YouTube was around to watch it. But I wanted to hear them for myself. I wanted to be a young Bob Rosen taking this in: The Banality of Evil.

BR: Eichmann was our Bin Laden. We knew Hitler was dead. I think we really wanted to get Joseph Mengele, but we never got him. They got Eichmann, what an exciting story. Wow -- they kidnapped him off the street, and they brought him back to Israel and put him on trial and they hung him. My mother used to talk about him all the time.

MN: I know Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, but that's different in terms of context. It was history by then, not news.

BR: Most of the Nazis they rounded up occurred right after the war. And this all happened in the 1940's before I was born. They had already hung a lot of Nazis. All this time passed and I just grew up hearing about it. The Mossad was going to get Eichmann and then one of these days we're gonna get Eichmann and they got Eichmann. Like I said in the book, the bloodlust was palpable. Everyone I knew couldn't wait to hang the bastard.

I didn't know about this family, The (Lothar) Hermanns, until I wrote the thing about Eichmann and everything I could remember.

How accurate is my memory? I started reading and found there's all this new stuff and there was this family? That's a crazy story. Lothar Hermann was German, half Jewish and put into a concentration camp. They tortured, beat, eventually made him go blind.

They let him out before Kristallnacht, he fled to South America, got married, had a daughter born there. She doesn't even know she's Jewish and she starts dating Eichmann's son and that's how he was caught. He comes over to the house and he starts bragging to these people, and he does not know they (The Hermanns) are Jewish because the daughter doesn't know she's Jewish.

MN: That shit blows my mind.

BR: Yeah "My father was a high ranking Gestapo officer" and your name is Eichmann. Really? He's reading in the papers about the ongoing war trials. It was the most incredible story and the Mossad repressed it and when he started talking about it publicly, The Mossad arrested him. They said he was Josef Mengele and they tortured him. They later said you're not Josef Mengele you can go. I didn't know that story before, nobody knows that story. So that was Eichmann. So you know, it was kind of satisfying when they hung him. It was just like we had our vengeance.


MN: Anything else we need to talk about concerning the book? I feel like I hit some of my points, but I don't know.

BR: Yeah, I think you got enough. In that book, I laid out all these different aspects of myself the scene where Bobby beats himself with a hammer. Unfortunately, true.

MN: To feel something?

BR: Yeah, but the point I was going to make is that I never told anybody about that. Mary Lynn read that. She's my editor. She was really disturbed by that. That I would do that, but I was a fucked up kid. A fucked up meshuggah kid and that was my solution to the pain I was feeling was to beat myself with a hammer (laughs). I did.

MN: That's what you needed to do.

BR: Yes, that's what I needed to do.

MN: Maybe to come to a conclusion with the pain.

BR: The last part about going to Israel when I was 20, I felt at that age I finally gotten beyond the Nazis and although I was living at home, I was semi liberated from my parents and I meet this girl at a party. We start going out and it just turns out her father's family was murdered in the holocaust and he escaped with his mother. What do I do that summer? We go to Israel. The book starts out on Yiddish and it ends on Yiddish. Somebody from my generation was speaking Yiddish because she needs to communicate in that language. The holocaust survivor carries us through Israel. That was all true.

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