SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The 1960s are remembered for many things, such as the space race, the civil rights movement, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Beatlemania and a persistent fear of nuclear war. For author Peter Golden, the 1960s represents all of these things and so much more — for Golden, the 1960s were in some ways a loss of innocence for many Americans who were just then learning about the true horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.
In his new book, “Nothing is Forgotten,” Golden weaves a complex tale of tragedy, recovery and justice. Protagonist Michael Daniels, aka Misha Dainov, travels throughout America and Europe to uncover the culprit in his grandmother’s murder; along this journey, which begins in South Orange, Misha discovers far more about his grandmother, Emma, than he had bargained for. He learns of Emma’s secret life in Europe and how the Holocaust tore everything apart for her and her loved ones. Along the way, Misha joins forces with Yulianna Kosoy, a passionate young woman whose family was murdered by the Nazis, leaving her to be raised in the Soviet Union by a man simply called Der Schmuggler, the smuggler.
Golden’s third novel is a sweeping look at a world scarred by a monstrous war. Each character is expertly rendered and draws the reader more and more into the story. Though the visceral depictions of the Holocaust are sometimes difficult to read, their importance cannot be underscored enough. This novel was both educative and a thrilling read, a true page-turner.
Golden loves writing about the 1960s, especially youth culture during that era, when children were breaking away from their parents, the arts scenes across the world were thriving after the privation of WWII, and the Cold War drove innovation and excellence.
“It’s hard for somebody to understand just how innocent this country was prior to John F. Kennedy’s assassination,” Golden told the News-Record in a phone interview last week. “While there was plenty going on, there was a kind of innocence that we retained following the war.
“Americans didn’t become fully aware of the Holocaust until the 1960s,” Golden continued. “We’re still learning about what was done in the Holocaust. We learn more and more and it gets worse and worse.”
Just like Golden’s last novel, “Wherever There Is Light,” his third novel begins in the suburbs of South Orange and Maplewood, a place that Golden will always consider home. Golden, who was born in Newark, grew up in South Orange and Maplewood, where he graduated from Columbia High School.
For Golden, growing up in the two towns during the ’60s perfectly showed that dichotomy between generations; the Baby Boomers had sunny childhoods with plenty, while the Silent Generation — their parents — had fought in World War II, lived through the Great Depression and been frequent recipients of heartbreaking news from the front. Growing up, Golden was surrounded by these people: fathers who had fought in the war and mothers who had anxiously waited at home to hear the fate of their friends and family in Europe.
“Thousands of Americans were killed,” Golden said, explaining that Weequahic High School in Newark lost approximately 90 people in the war. “They wanted their children to have a much more innocent time than they did, after having been through the Great Depression and the most catastrophic war.”
Golden described Maplewood and South Orange as a “ground zero of post-war America,” with its diverse population.
“It’s where I start understanding history,” Golden said, explaining that he uses SOMA as a reference point. “There was this false sense of Norman Rockwell America and extremely ambitious families.”
While doing research for his previous book, which focused on a fabricated associate of real-life mobster Longy Zwillman, Golden learned that South Orange had been home to an illegal gambling operation in the 1950s; with this inspiration, Misha’s grandmother was allowing mobsters — characters from his previous novel — to run a similar operation out of the back of her Irvington Avenue candy shop.
While SOMA readers will surely enjoy the many references made to things, places and people from the two towns, they will undoubtedly be just as immersed in each location Misha and Yuli visit in their quest for the truth, including Munich in West Germany, Paris and Nice in France, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Los Angeles, and the fictional town of Otvali in the Soviet Union.
With impeccable detail and pathos, Golden transports the reader to the post-war Soviet Union, where people were struggling to overcome a horrific war that left approximately 26 million Soviets dead, according to the most recent statistics.
“We are learning more about the war,” Golden said, owing the acquisition of this new knowledge to the fact that the Soviet Union archives from the 1930s and ’40s are now available. “The Soviet Union found the concentration camps first and it mirrored what the Germans had done in the Soviet Union.”
The Soviets did not have that innocence that Americans had in relation to the war, Golden said. “There was no ‘sugar and spice all that’s nice’ illusion to cope with,” he said. At one point in the novel, in an eatery in Los Angeles, Yuli comments on the fact that there are so many carefree, smiling faces, telling Misha that the main difference between America and the Soviet Union is that, in Golden’s own words: “Well, no one ever showed up and murdered 15 million people here.”
According to Golden, the barbarity of World War II in the Soviet Union sheds a light on today’s global climate.
“This is why Putin is so sensitive about borders,” Golden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who lost a brother to diphtheria during the Siege of Leningrad. “They lost more people in six weeks than we did in three and a half years.”
While exploring the horrors that the war visited on the Russian people, Golden found great joy in learning and writing about Soviet Baby Boomers.
“I was surprised by the level at which American culture penetrated into the Soviet Union,” he said. “Nothing is Forgotten” captures the allure and dangers of American culture in the Soviet Union during the 1960s. Yuli brands herself as the best Levi jeans tailor in the Soviet Union, smuggling illegal denim jeans into her country, and helps spread American music through “rock on bones,” a practice in which X-rays were turned into gramophone recordings.
Despite the fun he had writing about Yuli’s determinedness and Emma’s sass, there was a great sadness that came with writing these characters, an underlying current of loss and trauma from the Holocaust that permeated everything.
“This was the hardest book I ever wrote,” Golden said. “You just can’t believe human beings could be so cruel. I went to Dachau; you stand there and wonder who could invent such things. The Germans took the Western idea of mass production and applied it to murder. There is something so horrifying about that.
“When you go back and read discussions Germans had about this, they are talking about cost-benefit analysis,” he continued. “You would think they were talking about making toys. It’s a portrait of what human beings are capable of.”
In order to accurately portray each place and character, Golden, a journalist and historian, did a monumental amount of research. His attention to detail and precision of language is seen in every paragraph, in every sentence.
Just as Golden wanted to educate his readers about the toll the war had on the Soviet Union and the lingering effects of the Holocaust, during his research phase he learned a lot that greatly impacted his writing and mindset.
“We’re learning more about women as perpetrators in the Holocaust,” he said, recalling the anguish he felt as he delved into the evils that female Nazis committed during the genocide. This inspired the character of Hildegard Ter Horst, a ruthless Nazi leader during the war who later struggled to justify her abominable actions.
“It’s important to show this across gender lines,” Golden said. For Hildegard’s character he drew from interviews with female Nazis. “Her whole idea of right and wrong is skewed — and you know that when you begin writing a character. In these interviews, women were discussing nice things they had done for children before murdering them, as if that abrogated it.”
He also drew from accounts of Nazi doctors who betrayed their oaths of care and committed heinous experiments and tortures; he specifically focused on a woman pediatrician who worked at Auschwitz.
“She especially haunted me,” he said. “The only way a pediatrician could do this would be to think of these children as underneath her.”
There are a few scenes in his book that come directly from his research travels. While in Nice, the characters visit a cemetery for the Jews of Nice who died in the Holocaust. During his research, Golden discovered this cemetery and was sickened to find two urns — one holding ashes and one holding soap, as the Nazis had sometimes used Jewish bodies to make soap. In the novel, Golden imbues Misha with this sense of incredulity and horror at this discovery.
Sadly, Misha’s disgust and outrage is not shared by every character in the novel. Golden explores how many Germans in the 1960s wanted the war crime trials to end, wondering why the Jews could not just “let it go.” A U.S. official expresses to Misha his belief that everyone needs to move on, a point underscored in the novel by the United States’ willingness to employ Nazis, like the fictional Joost Ter Horst and the real Wernher von Braun.
Golden even covers how Americans were unaware of the severe loss of life that occurred in the concentration camps and in the Soviet Union — and are still mostly unaware when it comes to the Soviets, he said.
“The suffering and contributions of the Soviets was underestimated and underplayed because of the Cold War, but without the Soviets, we couldn’t have landed at Normandy,” Golden said. “Remember what these people suffered, what happened to their country. It was catastrophic; it wasn’t a war adventure. I want people to take away from my novel the lingering impact this period had on our lives.”
Just as Golden is always drawn back to South Orange and Maplewood in his novels, he finds himself consistently drawn back to the Holocaust, too.
“Parts of my family disappeared in the Holocaust and I still have a hard time believing it happened,” he said. “They ran out of coal for trains for military supplies, but they still transported Jews to the gas chamber. That’s unbelievable. They were more concerned with killing Jews than winning the war.”
“Nothing is Forgotten” will be released April 10 by Atria Books. Golden will appear at Words Bookstore, 179 Maplewood Ave. in Maplewood, for a book signing on Thursday, April 19, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. He will lead a book discussion at the South Orange Public Library, 65 Scotland Road, on Thursday, May 3, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.