Thursday, January 23, 2020
Books: "The Survivors," A Search For Self-Discovery In A Family’s History
The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing
By Adam P. Frankel
Harper; hardcover; $27.99
Adam P. Frankel was a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama from the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign through his first term in the White House. Since then, he has served as an executive director of a national education nonprofit and worked in the private sector. Frankel is currently a senior advisor to Emerson Collective, a social change organization, and to Fenway Strategies, the communications firm founded by Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor, who also served in the Obama administration.
When Frankel was 25 years old, he discovered a shocking truth, that he is not his father's biological son, a secret his mother kept from him, from the man Adam knew as his father, and from both sides of Adam's family.
This explosive secret upended Frankel's world and he went on a search for answers to the most fundamental questions about family, identity, what we inherit from those who come before us and what we pass on to our own children. This journey of self-rediscovery was also an examination of trauma across generations told in a mulilayered account.
When Frankel told President Obama about his story, the president was very empathetic, and then followed with a joke, "How'd you figure it out? Is your Dad black?"
While growing up, Frankel found inspiration in the stories of his maternal grandparents, Holocaust survivors Bubbie and Zayde, who had immigrated to America under assumed names and attempted to start over. However, the past cast inescapable shadows over their lives. He also writes about his dad's parents, Grandma and Pa, who was a Northwestern student peach activist before serving as a platoon leader in the South Pacific.
Frankel writes of his motivation to write The Survivors, "I'd been inspired by their stories growing up, and I thought others might be, too. I also thought their stories were important to tell, particularly as fewer members of their generation are alive to share them themselves. Over dinner a few years ago, a German consular official told me it was getting harder to teach young people about the Holocaust because the most compelling instructors - survivors - are all passing away."
It was only when he began work on this book that Frankel recognized the power of his troubling inheritance, both in his mother's depression and mental health issues, and in her decades-long concealment of his true parentage.
Frankel reveals his struggles following his bombshell revelation, from the horrors of Dachau to an identity crisis in the White House. Plunged into an emotional maelstrom, he questions his entire existence. Nothing escapes scrutiny, from the proud tradition of public service and political activism he had always attributed to his paternal bloodline to his very identity.
Pa was a prolific writer, as Frankel writes, "Before my generation marched against Iraq and my parent's generation marched against Vietnam, the war babies, as Pa's generation was called before earning their more enduring name, were marching in the first mass student movement in American history.
Pa himself was helping lead the way, making the case for peace in 'Frankel-y Speaking,' his Daily Northwestern column, even appearing in the pages of Time magazine for his efforts to mobilize campuses nationwide into what he called 'The All College Peace Front.' At one of Northwestern's peace rallies, a crowd of one thousand gathered outside Deering Library, and members of the paper's editorial board planted a black-beribboned maple sapling, dubbed 'the Peace Tree,' to be cut down when the first among them was killed in some future war.
Pa's role at the rally, he told a reporter many years later, was writing the day's slogan - 'We shall not fight in Europe' - an adaptation of the Oxford Oath, the pacifist pledge conceived by Oxford University's debate society (and condemned by Winston Churchill, who called it 'very disgusting.'). 'That has its ironic twist,' Pa told the reporter. 'I believe I was the first of the bunch to be inducted.'
Pa joined the ranks of Ohio's Thirty-Seventh National Guard Division, 'the Buckeyes,' serving as an infantryman in the South Pacific, where he rose to the rank of major and earned a box of medals that filled me with awe as a boy, and still does - most impressively, a Bronze Star Medal with 'V' device for valor, the nation's fourth highest individual award for heroism in non-aerial combat...
The simple act of writing a letter by hand, sometimes more than once a day, week after week, month after month, year after year, was a profound expression of love, no less remarkable for its ubiquity among the troops. That Grandma kept each of Pa's letters - storing them in three ring binders where I found them in a closet decades later - was her way of reciprocating that love.
Pa never stopped talking - or writing - about the war. Some of the stories he wrote from the frontlines on a borrowed typewriter were published in the day's leading periodicals, from the New York Post to the Saturday Evening Post. And he kept up his writing after the war, lending an occasional hand as a speechwriter to Democratic politicians while working as a corporate vice president. Seeking a congratulatory note on the eve of my bar mitzvah, he reached out to an old acquaintance: JFK's legendary speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. Pa didn't know Ted well. They'd met only a few times at Democratic Party functions over the years. But that didn't stop Pa from making the request.
'My lone grandson is working on a project having to do with JFK and very much involving his speeches,' Pa wrote. 'Your name has, of course, surfaced quite a bit, and Adam has often asked questions about you.' He proceeded to tell Sorensen about the birthday celebration and asked if Ted could sign a photograph for me, even suggesting a sign-off: ';from one speechwriter to an aspiring one.'"
The Survivors is one of the most compelling books you will read, one in which each individual across the generations of Adam P. Frankel's family is illuminated to show the depth of his journey to create this history.