By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Like most novelists, many of the ideas Libby Fischer Hellmann puts down on paper come from a fertile harvest of creativity in mind, heart and soul.
At the same time, though, not an inconsiderable amount of material coursing through Hellmann’s crime-novel-centric books on the World War II home front, espionage, the Holocaust and even the 1968 Democratic Convention have sprung from her own life threads. She has practically worn out keyboards with 14 novels and 25 short stories.
Hellmann’s family runs the gamut of the American Jewish experience. Her own bloodline can be traced back “five or six generations” to German Jews who emigrated to the East Coast before the Civil War and later literally set up shop in remote Escanaba, Mich. The family eventually settled in Washington, D.C. before present-day Northbrook resident Hellmann finally settled in the Chicago area in 1978.
“I was raised as Reform as you can be, and still call yourself a Jew,” Hellmann said.
Her late ex-husband’s story? Hailing from Eastern Europe, her late father-in-law apparently learned spycraft in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Much later, her own son evolved into a fervent Orthodox practitioner, so much that Hellmann totally converted her kitchen to kashrut to accommodate him.
For good measure, she toe-dipped into the tail end of the anti-war protest movement. In her early 20s in 1971, before getting established working for NBC in Washington, D.C. and the startup of PBS’ “MacNeil-Lehrer Report,” Hellmann worked for an “underground” paper in the capital. There, she met the girlfriend of radical agitator Jerry Rubin. The two became friends.
Hellmann’s latest release, “War Spies and Bobby Sox” is a collection of three novellas. The first covers a Jewish Holocaust refugee coerced into spying on the nascent U.S. A-bomb program at the University of Chicago in 1941-42. The book proceeds to the German POW experience at a camp just north of the city in mid-war and concludes with pre-war intrigue on the old Jewish West Side.
The soft-cover work, with a German soldier in a tattered Wehrmacht uniform on the cover, comes on the heels of 15 years of work that includes a short story, ‘Josef’s Angel,’ set in a concentration camp; ‘An Eye For Murder,’ plopping down in wartime Prague; ‘War Secrets,’ ‘The Last Radical’ and ‘The Whole World Is Watching,’ all three playing off 1960s turmoil and moving into the tony North Shore decades later.
Perhaps one day Hellmann will be more introspective into the family scrapbook via a 250-page production. For now, an oral history is just as fascinating.
“My father shortened his name to S. Greenhoot – he had shortened it from Solomon,” she said. “He originally was from Escanaba – a ‘Yooper’ (resident of the Upper Michigan peninsula). My dad’s grandfather was the mayor of Escanaba. I think when they originally got there, they were peddlers, and opened a general store.”
Hellmann’s Jewish awareness increased dramatically after marrying Mark Hellmann, whose parents got out of Germany just in time in 1938-39. Manfred Hellmann, her father-in-law, was the sole survivor of his family. Libby Hellmann said she has never confirmed rumors her father-in-law had escaped from a labor camp in the Netherlands.
Arriving in the U.S., Manfred Hellmann was drafted six months later. But he detoured from the usual boot-camp destination. He was dispatched to Canada, where he trained with William Stephenson, a war-time intelligence power-broker between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Thought to be Ian Fleming’s role model for James Bond, Stephenson ran Camp X, the unofficial name of the secret Special Training School No. 103, training covert agents for clandestine operations. Some 2,000 British, Canadian and American agents were trained there throughout the war.
“He was sent behind German lines during the war,” Hellmann said. “He would never talk about it after the war. I don’t know if he was a cook or an assassin. He came back and he was basically nuts for the rest of his life. He saw some very bad stuff.
“It’s a much more than subliminal (influence in her writing). That story is the back story of my first novel, ‘An Eye for Murder.’ One of our cousins said, ‘You told our story.’”
Manfred Hellmann raised son Mark as Orthodox. When he married Libby (Elizabeth was her given name), he was “non-aligned.” But when son Michael was born, Mark Hellmann reversed course again, ordering a bris. After moving to the Chicago area, the family joined the traditional Ezra Habonim synagogue. Then Hellmann’s biggest surprise came after Michael had spent his childhood as the only Jewish child in their Northfield neighborhood.
“He was about 7 or 8 and started taking an interest in being Jewish,” she said. “My husband encouraged it. One thing led to another. My son wanted to go to yeshiva. He spent two years with pictures of rebbes in his room. We went to Rosenblum’s (book store) every weekend. He ended up wearing white shirts and black pants for two years. Instead of going to New Trier, he went to Ida Crown.
“All I knew is after a while my son stopped eating my cooking, which wasn’t the best anyway. He said, ‘It’s not kosher, Mom.’” An Orthodox rabbi acquaintance of Mark Hellmann made the family kitchen kosher.
The Holocaust and World War II were a constant topic of conversation for Mark Hellmann and his mother, Lucy Hellmann. TVs were tuned to programs about the war. “It was a kind of saturation,” Libby Hellmann said.
And from that, she got a cultural/spiritual education that informs her latest work.
A Holocaust survivor, Jewish customs and a story that ended up bigger than the war itself are mixed into “The Incidental Spy,” the first of the three novellas in “War Spies and Bobby Sox.” The Jewish protagonist triggered a twist at the ending worthy of what Hellmann compares to “O. Henry.” Here is the first of three excerpts from the novellas:
“Lena bit her lip and tried to think. Maybe she was imagining it. Maybe it was just the stress of the past six months. Or perhaps it was her time of month. Hadn’t Karl always teased her about that? Karl. She blinked rapidly, trying to hold back the tears that still threatened at the thought of him. It had been a routine day of typing and filing, much like all the others. She’d had lunch with Sonia, who poured her heart out about her husband who’d been drafted and had fought the Battle of Midway last summer.
“Walking back from the cafeteria, Lena spotted the signal, a small American flag stuck in the snow-covered urn beside the Fifty-Seventh Street florist’s shop. That meant she was to meet Hans as soon as possible. She considered ignoring it. Just not showing up. But Max was at home with Mrs. McNulty, their upstairs neighbor and babysitter. She would give him supper and make sure he went to sleep if Lena had to “work late,” as she explained whenever there was a meet. She couldn’t risk not meeting him. What if they retaliated against Max? She leaned back against the seat of the Ford and swallowed. She should have run the moment she spotted the flag, scooped up Max, and boarded the first train out of Chicago. Now it was too late. She was a fool.
“The Ford slowed and turned into one of the beaches off South Lake Shore Drive. Then it slowed even more. The man in the seat behind her leaned forward. She knew what was coming. She braced herself and whispered the Sh’ma.”
Hellmann attended an exercise class when the subject of German POWs during the war came up. She had thought the nearest such camp was in Michigan. But a friend told her a camp had operated in what is now Glenview. That was part of a network harboring some 500,000 German and Italian POWs throughout the U.S. However, Hellmann was not aware that several hundred Jewish GIs helped guard these prisoners, an exclusive story reported in Chicago Jewish News in 2016.
“The Army stuck to the Geneva Convention to the letter in treating these guys really well – too well, in fact, with many not wanting to go home at the end of the war,” she said. “But the main conflict within the POW camps was between the Wehrmacht soldiers and Nazis, such as SS. The latter thought the war was not over and that Hitler would still prevail. The conflict between (groups of) Germans was pretty apparent. In fact, there was a case where a Nazi killed a Wehrmacht soldier in a camp because he was convinced he was spying for the Americans.”
In the P.O.W. novella, Hellmann describes such conflicts, grafting that onto the story of a local farm girl who becomes romantically involved with a Nazi. Another excerpt is done in the words of a Wehrmacht soldier who believes the war is over for him and his fellow prisoners:
“I was dozing when the new arrival, Johannes Kohl, stomped into the barracks. He brought with him the stench of cigarette smoke and body odor. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was brawny and muscled. Sandy hair, a wide flat forehead, blue eyes, and a bristly mustache. A true Aryan.
“You are Stemm.”
“What do you know about Deschler?”
“I rolled over and sat up. “Reinhard?” He grunted. “He thinks we can still win the war. That anyone not loyal to the Führer is a spy for the Americans.”
“Is that so?”
“He has his followers.” I shrugged. “But I don’t want trouble. I stay away. And you are draining the lagoons and don’t have to work with him. He and I are on the same work detail. A farm.
“Helping with the harvest.”
“A wan smile flickered across Kohl’s face. “Does everyone know everyone’s business in this camp?”
“He relaxed, and we started to chat. He was from Leipzig, not too far from me. He was studying to be a doctor at university when he was conscripted. I was studying architecture.
“Ah. You and me. We are the same.”
“How do you mean?”
“We are rational. Logical. That Deschler? He thinks he’s better than us.”
“He’s a Blockleiter. Mein Gott, that’s only a low-level official. He acts as if he were the Führer himself.”
“As long as there is a Nazi Party, there will always be some who believe they are superior. The war is over.”
“Try telling him that.”
The final novella, “The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared,” is actually the prequel for characters in other Hellmann novels. The last excerpt is set in 1938 Chicago:
“The first time I saw Miriam, Barney and I were wolfing down brisket sandwiches in the restaurant; I could feel gravy dribbling past my chin. I heard a rustle, turned around.
“She was walking past our table. No, more like gliding. Dressed in a pearly gown that swept to her feet, she was perfectly proportioned, with a waist so tiny that my hands ached to encircle it, and such a generously endowed bosom that my hands ached—well, you get the idea. Her hair was gold, her lips red, and she had the most enormous gray eyes I’d ever seen. A guy could lose his way in them. She was even carrying a parasol. I was in love.
“You could feel the collective hush as she passed. It was as if her presence had struck us dumb, and we were compelled to stare. As her skirt brushed our table, she cast a dazzling smile on Barney. He turned crimson. Then she was gone. The voltage in the air ebbed, and I heard the clink of silverware as people started to live, breathe, and eat again.
“So, who the hell was that?” I said, in my best tough, fifteen year old tone.
“Barney looked me over, knew I was bluffing. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I leaned across the table and grabbed Barney’s collar. “You don’t tell me, Barney Teitelman, I’ll tell your parents what you were trying to do to Dina Preis behind the shul last Saturday.”
“You wouldn’t.” He didn’t sound convinced.
“I clutched his shirt. “You got five seconds.”
“Barney’s eyes narrowed. I guess he figured he’d better give me something. “All’s I’ll say is she’s not for the likes of you, Jake Forman.”
“I jumped up from the table. “Mrs. T? I have something to tell you.” I headed toward the kitchen.
“All right already,” Barney whined. “Don’t go up the wall. She’s Miriam Hirsch. She’s an actress with the Yiddish theater.”
Hellmann experiences little mental grinding. She describes carrying out fictional scenarios as the “most fun.” She says she does not suffer from writer’s cramp.
“I do enormous amounts of research to make sure it’s credible, to make sure it could have happened and that it is believable,” she said. “It’s the way a policeman interrogates a witness or the way a Chinese spy steals (tech) from Boeing. I keep learning.”
In 2005 Hellmann was the national president of Sisters In Crime, a 3,500-member organization dedicated to the advancement of female crime authors. She also hosts two monthly interview shows: SOLVED!, a streaming TV show on AuthorsVoice.net, and “Second Sunday Crime,” a radio show on the Authors on the Air internet network.
“What’s great about crime fiction is you can deal with issues and history and topics,” Hellmann said. “As long as you don’t beat people over the head with it and as long as you just lay it out, you can let your readers make up their minds how they feel about it. Not just Judaism, but a social or economic or now, increasingly, a political issue. My new books are all political.”
A novelist cannot rest amid fast-changing real (not fake) news of 2017.
“My new book, the one I’m writing now, is going to be very Trump-ian,” Hellmann said. “It’s fiction, but it could be fact.”