Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Author Q&A - Erika Dreifus

Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans, a short-story collection that is largely inspired by the histories and experiences of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. Erika earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University, where she taught history, literature, and writing for several years. Currently, she lives in New York City, where she works for The City University of New York. I was delighted to read Quiet Americans, and am thrilled to welcome Ms. Dreifus to the blog today to talk a little more about her book.

Please tell us a little bit about your grandparents and the inspiration for your stories.

My dad's parents, Ruth and Sam Dreifus, were German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, when they were in their early twenties. Although they came from the same region of Germany (Baden), they met and married here. Like the characters of Nelly and Josef Freiburg, who appear in several of the stories in Quiet Americans, my grandparents came from very different backgrounds: My grandmother had grown up in a prosperous urban family, whereas my grandfather, through his mother, belonged to a family (like the Gross family of "Matrilineal Descent") that had lived in the same small village for several generations.

Some of the stories are inspired by actual experiences in my grandparents' lives, but others are sourced more tangentially. For instance, the opening story, "For Services Rendered," grew out of my questions about another refugee from Nazi Germany, someone not related to me at all. He was a pediatrician my grandmother met here in New York shortly after she arrived, when she was working as a nanny for a family whose daughter was his patient. He was later my father's pediatrician as well.

Others stories reflect my own preoccupations as an inheritor of this legacy, but they are inspired by events or circumstances entirely outside the realm of my own or my family's experiences. A good example is "Mishpocha," which was sparked by two disparate items: an anecdote I heard at a Jewish genealogy conference, and an article in the Boston Globe.

One gets the sense that many survivors (understandably) just did not talk about this part of their history. How common is this experience? What is it like to grow up with that silence, and how does it affect younger generations, especially their understanding of their own family history and identity?

I can't speak to that directly, because my grandmother, in particular, was not silent (about anything!). Moreover, my grandparents' personal experiences as refugees, while difficult, were not nearly as traumatic as the suffering that occurred in Europe later. But intergenerational transmission of Holocaust trauma is something that I've read and thought about quite a lot. I'd recommend that anyone interested in this take a look at my essay, "Ever After? History, Healing, and 'Holocaust Fiction' in the Third Generation" for some references.

I imagine that many readers feel very personally about these stories, that they resonate with their own family experiences. I know you’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with readers, how have they responded?

I have been humbled and gratified by the responses. And yes, there are definitely some people with similar family backgrounds who have shared their stories with me. But I've been equally moved and inspired by other readers' reactions. It has been fascinating, too, to learn more about my stories through others' eyes. Readers have discerned things about these stories that I never realized!

You wear many writerly hats (writing both fiction and poetry, editing, blogging about resources for writers, plus a “day job.” How do you balance them all? Of all of these endeavors, which do you love the most? Which do you wish you had more time for? What upcoming projects are you most looking forward to?

Well, I try to wear all of those hats, at any rate! These days, I don't feel as though I'm balancing them very well at all. I love them all (I can't have a "favorite" child, can I?). I do wish that I had more time to think and read and let longer-form project ideas simmer. That's what I'm really missing right now. I have a few projects in the works, but right now, I don't want to jinx anything by being too enthusiastic about any of them! Please keep up with me on my blogs or Facebook or Twitter to find out about them!

Many thanks for taking the time to visit Books, Personally! 

You can learn more about the author on her website.

Quiet Americans, Erika Dreifus,
Last Light Studio, 2011

Portions of the proceeds from sales of Quiet Americans will be donated to The Blue Card, which supports survivors of Nazi persecution and their families in the United States.


  1. what a great Q&A! Erika is a lovely person and a very talented writer.

  2. Great interview. I really like short stories. My great grandparents are from Germany as well. I said I was going to compile a story about their journey to America one day. Great to see it being done with passion. Bravo.

  3. Lena, how wonderful! you should! yes, this is a collection that inspires a lot of thinking about one's grandparents/ancestors and what we know and do not know about their histories.


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