Writer's Bloc

Jenoff Spins Five Novels from Raw Experiences as a Diplomat
By Sally Friedman

When she was eight years old, Pam Jenoff L'01 was already at the family's manual typewriter churning out novels on its keys. Yes, novels.

Her personal rock stars were novelists, exotic figures who seemed as remote to her as Hollywood icons, and just as glamorous. "It was always there, the passion for writing.

But I come from a very practical family, and it would have seemed bizarre to say 'I'm going to be a novelist when I grow up.'" But that is precisely what she has become. Jenoff, a clinical assistant professor at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, is the author of five novels – one every year since 2007. The subjects of her work – World War II and the Holocaust – proceed from her "clinical" experience abroad as a student and government official.

At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Jenoff majored in international relations. But while some of her classmates were gravitating toward law school, she resisted. Instead, Jenoff was granted GW's first scholarship to Cambridge University, where she earned a master's degree in history.

And here is where the plot turns.

Fresh out of Cambridge, Jenoff served as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Army, then, for three years, as a foreign service officer with the State Department, primarily at the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland.

"I was living in a place where the scars of Communism were still pretty raw. Conditions were difficult – you couldn't drink the water, air pollution was a problem and there were very few Americans."

But it was in that environment that Jenoff found herself reconnecting to her Jewish roots in new ways. "I gravitated to the small Jewish community that still existed in Krakow. I saw the power of hope – the birth of a child, a wedding in the Jewish community, the return of a Torah to a synagogue – and they all became important touchstones to my own Jewish faith and commitment."

Jenoff also worked on Holocaust and post-Holocaust-related projects, including the preservation of Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp. It was a strange period for her, one of both gratification and sadness. "You lived with a constant awareness of loss and death."

When her State Department stint ended, Jenoff, yearning for home and family, returned to the U.S. ready for law school.

"It was really at Penn Law that I found my voice," says Jenoff, who published two papers stemming from her Krakow experiences, one about Jewish property restitution in Poland and one about the legal status of Auschwitz in the post-Holocaust era. And this is where the plot turns again.

After graduating, cum laude, from Penn Law School, Jenoff went to work for a Philadelphia law firm and enrolled in a writing course.

"The course began just after 9/11, which was a powerful epiphany for all of us. And I didn't want to put off fiction writing any longer," says Jenoff.

Jenoff's first novel, The Kommandant's Girl, was published to both critical and popular acclaim. It became an international best-seller in 2007.

Based on actual events, the novel is set in Krakow, and focuses on a young Jewish woman passing as non-Jewish, and her complicated struggle to help her husband in the Resistance movement, with profound conflicts, loyalty and painful choices as its themes.

"I'm definitely inspired by the places I've been and the people I've met," she explains. "Those two years I spent in the Krakow Jewish community getting to know survivors motivated me to write The Kommandant's Girl, a novel that reflected and honored those experiences. I owe a lot to two actual Holocaust survivors who told me the true story of Krakow's resistance, which became the novel's historical underpinning."

The Diplomat's Wife, a spin-off of the first novel, followed in 2008, and Almost Home, about a globetrotting female diplomat coming to terms with her complicated past, was published in 2009. A Hidden Affair, her 2010 novel, continued threads of Almost Home.

This year has brought The Things We Cherished, published in July to high praise from Kirkus Review, Booklist and Publisher's Weekly. The book chronicles the crusade by two lawyers to clear the name of a man accused of World War II crimes, with a hidden clock central to this mystery novel.

Once again, she turns to Jewish life and the Holocaust in her latest book. "They are such compelling subjects and such fertile ground for exploring complex themes such as guilt, redemption and sacrifice."

Jenoff is a model of sacrifice herself. The mother of three children – a two-year-old son and one-year old twin daughters – Jenoff has had to squeeze her writing in at odd times, particularly before dawn when most of the world is slumbering. And, all too often, she's had to interrupt the most powerful narrative passages to heed the cry of a child.

"It gets complicated," acknowledges the 40-year-old author.

"But it's never dull!"

Sally Friedman has been a freelance writer for three decades. Her work has appeared in The New York Times , Philadelphia Inquirer, Newark Star-Ledger and other major newspapers and magazines.