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A young girl grapples with life post World War I in 'Gretel and the Great War'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A young girl wanders the streets of Vienna in the days following what was supposed to be the war to end all wars. She does not speak. A neurologist concludes the girl has had no exposure to language and writes her story for a medical journal, but he gets a letter from a sanitarium patient who says he's wrong. The writer is the young girl's father and sends along a collection of 26 bedtime stories to tell her of the times in Vienna. "Gretel And The Great War" is by Adam Ehrlich Sachs. He's a novelist and short story writer and joins us now from Pittsburgh. Thank you so much for being with us.

ADAM EHRLICH SACHS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The stories are in alphabetical order, from The Architect, through The Duchess, through The Quarryman and finally, The Zionist. How do they reflect Vienna in the wake of the Great War?

EHRLICH SACHS: Yeah. Well, this is a unpublished playwright with certain grievances against the culture that he comes out of. And the ABC structure sort of came from my own - you know, I had a 1 1/2-year-old daughter when I started this book, and I was thinking about her and reading a lot of ABC books, many of which I liked more actually than supposedly grown-up novels I was reading. So somehow, those two merged in my head.

SIMON: The Architect, first story, for example, what do they distrust about decoration?

EHRLICH SACHS: Yeah. Well, many of the stories, or actually, all of them, have a kind of historical reference. So this one is, in a way, the clearest. This is based on Adolf Loos, who is a famous architect, and he wrote an essay called "Ornament And Crime" where he said that highly decorative buildings are not only unnecessary, it's actually immoral. Children can have ornament, can scribble on the walls, but it's too late in the day for a grown-up civilization.

So he was all about stripping away everything unnecessary. And that was happening not just in architecture but in music with Schoenberg, in philosophy with Wittgenstein, in the media, someone like Karl Kraus, the satirist. So there was a lot of ruthless self-critique and a kind of calling out of the language operating in all of these fields and saying it's meaningless.

SIMON: What led you to set a novel with these stories in post-World War I Vienna now?

EHRLICH SACHS: Somehow having a child of my own made the emotional link to the material that I hadn't had before. There's a lot of interest in language in what is nonsense and what is sense. And it all felt a little bit academic until I had a 1-year-old who was acquiring language on her own and also losing the beautiful nonsense words of a 1-year-old in a way that I kind of felt sort of heart-rending in a way. You know, I have a 3-year-old now who still calls a cucumber a cucubator (ph), and I just - I know that the day that he learns it's a cucumber will be a dark day in my life. So...

SIMON: Yeah. But you'll go on saying cucubator. That's been my...

EHRLICH SACHS: That's true. Yeah. But, yeah, he won't like that anymore, though. So, yeah, somehow emotional in that sense. And then, of course, you know, I'm not generally interested in making a political point, but there are parallels that I couldn't avoid between then and now.

SIMON: It was during the story, in fact, about the kindergarten teacher - The K - that I began to, as a reader, detect a pattern of antisemitism in Vienna when they speak about doctors.

EHRLICH SACHS: Well, it ends with Z, The Zionist and...

SIMON: The Yid and The Zionist.

EHRLICH SACHS: The Yid the Zionist.

SIMON: For the Y and the Z. Yeah.

EHRLICH SACHS: Yeah. One strand of my interest in the material was with Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. I hadn't quite understood the degree to which he was really a creature of this exact society. He was an editor at the main newspaper in the Neue Freie Presse and also a wannabe playwright and came to Zionism kind of accidentally.

And I didn't just want to take what we knew would happen and read it anachronistically back into 1918 Vienna, because the characters at the time, they certainly didn't know, obviously, and many of them were - Karl Kraus was very anti-Zionist, quite committed to a European view of things. And as foolish as it might seem after the Holocaust, those are powerful essays he wrote against Zionism, and I was interested in that part of it, too.

SIMON: Well, we get back to, why did you want to tell the story now?

EHRLICH SACHS: I mean, I think the heart of it for me, all the politics and the Judaism and the threat of war aside, it is at heart about a father and a daughter. You know, I've written books before about my own parents, and there's something about fathers, mothers, children that I just can't get away from, it seems like. You know, lovers don't interest me. Friends somehow don't interest me. There's something about a parent who creates someone else and then, you know, watches them take their own form that is just endlessly interesting to me. And I try to look for other material, but I keep getting drawn back to that. So having exploited my parents for material, it was only - it was inevitable that I would take my children in turn. But I hope I disguised everything enough. I put everything a century ago, so...

SIMON: How do you feel about the way the term Zionism is - well, you know, sorry to make it sound so casual, but just thrown around these days?

EHRLICH SACHS: Well, to give a stupid answer, it's complicated. I'm not saying anything that people don't already know, but it comes out of an excruciating history, but a story that in some way begins in pre-war Vienna. You know, Hitler was there - and Herzl were there, but it also, you know, has taken on a life of its own and a dynamic of its own, which I also find excruciating.

SIMON: I have to tell you, and I almost never say this to somebody we're interviewing, but you sound very uncomfortable talking about this. Why?

EHRLICH SACHS: Well, I mean, have you been following the news for the past half year? It's tricky. I mean, I'm - also, my views are - they've changed. I also, to my regret, was one of those American Jews that felt like they didn't need to pay attention to what was going on over there. We also lived down the street from Tree of Life, the synagogue here and...

SIMON: That was the synagogue that was attacked, yes.

EHRLICH SACHS: That was attacked in 2018. I was with actually my daughter behind it as the shooting happened. You know, so I'm by no means a denier of antisemitism, but I wouldn't call myself a Zionist. I think what is happening to Palestinians is the most grotesque thing, clearly. But to any American Jew that would browbeat me into supporting Israeli policies out of concern for my safety, I detest more than anything 'cause just looking at my children, the people that I love most and I'm concerned most in the world, it terrifies me that we are someway implicated in what Israel is doing.

SIMON: Israel was attacked on October 7, wasn't it?

EHRLICH SACHS: Of course, yes. Yeah. By the way, I have to say I did not expect that to be on Zionism, but I'm happy to do it. But, yeah, you know...

SIMON: You wrote a book where it's a theme.

EHRLICH SACHS: I know. Yeah, it's true.

SIMON: I'm not...

EHRLICH SACHS: But not, like, the...

SIMON: ...You know, I'm not taking that out of nothing.

EHRLICH SACHS: No, no, no, it's completely fair. Yeah, they were attacked. It was a despicable attack as well. It was also an attack that was in a context of a century of turmoil and of - and in the context of an occupation. And whatever your feelings about that day, and I agree that it was horrible, but, you know, unless you want to subscribe to a, well, he hit me first sort of view of things, it doesn't to me justify at all what's happening now.

SIMON: I have to ask another question about Gretel.

EHRLICH SACHS: Sure.

SIMON: Does she not speak, or does she just have nothing to say?

EHRLICH SACHS: I should keep that - I like that ambiguity. You know, one seed of this was the story of Kaspar Hauser, which was a German boy who, in the 19th century, entered Nuremberg capable of saying one sentence, and he was taken in and taught to speak. But probably, he was a fraud. So I like possibly annoyingly intentional ambiguities. But, no, I think it would be a long time to remain silent if she had something to say.

SIMON: "Gretel And The Great War" is the new novel by Adam Ehrlich Sachs. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

EHRLICH SACHS: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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