Friday, November 10, 2017

Interview with writer Jan Krulick-Belin

Writer Jan Krulick-Belin helps me wrap up this week. We’re chatting about her memoir, Love, Bill: Finding My Father through Letters from World War II.

Jan Krulick-Belin is a museum and art consultant, and art and jewelry historian with nearly forty years of experience at such institutions as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Denver Art Museum, Beaumont (Texas) Art Museum, and Smithsonian Institution. Retired as Director of Education at the Phoenix Art Museum, she still works with museums, art organizations, and private collectors, and serves as guest curator at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Phoenix.

Jan has a bachelor’s degree in art history from the State University of New York, Binghamton, and a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University in Washington, DC. She grew up in New York City, and currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona.

Welcome, Jan. Please tell us about your current release:
“The Greatest Generation Meets Love Letters Meets Yentl”
Long before becoming a museum curator, Jan Krulick-Belin curated memories… photographs and mementos of her father, who died when she was just six. Her mother rarely spoke about him again, until a year before her own death, when she gave Jan a box of one hundred love letters he had written her during World War II. What follows is the true story of the author’s life-changing pilgrimage of the heart to find and reclaim the father she thought she’d lost forever.
The letters lead Jan on an extraordinary journey following her father’s actual footsteps during the war years, leading to unexpected discoveries from Morocco to Paris to upstate New York. She learns about her parents’ great love story, about the war in North Africa, and about the horrific fate of the Jews in Morocco, Germany, and France. The adventure comes full circle when Jan finds the Jewish-Moroccan family that provided the lonely soldier a feeling of home, fulfilling a wish unearthed in one of his letters. She drew on her research skills to delve into her past, creating Love, Bill as a labor of love to fulfill her father’s dream as well as her own.
Love, Bill is a testament to the enduring power of determination, love, family, and the unbreakable bond between fathers and daughters.

What inspired you to write this book?
The story was never intended to be a book. When I inherited the love letters written by my father to my mother, it took me five years after her death to build up the courage to read them. When I learned that Dad had been stationed in Morocco during WWII and that he had become very close to a family while there, I decided to try to find this family – something he had planned to do after the war, but passed away before having the opportunity. When my husband and I were originally planning to vacation in Morocco in 2010, I thought that it would be a great opportunity to both visit the town where Dad was stationed and perhaps, find this family for him. The problem was that all the letters from WWII were censored. I had no location or last name for the family! That’s where the detective story began. As the coincidences and amazing twists and turns kept unfolding, friends and family thought this saga was tailor-made to turn into a book or movie. Once I promised my two nieces that I would write the book so that they too would “get to know” their grandfather, I was committed!

Excerpt from Love, Bill: Finding My Father through Letters from World War II:
(Pages 20-22)

…With each passing day, my father’s presence gradually evaporated from our lives. Only the few picture frames holding his photograph provided a quiet reminder that he had once been with us. Once a year, a Yahrzeit candle sat on the kitchen counter in his honor. For the twenty-four hours that the flame burned, he was back in our house. Then both would be extinguished for yet another year. When I needed to, I could always close my eyes and replay the selection of scenes in my mind that included him. Every detail remained as clear as could be, except for the one thing that I couldn’t hold on to, no matter how desperately I tried; the first thing that disappeared from my memory was the sound of my father’s voice. There were no tape recordings or family movies to refer to. In my mind, I could see his lips moving, but I could no longer hear how the words sounded. In time, however, I would learn that there were other ways that my father would talk to me.

It became my secret mission to ensure that my father didn’t slip away completely. I hoarded any physical evidence of his existence. Having spent my professional life as a museum educator and curator, I fully understand the power of objects. Even the most commonplace item has the ability to soak up the deepest meaning, retell a lifetime of stories, or instantly evoke a cherished memory. Like a picture, an object can be worth a thousand words, but it’s not the object itself that’s important; what is important are the emotions and memories we attach to that object. Once touched by a loved one, an object can, in turn, touch the person who is left behind. We remember our loved ones through those objects, and then have the need to pass those objects—and the memories of those we loved—on.

In Europe, a curator is called a keeper. In a way, I became “my father’s keeper”—the keeper of anything that would keep my father alive. By high school, I had commandeered Dad’s Army dog tags and would occasionally wear them around my neck like a precious talisman. Then it was the gold pocket watch that my grandfather had given him; I sometimes wore that on a black velvet ribbon. Over time, a few purloined photographs from my mother’s photo album made their way into my wallet, and a year before my mother died, I put the engagement diamond that she had received from my father into a pendant. The diamond had previously belonged to his mother, Grandma Fannie Kruleck (for some reason that has never been explained, my father changed the spelling of our last name to Krulick). To this day, that pendant remains a fixture around my neck.

As meaningful as these keepsakes were, however, they were never enough. When you lose a parent at such a young age, you’re left with a cavernous hole in your heart, a constant, raw reminder that something is missing that can never be replaced. That hollowed-out emptiness grew bigger with each successive milestone in my life from which my father was absent: birthday parties, dance recitals, theater productions, my Sweet Sixteen, my first breakup, graduations, award ceremonies, my first public lecture, and, most of all, my wedding.

It’s probably true that every woman gets her first taste of the love and security that is to be found in a man’s arms from the times spent in her father’s. They’re the memories and lessons that we carry with us for the rest of our lives. They’re the ones that we return to each time that a relationship goes wrong or when we feel desperately alone and ask ourselves “Will I ever be loved again?” Sometimes we call upon these memories when we need reassurance, and other times, they appear like specters conjured up by a particular smell, song, or memento. They’re buried so deeply inside of us and are so indelibly imprinted upon our very souls that they can never be erased or forgotten. Our fathers are our first loves, our little-girl heroes, and the mirrors in which we first learn to see ourselves as special and capable of giving and receiving love. If our fathers love us, then we can love ourselves. When they shower our mothers with love and tenderness, we learn to expect the same from all the other men in our lives. Our fathers teach us about strength, wisdom, and life’s practicalities. When they run alongside our two-wheelers for the very first time, they know when to hold on and when to let go. When they scare away the demons in our nightmares, it helps us to be unafraid to dream. Before we learn to stand on our own two feet, we must first learn to dance by standing on theirs. As little girls, we always think that we will marry our fathers; instead, they are here to walk us down the aisle and give us away to someone else. There is truly no other bond like the one between daddies and daughters.

Ironically, in spite of my father’s glaring absence from my life, he actually remained the biggest presence in it. He may not have been with me physically, but hardly a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about him.

What exciting story are you working on next?
It is really hard to top my debut book for now. I am waiting for divine inspiration!

In the meantime, I am busy writing a couple of lectures that fall into my other career—art and jewelry historian. I will be speaking at an antique jewelry conference in February. The topic is on “Sweetheart Jewelry from WWII.” The topic obviously has great meaning for me since writing the book about my Dad, but I had already started a collection of my own before that ever happened— another interesting coincidence! I really enjoy the stories behind these pieces of patriotic symbols of love. My other recent lectures have been “Double Dutch and Diamonds: Portraits from the Age of Rembrandt,” “Betrothals, Brides, and Brooches: Portraits from the Italian Renaissance,” and “Pelicans, Posies, and Pearls; Portraits from the Age of Elizabeth I.”

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I have always written lectures, articles, grants, and museum labels as part of my career as a museum educator and curator. But a book was quite another thing! I think when I opened the first box of books from the printer, I knew I was a real author.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I need absolute quiet and a tidy space to write.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think I first wanted to be a ballet dancer. After that, I never really thought about it until college.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I firmly believe that our loved ones never really leave us. If we open ourselves up to listen and looking out for “signs,” we can follow the paths they set out for us. Also, sometimes the best things in life that happen to us are the ones that we hadn’t planned.


Thanks for being here today, Jan!

No comments: