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Phyllis Kimmel Libby

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My Jewish grandfather was a seventh-generation goldsmith who worked for Fabergé in Odessa, in the Ukraine. After he and his fiancé were caught in crossfire during the murderous pogrom of 1905, they vowed never to raise their children in such peril. He brought his wife, children, and in-laws to America.

My Bavarian grandfather was Czech, and lived near the German-Czech border. He refused to fight for Germany in WWI after Bismarck suppressed his Czech language and his nation’s freedom of self-rule in 1870. He stowed away on a Norwegian sailing ship for two years before he landed in Canada. He walked across the Canadian/New York State border and met his future Lutheran-Hungarian bride in Philadelphia.

Holiday dinner conversations in my youth sparkled in English, Yiddish, and high- and low-German dialects. The old guard’s wild tales of life before America underscored strong beliefs in peace, personal responsibility, and the power of love and dignity. They were a cultural mix religiously, economically, and artistically. They shared exuberant diversity and intense belief in learning, along with ironic, heartwarming (and sometimes, dark) humor. They rooted dialogue, stories, and settings into my heart. Their suffering taught me to give back for blessings received. They championed my love for literature, music, and fine arts. I sought spiritual understanding through the Tao, Judaism, Christianity, and Eckankar.

My father, an eighth-generation jeweler: a platinum smith, was born in the United States. His experience taught me never to forget the Holocaust. A twenty-one-year-old American tourist (a sculptor), he and his older brother (a violinist), were in Salzburg, Austria on the eve of Kristallnacht in November 1938. They heard the glass shatter during the looting of Jewish businesses and smelled the synagogue burning.

The following day, in Munich, he almost picked a fight with an SS standing in front of a Munich art museum. My uncle, born in Russia, grabbed my dad by the scruff of his neck and whispered, “Moishe, what the hell’s the matter with you? You’ll get us arrested! My passport is in my Jewish name, Pincus. They’ll know we’re Jews! We don’t know if we have protection as Americans and we’re not going to find out—right, boychik?”

Apparently, my dad’s oral history would not be my only enlightenment. In 1957, in fourth grade, a boy in my class accosted my neighbor and me on our walk back to school at lunchtime. This classmate called my neighbor a ‘dirty Jew.’ I had a knee-jerk response and slugged that boy hard in his stomach. I was a pert little blonde, pigtailed gamine with pierced ears, who wore baby earrings, a sure advertisement that I was from European immigrant stock. My bully classmate ran home and never returned to our school. Apparently, he mistakenly assumed that because I looked like a carbon copy of my Aryan mother, and played with a girl named Dagmar, that I would side with his insult.

My mother brought me through this profound childhood trauma that first ignited my passion for human rights (not unlike my father’s reaction to being in Nazi Germany). This sudden altercation thrust me, quite rudely, into an adult world. I had upended my social rules of civility. I could not explain to myself, or to my parents, why my knee-jerk response was violent. My mother took me to Quaker meetings of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She taught me respect for all people, and explained civil rights and Afro-American history to me. In 1959, she sent me to stand in her place in the municipal courtyard of Philadelphia, with a group of adult resisters, in silent, weekly, anti-nuclear war/peace vigils sponsored by the WILPF. I was twelve years old. To this day, I remember how people passed us and stared. I looked back and silently gave them love in a piece of my conscience—hoping my message would resonate in their hearts. Little did I know I was being prepared for a career that would take me abroad to work in other cultures, many struggling against dictatorships, like Nicaragua, where, in May 2018, after thirteen years’ lecturing in Managua, I taught all day and listened to gunshots ring out all night.

My childhood history of fighting injustice haunted me into adulthood. By the time I met my husband, almost thirty years later, I had marched peacefully (in the early sixties) against the war in Viet Nam and later that same day had been tear-gassed in the Pentagon parking lot. I volunteered on Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker soup line on the Lower East Side in the 1970s.

My marriage to the late Reginald Libby, a WWII Marine veteran, inspired me to write the first book of the trilogy, Ingrid's Wars: The Résistance Between Us, beginning in July of 2001. Once he was installed as the main gunner on the USS Arkansas, Reg realized the horror of actually killing someone. Even though he had to do it, this was not the way he preferred to serve. Reg saved the lives of the men and officers on their boat, instead.
As an answer to young Reg’s continued prayers, he was awakened many times while he napped on deck over the next two years. He always felt directed to call the captain on the bridge and tell him to move the ship. One time there were kamikazes in the clouds at 3:00 o’clock. Without questioning Reg’s alert, the Captain moved the battleship. Less than two minutes later, enemy planes appeared out of the clouds, already locked in position to strike. They hit the Pacific. Neither Corporal Libby nor his other gunner had to fire their weapons. His shipmates and the ship were safe, far enough away, just in time, from their previous position.

I married a man older than me who was in the war that could have wiped out my father’s family. Ghastly footage of human suffering I saw on TV, as a ten-year-old became much more real when I actually worked in Poland. It took me seven years of trips there, until 2005, before I had the stomach to visit Auschwitz. By then I was a widow. That dreadful camp was a devastating reminder that if my grandfather, grandmother, and their families had not left the Ukraine when they did, they would likely have died in a pit in 1941 from gunshots to the back of their necks—Genickschusse—in the Odessa Massacre.

Yes, I am passionate about human rights. It is my sincere hope that this trilogy: The Résistance Between Us, Hard of Healing, and Hostage to Life will resonate in your conscience, your heart, and your soul. May we, in peace, heed the lessons of history to rise above wars of death.

THE RESISTANCE BETWEEN US Cover
HISTORICAL FICTION

THE RESISTANCE BETWEEN US

BY Phyllis Kimmel Libby • POSTED ON June 24, 2017

In this debut novel, set in a small town in Vichy France on the Swiss border, World War II arrives at the back door of a wealthy 41-year-old widow, causing her to risk everything in the battle against unspeakable evil.

It is 1941, and the Germans have occupied northern France. But in the southern, “free” region, the Vichy government is still in control, albeit through collaboration with the Nazis. Almost two years ago, a skiing accident took the life of Madame Ingrid Fellner’s husband and left their daughter, Marta, seriously injured. Grief over her husband and devotion to her 8-year-old daughter’s recuperation have allowed Ingrid to distance herself from the chaos enveloping Europe. But as the book opens, she walks by the river that borders her property and makes a discovery that shakes her out of her complacency: “Oh Mon Dieu! There is one, no, there are two yellow stars, two people. A Jewish couple has washed up on my shore!” It is the pivotal moment that will lead Ingrid to join the French Resistance, a decision that will cost her more than she can imagine—her self-respect, her standing in the community, and perhaps her life. She agrees to let the underground use her basement as a way station for Jewish refugees, some of whom have escaped from concentration camps. While Ingrid entertains the regional head of the Gestapo, Erich Heisler, upstairs in her drawing room, becoming his “field mattress” to keep him distracted, the “Old Testaments” are hiding downstairs. The riveting first-person narrative is written in Ingrid’s voice. It is a voice outwardly enriched by her aristocratic upbringing and inwardly full of self-doubt and anguish. The novel, the first installment of a series, is simultaneously character-driven and rich in historical details about the operation of one aspect of the underground’s activities. Libby paints a vivid portrait of the competing forces that turn friend against friend, ripping off the veneer of civility even as they lead to new, deep bonds of trust and love that cross traditional societal lines. Ingrid is living with two identities: she is Madame Fellner in public but is known as the mysterious Madame “Henri” within the underground, literally traversing from one world to the other each time she descends or ascends the back staircase to her basement: “I spend my days paranoid and obsessed with questions. I torture myself worrying about every detail that could reveal what I do secretly and then give up because it’s too much to carry.” With the increasing deceptions, Ingrid’s closest confidants are her mentor (and local underground leader), Dieter Van der Kreuzier; her butler, Guy; and her housekeeper, Marie. They also are among this impressive book’s most significant secondary characters. A dark back story, which first appears as an intriguing subplot, takes on greater importance as the primary narrative moves forward, weaving together the threads of war and revenge.

Smooth, in-the-moment prose and realistic dialogue enliven a haunting tale tightly packed with historical facts that should alarm readers even today, seven decades later.

Pub Date: June 24, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9987441-0-0

Page count: 514pp

Publisher: Ingrid's Wars

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2017

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BOOK REVIEW

HARD OF HEALING

BY Phyllis Kimmel Libby

This second volume of a trilogy continues the saga of a fictional aristocrat as she confronts the chaotic aftermath of World War II.

It is October 1944; the Germans have been pushed out of France; and the Nazi-backed Vichy government has fallen. World War II has ended here in Duchamp, along the Swiss border. But the wounds are still open and festering. Ingrid deVochard Fellner and Dieter Van der Kreuzier are living together in her home, the place where she sexually “entertained” Nazi officers while she hid a constant stream of Jewish refugees in her basement. She and Dieter worked together in the French Resistance. Now, they begin the long and painful task of rebuilding their lives. Ingrid tells readers that she still loves Dieter, “but now I realize we are too shattered in body and soul to celebrate our ‘victory.’ ” Dieter, once a powerful leader of the underground, is blind, the result of a vicious beating after having been arrested by the “Milice, the French Paramilitary Police…created under Vichy leader Pierre Laval.” Ingrid bears her own scars. Right after the liberation, the townspeople of Duchamp, not knowing that Ingrid was in the Resistance, attacked her as a Nazi collaborator, shaving her head and putting her on trial. Although vindicated, she is still the subject of town gossip. In need of a new place to heal, Ingrid heads north in June 1945 to volunteer at a displaced persons camp—“Freiheim”—on the German border in Alsace. Freiheim serves as Book 2’s inflection point, the place where new characters will intersect with the established cast, expanding Ingrid’s cobbled-together family and helping to carry the narrative to 1964. Ingrid is Libby’s (The Resistance Between Us, 2017) articulate, in-the-moment narrator of this compelling tale, which is filled with chilling historical details, many of them revealed through the protagonist’s interviews with European refugees and concentration camp survivors. They arrive at Freiheim broken, locked in the terrors of the past few years, with no hopes for the future. The most poignant and narratively pivotal of these survivors is 11-year-old Maurice Lebenkern. Maurice, who has lost his entire family, will prove to be the vehicle for Dieter’s gradual emotional recovery. Ingrid’s journey is more complex than Dieter’s. She is wrestling with both anger and her guilt for having shot and killed an SS officer in her basement, even though it was in self-defense. The author deftly raises a number of social and political issues in this volume, including the gradual postwar emancipation of Frenchwomen (who did not receive the vote until 1944) and the anti-Semitism that still simmers in Europe (Jewish refugees are assigned to a separate barracks for their own protection). But the bulk of the narrative is relationship driven and heavily emotional. In addition to the complex romance between Dieter and Ingrid, there are several love stories among the more important secondary characters that are engaging, albeit sometimes bordering on melodrama. And Ingrid’s constant mental meanderings and angst in her search for inner peace at times becomes exhausting. Still, with vivid prose and a riveting subject, the story is addictive. Libby’s annotated “Informal Appendix” is a useful linguistic, geographical, historical, and political supplement.

An engrossing and informative postwar tale with an abundance of intriguing characters.

Pub Date:

Publisher: Mistral Editions

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2020

ADDITIONAL WORKS AVAILABLE

Hard of Healing, Ingrid's Wars, Book II

Phyllis Kimmel Libby's next book to come is Hard of Healing, the second volume in her trilogy, Ingrid's Wars. Libby takes us through the next twenty post-war years in a fascinating continuing drama of lives forever altered by the French Occupation. Now Ingrid must deal with the devastating consequences of her wartime high-wire act when the trip-wires of her mind could skew her future. With a wounded, almost embittered heart, Ingrid must surpass her memories as she deals with the psychological repercussions affecting her friends and family. She burrows into the crevices of their damaged souls to help them heal, and in doing so discovers her future will come with this healing of others. Our favorite characters have survived their double lives in the Undergraound in the only way anyone could: they have slapped psychological "band-aids" over deep-seated traumas. Once again, we are on the edges of our seats. The flow is strong, the reading swift. Ingrid overcomes some of the trip-wires and finds others. We applaud her pratfalls and perseverance. She struggles back to her feet, regrets her misgivings, and walks straight ahead into the third book, Hostage to Life, as this epic story series lives on.