[Interview] H. Peter Nennhaus,

H. Peter Nennhaus grew up in Berlin and graduated from medical school in Frankfurt in 1955.

He became an American citizen in 1961 and trained at various Chicago hospitals. He was board certified in surgery and thoracic surgery and practiced in Chicago. He began writing after retirement.

So far, he has published two books: Boyhood, The 1930s and World War II, Memories, Comments, and Views from the Other Side (Chandler House Press, 2002) and Quo Vadis, Israel? (Outskirts Press, Inc., 2007).

In this interview, Peter Nennhaus talks about his concerns as a writer.

When did you start writing?

My first unsuccessful attempt was in the 1970s when I was in my early forties. I am a bit of a philosopher and was investigating how one could give reason and good sense more political and constitutional power. It was highly intellectual but of course amateurish and, to no surprise, I found no takers.

Another casual attempt followed in the mid-seventies. My notes were not intended for the publisher but rather for my young son. The divorce brought it about that he was influenced against his father’s German origin. I began to write down some of my childhood memories in Berlin during the war. He was to read them once he was older and thus learn that he came from a very nice family indeed. These early anecdotes became the core of a book I published in 2002.

About the same time I was a university-affiliated surgeon. In that position publishing research papers was almost obligatory and that’s what I did and enjoyed the art of writing. But my real temptation to publish did not come about until my semi-retirement in the low 1990s when at last I had leisure time available and, more importantly, when we got our first computer.

I unearthed my childhood anecdotes for the sole purpose of practicing word processing. My new, wonderful wife urged me to publish them and so it was she who more or less inveigled me into writing. That project, however, involved years of research into the history of Europe during the early century, resulting in a considerable delay for that book to come out.

How would you describe your writing?

I guess, the way nature made me, I am a non-fiction and issue-related writer. There has to be a message and it has to be done in a scholarly way.

Also, I am a bit of an artist, painting landscapes and portraits. Influenced in that way, I attempt to make the narrative artistic in a way or pleasing.

Who is your target audience?

My first book was intended for the general public. The story takes place in WW II and it is both entertaining and informative and is a good read for an intelligent audience.

My present book, Quo Vadis, Israel?, could also interest the general public, but more specifically people who are concerned about anti-Semitism and in particular about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Here again, my investigation is issue-related and carries a message, i.e. a potential solution. It is thus directed to the widely scattered audience of those who share my distress at the ongoing tragedy in the Holy Land.

Who influenced you most?

That question has several answers.

There are fortunate people in this world who master the English language in an admirably beautiful way, one that makes you think you are listening to a concert. I own many of their books. I will never equal them, but they do inspire.

But it is not so much who inspired me as what.

If you have lived through much of the turmoil of the 20th century and survived it with your morality and common sense intact, you may feel as though having visited the wounded in a field hospital or even an insane asylum. You are never left without the desire to cure the disease, whatever its name. Of course, the desire to help the suffering is universal, but in my case there is another aspect.

As a physician, I have been trained not to judge and punish, but rather to make the correct diagnosis and find the right cure. As an example, for a physician, the rational way to deal with the terrorists is not to club them to death because they are evil, but to detect the source of their rage and remove it. Looking at the world the way it is operating in reality causes persistent frustration and it is that frustration, which is a powerful stimulus to explore and write.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

To a minor degree, in both of my books I was swimming against the stream of popular thinking, some may even mistakably think, against political correctness.

I am certain many of my readers, even well-meaning and friendly readers, will initially look up in surprise and say, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

Many have come back and said, “This was an eye opener, thank you for writing it!” but I am still under pressure to produce a text, which is flowing easily, is beckoning to read further, is conveying my sense of good-will and, above all, which is written convincingly.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

That is easy to understand, once you know about the early beginnings of my life. If you lived through World War II as a European, that war and its destruction, killing and destitution is never far away from your thoughts.

It is similar to almost all of the Jewish folks I know: For them, the image of the Holocaust is always present, it will never go away. But for me as well, even though the Holocaust did not touch my personal life, Auschwitz and anti-Semitism has been a persistent focus of wondering and soul searching, has to be, I guess, if you come from Germany.

Consequently, observing the fate of the State of Israel has almost been a personal matter for me. You want it to succeed, you want peace and normality to enter the Holy Land. My mounting concern that such will never come about was the reason for writing my latest book, Quo Vadis, Israel?

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

There are two of them.

One challenge is that English is my second language. Believe me, even after half a century, your fluency and the breadth of your vocabulary will never equal that of your mother tongue. Listen to Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski, two eminently erudite English speakers: you always know they are speaking in their second language.

A more serious challenge is the fact that years ago I suffered a stroke that left me aphasic. The recovery of my speech was miraculous, but perhaps only up to 95 percent. The last gloss, the old eloquence, they are still missing as is the automaticity of word finding. I know, that is a common problem for everyone, when we can’t remember a name or expression.

In the same manner, I know the word is there, I can almost smell it and, yet, it won’t come up. But for me, it is more of an impediment than for others and so often it makes me feel, while writing, as though I was slugging through rain-soaked pastures. The thesaurus is usually by my side.

Do you write everyday?

Yes, time permitting, I write every day. But remember, years passed between writing the two books. In that sense, I am not a professional writer who does this for a living.

I would write only when I think I have something worthwhile to say and then, as mentioned before, the writing starts only after months of collecting the facts. Once I am engaged in it, it is similar to cautiously jumping into treacherous water where I search carefully for a spot to safely jump in.

Usually it starts with making an outline, which may get changed several times. The actual writing begins only mentally, as several passages go through my mind during my daily activities until I finally gather all my courage together and start putting something down.

After that valiant move it proceeds more rapidly, just like you start swimming after you have plunged into the water. Nonetheless, progress is slow. There have been days when I wrote three pages before I give up, but often it is less than that. Even at that pace, that’s not the end of it. I will keep reviewing the text many times for weeks and still make improvements. I guess it is similar to painting the Sistine Chapel -- it takes a long time.

How many books have you written so far?

There are two books, or perhaps we can say, two and a half.

I mentioned my first book. Its title is Boyhood, The 1930s and the Second World War, Memories, Comments, and Views from the Other Side (Chandler House Press, 2002). It describes my youth in Berlin until the end of the war in 1945, at which time I was sixteen years old. It also contains numerous short chapters of political and historical background as an aid to today’s readers unfamiliar to the issues of that era. Frequently, public opinion among ordinary Germans is described and an entire part deals with the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

My second book was published November 30, 2007 by Outskirts Press, Inc. Its title is Quo Vadis, Israel? (Quo Vadis is Latin and means, where are you going? It picks up from the famous book Domine, Quo Vadis by Nobel prize winning Polish author Henryk Sienkievicz of 1896. Adopted into many languages, it is an expression that has been used to inquire about an uncertain future.)

In addition, I have extensively edited and expanded Boyhood. It is currently being considered by publishing houses for possible publication. Its new title is The Shipwreck of a Nation, German Memories.

How long did it take you to write Quo Vadis, Israel??

So that you don’t think I am out my mind creating such an outlandish concept, I have to tell you how the writing of Quo Vaidis, Israel? came about.

A cousin of mine traveled to a piece of land by the Baltic Sea presently called the Kaliningrad Territory. It caught my attention because during my childhood it was still part of Germany. It is the northern part of East Prussia and was annexed by Stalin after Germany’s defeat in 1945.

My cousin’s report was appalling. The land is stricken with all the social, economic, and criminal calamities you can think of. It is a “failed state”. There was even a rumor that the Kremlin wanted to palm it off to the EU. A sudden thought flashed through my mind: Imagine how prosperous that beautiful land would be, had, in 1948, the State of Israel been created here and not in Palestine.

The next day the thought came back: Could one bring Israel up there now? In spite of my dismissing such an absurd thought time and again, it came back day after day. Finally I said, okay, do a little research. That will prove that you are a fool and will kill the silly idea once and for all.

My research lasted eight months and to my utter surprise it showed the feasibility of such a land transfer and the huge, unimaginable benefits that would arise from it for all concerned. I decided, instead of casting the idea into the wastebasket I should at least publish it and then let the readers accept or dismiss it.

It took another three months to write the manuscript and after that over ten months of being turned down by all the publishers in the world. Finally, in July 2007, I heard about a print-on-demand publisher by the name Outskirts Press in Denver. There are other POD publishers but I did not bother to investigate, this one was fine.

It cost me $1,000 to get Quo Vadis, Israel? expertly printed with much advice and different options. There were subsequent costs related to promotion but it is still less than $2,000 altogether. Their advice and assistance for promoting the book was marvelous and keeps on coming. I wish I had a POD publisher available in 2001, when my Boyhood book was brought out by what was then called a subsidy publisher.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

It seems the writing was the easy part. It was collecting the data that was hard but the internet is of immense help. I was disappointed with passing the manuscript around among friends for their critique. They don’t have the time or interest, trail off into trivial matters or are too polite to speak the truth. I found I was pretty much on my own.

Which aspects did you enjoy most?

The creation of the narrative, that’s it. It is similar to painting a picture when, after much effort and numerous corrections and improvements, you finally say, “Yep, this is it!” There is tremendous satisfaction.

What sets Quo Vadis, Israel? apart from other things you've written?

The subject matter.

Discussing the future outlook of the State of Israel in the 21st century is, of course, a world away from my childhood memories in a Berlin air raid shelter or from trying out my high school English on the first G.I. I met, still wearing a belt buckle displaying a swastika.

Yes, there were similarities. Both subjects share the sadness, the tragedy, the burial of goodwill under the rubble of violence, the bravery displayed on the battlefields of a wrong war, the rule of passion and the failure of the Ten Commandments, and there is so much more.

What will your next book be about?

Nice thought, a new book. There are no plans. Maybe I will find a subject that will intrigue not only me but everybody else as well.

What has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

My trophy shelf is not exactly overcrowded, but there is a stack of correspondence pertaining to Boyhood where you find unsolicited praise and gratitude for a story about the Second World War so different from what is generally known.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction I received came from a Jewish audience some years back to whom I had spoken about my childhood experiences in the 1930s and 1940s as described in the book. They were “mesmerized”, I was told, and deeply moved. Many came forward with deep emotion to shake my hand and to say thank you. Not bad, for a German in a synagogue.

How did you get there?

Heavens, if I know. Just be yourself, I guess, and honest.


Eric said…
Thank you for sharing this poignant profile and interview. The childhood memories from Germany sound like a somber reminder that big ideas can produce unexpected consequences, hurting millions.
Do you know the book "Don't Wave Goodbye"? It's a fascinating collection of childhood memories from Jewish children sent to the United States in the 1930s (even 1940s) to escape from Germany and Austria. Readers will, I suspect, find it very compelling.
As for the author's most recent book, "Quo Vadis, Israel", I must say that I winced a bit when I read its premise. Great title, and historical speculation has its pleasures. Yet the wholesale relocation of millions of people, which sounds like ethnic cleansing, evokes other, bitter memories.
Stalin also had a proposed homeland for Jews - in Siberia - using similar logic.
Perhaps we should focus on spreading tolerance and pluralism instead of redrawing maps.

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