September 30, 2004
"Songbird" by Walter Zacharius (Atria Books, $24).
In writing his first novel, "Songbird," Walter Zacharius has come to realize that being an author is far more difficult than being a publisher. The 80-year-old founder, chairman and CEO of Kensington Publishing has just published a book that he began in the 1980s, inspired by the life of a young Jewish woman he met in Brussels while he was serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.
I sat down with Zacharius in the Manhattan office of Kensington, one of few remaining independent publishers in New York. He recalled how as a young soldier during the liberation of Paris on Aug. 25, 1944, he was hugged and kissed by people crowding the streets to celebrate.
"In retrospect," the former member of a combat signal unit says, "It was one of most exciting days of my life."
Although he's wanted to write a novel since he was a kid (the other side of his dream was to become a publisher), he began this book on a dare. Once, while attending the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, he told a story that had stayed with him since his wartime years to his business partner, who then encouraged him to write it as a novel. He began doing historical research, interviewing survivors, to try to fill in the gaps and wrote 800 pages. After his partner died at an early age, he put the project aside for a decade. About three years ago, at the urging of his wife, he picked it up again and pared it down to the book he really wanted to write.
A historical romance, "Songbird," is told through the voice of Mia; when the novel opens in 1939, she is a 17-year-old vacationing with her family at a resort called Krzemieniec, "the Polish Athens." Affectionately called Songbird by her father, Mia is a beautiful singer and pianist who studied in Paris -- and music is an underlying theme of the book. When the family learns of Germany's invasion of Poland, they flee to their home in Lodz, their lives of safety, culture and freedom forever altered. Her father, a doctor, is able to protect the family for a bit, but they are forced into the Lodz ghetto and then to Treblinka, although Mia manages to escape from the cattle cars en route. The story, which unfolds cinematically, is Mia's journey through the war years, fighting with the resistance (her code name is Songbird). It is also a love story, following her from Poland to Switzerland, New York, England, Paris -- she's there when the city is liberated -- and to a kibbutz in Israel.
During the war, Zacharius was introduced to the real Mia by an Army colonel; he tried to help her get out of Europe when she was trapped, but says that he really couldn't do much: "Then she disappeared from my life."
Many years later, he heard that she was living in Israel. Still, he can conjure up her face. He once had a photo but destroyed it.
"That was the past," he muses.
He explains that he enlisted in the U.S. Army soon after Pearl Harbor and, as a 19-year-old, traveled across France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, mostly with British and Canadian forces. "I grew up in a hurry," he admits. "I've tried to show how the war swept people out of their comfortable world and threw them into a frightening new one, where they had to do things, both great and terrible, they never thought they were capable of doing."
"There were many heroes during World War II who never got a medal or accolades." The woman Mia is based on is one of them.
"Without her," he explains, "many other people might not be here."
At the beginning of his Army tenure, he was very disturbed when many of his fellow soldiers -- most of whom never met Jews before -- assumed that Jews were not fighters. Zacharius, who grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, says that even as a kid he always fought back, and gained a street reputation as a prizefighter, which has continued in his business career. These days, he admits that he's known to be a litigious publisher.
He was also upset in the Army to see how black and white soldiers were largely segregated. That, in part, inspired him as a publisher to enter the African-American marketplace. He started the first line of black romance novels.
Kensington has many imprints and publishes romance fiction as well as general fiction, and nonfiction titles, including biographies and self-help. Zacharius says that rather than publishing his novel through his own company, he enlisted a literary agent who sold the book to a division of Simon and Schuster.
"I wanted the book to stand on its own merit," the first-time author notes, adding that this experience has given him a new appreciation of writers.
Zacharius' spacious office is filled with art of the Southwest, Eskimo sculpture and many objects with the stripes or shape of a zebra -- the name of one of the publishing companies he started -- and a piano keyboard. Zacharius started playing piano in his 70s. Not one to let his age define him, he also learned to play tennis at age 45 -- and still plays -- and learned to jump horses at 47 and to play squash at 65. A resident of the Upper East Side, he's a member of Central Synagogue.
Zacharius has been back to Paris many times. Reflecting on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the city, he says, "It leaves a really deep impression on you. That was the last, really patriotic war -- when everybody was involved, even kids collecting bottle tops to convert to ammunition -- the last war that seemed to have some meaning." He pauses, and in a somber voice, adds, "I think very much of the people in Iraq who are dying."
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.