FIRST ASSIGNMENT: Story Statement
From WWII’s far eastern Poland, to the trail of Anders’ Army, and on to Brooklyn and the Catskills of the 1940s to the present day, A Lvov Story is the interwoven tale of Mariem Malman, daughter of a displaced Jewish doctor, and Josef Darowski, Catholic scholar and boy writer, destined to come together in a city soon to be torn apart, the story of which their granddaughter Rabbi Mira Darowski strives to write, even as her wife leaves her.
SECOND ASSIGNMENT: Antagonists/Antagonistic Forces
As the Nazis and Soviets wrestle for Lvov (today’s Ukrainian Lviv, war-torn again), Josef and Mariem struggle to survive the changing regimes, the more dangerous times of transition, and the personal trials besieging a man and woman thrown together, tasked with protecting, if not loving, each other through escaping Poland and the tribulations of Anders’ Army and on to the U.S.
Religious duties and misconceptions, ethnicities seeking recognition and control clash throughout. Josef’s brother Harald, as twisted and selfish as Josef is compassionate and questing, plays Lvov’s factions for gain, forcing Josef to rid his world of a seed as bad as the outside forces that continue to threaten it.
Preventing the storytelling of the Darowski generations are the frustrations of incomplete stories lost to the past and to trauma-affected memory and contemporary scholarly bickering of Mira, her mother Lisha (writing a memoir of Mira’s father, a celebrated novelist), and Joss (Mira’s father’s literary executor, striving to write his biography). Trauma and lost loves swirl alongside the emotional aftermath of her grandparent’s tragic legacy: Mira’s wife leaving her, choosing to die alone; Lisha’s struggle to accept her daughter for who she is; and Joss’s pining for Mira, his first love.
THIRD ASSIGNMENT: Titles
A Lvov Story
The Bridge to Lost Cities
FOURTH ASSIGNMENT: Comparable Titles
Set in the same Lvov Helen Fremont revealed in After Long Silence, and like The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish and The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, A Lvov Story is a mystery playing out across time, cities, religions, and lost loves, using quotations and archival artifacts (including the first Pocket Books of Simon and Schuster published at the outbreak of WWII) to build an ergodic journey for the reader, who seeks the clarity and resolution of the tale’s puzzles, just as the characters do. Like The Nesting Dolls by Alina Adams, it is a family saga of three generations, each striving through the power of story to understand what war and generational trauma have wrought and their place within and beyond such narratives.
FIFTH ASSIGNMENT: Hooks/Loglines with character, setting, and conflicts
Because there are four protagonists in alternating POVs throughout the whole of the book, I give each separately.
Josef – A naïve Catholic scholar and boy writer is unaware of the budding stories in which he is about to become a reluctant hero, springing from the day he saves a Jewish medical student’s spectacles and attempts to return them after witnessing his brutal attack in the university courtyard, leading him to act the savior for that student’s fiancé, a woman who will force him to flee with her after ridding the city of his mercenary and violent brother. Once free of WWII’s atrocities and living in the U.S., he attempts to write his story, even as it harms those he loves.
Mariem – After losing her fiancé to the events of WWII, a young Jewish woman in war-torn Lvov grows into a traumatized survivor living in the U.S. Losing all she has known, spurning the dreams of escape to safe spaces she doesn’t believe exist, she becomes the embodiment of the violent upheaval of her people and seeks an unattainable return of herself and the world to an impossible purity. Unable to form a coherent understanding of all she’s endured, she prompts others to write it, so she might bridge the chaos that was her life, acting to free herself and aid those who come after her to know her story and that of the city that was her home.
Mira – A female rabbi in contemporary New York writes the story of her grandparents’ survival of the Shoah, an act of reverence for the grandmother for whom she is named, and with whom she might have in common a threatening melancholy, and for the grandfather who loved her for who she is, a queer woman who is consumed by the past even as her wife leaves her to die alone after a cancer diagnosis. Her estranged mother and an alienated friend of her youth hold the keys to the stories she must unlock to fulfill her duty to her grandparents and history, forcing her to confront them both and seek that they accept and help her.
Joss – A striving young academic and literary executor of a celebrated novelist he has idolized since childhood works to write that man’s biography, including his traumatic youth as the child of Holocaust survivors. Piecing together the tale from artifacts and papers entrusted to him at the university archives, he realizes he is bound to fail unless he can enlist the daughter of his subject, a woman who was the first love of his youth, who now holds materials that may fill the gaps in the archive’s collection, but who has rejected him in the past and attempts to forget her own history even as she delves into that of her family.
SIXTH ASSIGNMENT: Inner and Secondary Conflicts
Again, because there are four protagonists in alternating POVs throughout the whole of the book, I give each separately. I’ve interwoven the inner and secondary conflicts and their triggers as those develop and change as the book progresses.
Josef – Josef lost his mother as a boy and has grown up in a Catholic orphanage, the nuns of which now provide him shelter and scholarship as he studies literature at the university. Unlike his brother, who grabs the world by the horns and relishes in causing it pain, Josef is a thinker and dreamer. He desperately wants to be a writer like the American ones whose work he devours. A professor chides him for writing in English a tale of a lost soldier modeled after the father Josef barely knew, and suggests he find his own story. Just as the war begins, he witnesses an attack of a Jewish student (one which he came close to participating in due to his brother’s prompting) and attempts to return the spectacles lost in the fray, only to find the student has moved to America. Josef writes of this story, is once again chastised for trying to write someone else’s story, and stops writing as the Soviets take the city and he is forced to leave the university and find work, along with other protected intellectuals, in a typhus vaccine lab. As the city is invaded again by the Nazis, Mariem, the fiancé of the student whose attack he witnessed, arrives at the convent, having been brutally attacked and raped. He and one of the nuns, a friend from the orphanage, hide Mariem among the sisters until it is discovered she is pregnant. He feels he must assuage his guilt for failing to protect the attacked Jewish student by helping to further protect her and the baby she births. He is forced to ask his brother, now a pimp to “protected” Jewish women, to hide Mariem. When his brother attacks her and tries to harm the baby, Josef kills his brother, then flees after Mariem to the resistance forces outside the city, then onto the trail of Anders’ Army, the reforming Polish military corps that will be tasked with clearing the way to Allied victory in Italy. Mariem is with him all along, and he feels his penance for the mortal sin of fratricide is to protect her and the baby for the rest of his days if she will have him. She will, but only to save herself, and when likely witnesses to his brother’s murder show up in Mariem’s field hospital ward in Egypt, Josef begs her to flee with him. Following her with the baby after she instead flees from him to Italy and then on to America, he misses the chance to be a celebrated combat soldier in the army he managed to join, a wound he will continue to worry. Yet he still feels he must continue to protect this woman that so many have harmed, as well as the baby who is the result of that harm. Converting to Judaism and becoming a literary agent to support his young family, Josef remains in the loveless marriage, watches as his son—known to no one not to be his own—becomes the celebrated novelist Josef always meant to be himself. Mariem, in and out of residential mental hospitals, may be the key to his writing their story at long last, and he brings her to their successful son’s Catskills cabin to write for one year the tale of their journey. When Mariem takes her own life on the same night as their granddaughter is born, Josef shifts his goals to being all he can for that baby, young Mira, and while he continues to try to write their journey, he gives it up in the last years of his life, hoping that his son or his granddaughter will someday find the words he cannot bring himself to destroy and write them into the book he always meant to write.
Mariem – Young Mariem’s family has been shunted from her prosperous home to the flat of her more conservative uncle. Her father, a doctor now allowed only to practice in the Jewish quarter, is desperately saving money while they await their visas to emigrate to America, a place he believes to be a haven, something Mariem cannot abide. Just before the Nazis and Soviets invade, Mariem’s fiancé is attacked and after he leaves her behind for America, she suffers from disillusionment that he will not wait for her and forms a dangerous predilection for the chaos that engulfs their city. As the war escalates, her mother is lost to typhus and her father shifts his goal of escape to America to aiding in vaccine production, leaving Mariem unmoored. She acts as a resistance courier and has a dalliance with a Soviet soldier who reveals his Judaism to her. As the Nazis invade yet again, she herself is attacked and raped, leaving her to seek aid at the convent where a young Catholic scholar, a boy who once tried to contact her fiancé before he left for America, resides. The trauma of her attack causes her a mental break, and when she discovers she is pregnant, the boy, Josef, and one of the sisters of the convent help her hide with a Polish farming family, hoping she will marry the oldest son. Instead, she gives birth in the barn, witnessed by an Italian soldier Maurizio who, while allied to the Nazis, is a conscript who sees saving this young madonna as his new mission. He helps her and Josef escape onto the trail of Anders’ Army, but not before Josef’s brother Harald abuses her and harms the baby, causing her to flee to the resistance in the hills, where Mariem believes Maurizio will come to her and be more than her savior, but a love who will follow after them when he can. When he does not follow, she is dissociated from their plight and the baby born to her, but follows Josef, thinking that if she can return to being pure, become good through acting as a nurse to soldiers as her father was a doctor, all will be well, and more importantly, that she will be good enough for Maurizio. When Josef comes to her after recognizing wounded soldiers in her ward are men who may have seen them at the time of Harald’s murder, she escapes from Josef and the baby too, believing she is being called to Maurizio’s side finally. Maurizio has returned to his hometown from his service, after Italy has surrendered, but has joined a monastery, never meaning to be more than a guardian angel to Mariem. Considering herself rejected again, Mariem makes her way with demobbing soldiers back to Brooklyn, where she attempts to get the courage up to approach her former fiancé, only to have Josef and the baby find her before she can, whereafter her fiancé rejects her. Teetering on the edge of madness throughout the next years, she seeks to find coherence in the events of her life, first hoping that Josef will write their story, then that her son will. Along the way, she devises a new storyline for herself by a few years’ affair with her former fiancé while her son is a teenager, but when he breaks it off and her son goes away to college to write his own stories, never having written hers, she has a breakdown and spends the next seven years in a mental hospital. Following a suicide attempt there, Josef retrieves her and brings her to stay with him for a year in the Catskills cabin their son has bought, where she agrees to attempt to write her own story alongside him, but in her own warped way. When she realizes, by the end of the year, that she and he will never succeed, she concludes, after the birth of her granddaughter Mira, that if she removes herself from this life, the newborn baby may be her namesake and continue to write toward an understanding she was never able to achieve. She kills herself that evening, but continues beyond her death to influence Mira in a way that becomes clear to the reader, watching her throughout her life and waiting on the side of the path for Mira to catch up to her and carry Mariem forward, her past finally understood as Mira has reconstructed it.
Mira – Mira began life as the namesake of her grandmother, victim of trauma, mental illness, and suicide. Her father is a celebrated novelist prone to drink, her mother an ambitious academic who does not relish her role as a mother, leaving Mira to find the love she needs from her grandfather, her GJoe, who nurtures her and is companion to her, accepting her for what she is, even as she comes to realize what that means. When her mother rejects her as a queer woman, and GJoe dies, Mira changes her career focus from Soviet Jewish history, a subject of interest due to what her grandfather and grandmother lost in the Shoah, to clergy, a career her father prompts her to pursue, rather than academia, his ex-wife’s path. On her first sabbatical after her father’s death, she lives in the Catskills cabin that was her father’s and forms chapters of her grandfather’s writing about the lead-up to the war into the beginnings of a book of their story. Stymied during her second sabbatical by what little he or her grandmother left behind of their experience of the next phase of the war, when the Soviets held the city, she dredges up her old passion for Soviet Jewish history, as well as delves into what she can surmise from materials her father provided her and that she has found in the Catskills cabin. Making this work impossible is the fact that her wife Leah has left her just on the cusp of this time away, and she discovers some weeks into the sabbatical that Leah has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer and has run off to die alone, not wanting to face the treatments her own mother suffered to no avail. A melancholy settles over Mira as the writing falters and the realities of her own life demand much of her. It is only her spirituality, her children away at school, and the thought of her project and not ending like her namesake did that keep her going. Meanwhile, she realizes that she might need the help of Joss, her longtime childhood friend, with whom she tested her sexuality as a teen. He is the literary executor of her father’s estate and reigns over his papers, some of which may offer clues to the story of her grandparents she is still determined to tell. When they do meet, all ends in friction, and she sinks deeper into depression, even as she tries to work. Her mother comes to see her, trying to make amends for all the years she hasn’t been accepting of her, and offers her a job on the university campus where she works. When Joss finds her seeking solace at the synagogue for Yom Kippur services, she means to try again to work with him. Before they can begin, she is so conflicted about what that means, with the offer of her mother’s and all that she is still reeling in with her wife’s departure and impending death, that she begs off from breaking fast with him and returns to the cabin. There she finds the elderly fiancé of her grandmother, finally coming forward to break his silence and aid her in confirming facts for the story. His words prompt Mira to look again in the cabin for what papers might have been hidden there, even from her, and she does indeed find them, including writings by her namesake. These show her the true story of her father’s conception, the traumas her grandmother and grandfather suffered, all in a barrage that no amount of praying can stem or salve. Once again, she considers taking the path of her namesake, leaving the world and this project, especially as the new writings show her that beloved GJoe was not her grandfather after all. But at the site of her namesake’s suicide, she reconsiders, feeling his love even then, and hearing the voices of all, past and present, who will help her write forward. She continues to write, and despite publishers who ultimately want her to whitewash the story into one that ends in hope, she determines, with the help of her new wife, a documentarian from current-day Lviv, Ukraine, to ensure that the full truth of her grandparents’ experiences and all that proceeded from them are eventually told.
Joss – Joss grew up without his mother and with an absent father, always away on business in Europe, leaving others at the family’s Catskills mountaintop resort to raise him. From a young age, he sought the company of Manny Darowski, celebrated novelist and a friend in her youth of his deceased mother, asking him questions about her. As the novelist becomes more and more a father figure to him, albeit reluctantly, Joss eventually asks questions about Manny himself, his history, and his work. Manny’s daughter Mira also becomes focal for Joss, and as they grow from playmates to fast friends in their teen years, Joss realizes he loves her. Before leaving for college, they attempt one awkward and painful sexual encounter, which Joss romanticizes, despite Mira’s clear rejection of him as more than a friend, unable to bring himself to accept her sexual preference for women, his sister Etta among them. Years later, he is a budding academic, a scholar on Darowski’s fiction, his literary executor, but still not taken seriously in academia since he has yet to augment his journal scholarship with a book. An adjunct under department chair Lisha Sandoval Darowski, who is Mira’s mother and Manny Darowski’s ex-wife, he guards his Darowski archives from others as much as he can. When Mira arrives for her sabbatical, Joss realizes he needs some of the materials she might still have and needs as well to heal things over with her. When they meet, he makes a gaffe about her wife Leah and loses the best chance he has of working with her and mending their relationship. Eventually, he realizes he’s been selfish with the archival material and tries to make peace with Lisha, allowing her the access she seeks to help her memoir writing, and further suggests the two of them try again to work with Mira. He is still worried about this, and it is only with the aid of the elderly fiancé of Mira’s grandmother that he musters the courage to renew his relationship that Yom Kippur. He goes on to work alongside the two women and marry a colleague who has long sought his attention.
FINAL ASSIGNMENT: Setting
The setting of Lvov, Poland in the spring of 1939 is one fraught with growing nationalistic policies, popular anti-Semitic attitudes, and more open aggressions against Jews than ever before, despite a long-established, diverse Jewish community that makes up nearly a third of the population. This story unfolds at the university, a petri dish of the city’s attitudes, and that of the wider nation and Europe. We are in courtyards where Jews are subject to knife attacks on student-sanctioned and administration-ignored “Free of Jews days.” We are in classrooms where Jews stand rather than sit on the ghetto benches to hear the lectures of professors, some of whom decided for the sake of their careers to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. We are in garden sheds behind convents where many nuns shun Jews when the war begins as deserving of their fates, even as some are righteous actors in their salvation. We are in the rooms of Poles who debate the place and morality of Jews even as they sink into card games and illicit sexual encounters. We are in markets and doctor’s offices and flats in the Jewish quarter, suffering the current state of things and readying for the next wave of pogroms and Aktions as the city changes hands again and again, debating what it means to be Jewish, Polish, and safe. And whether it was or will ever be possible to be all of those at once.
We are also in the hills beyond the city with resistance fighters of all stripes and motivations, in the farmhouses and barns of allies to the Jews if just because they recognize the immorality of the invaders. We are in typhus vaccine laboratories that strive, even as the invaders sponsor the production, to protect the population, smuggling vaccine to ghettos and sending watered-down concoctions to the Nazi front. We are on the trail of those starving and dying as they trek the whole of the Soviet Union to join the newly forming Anders’ Army, a Polish corps reborn once the Soviets considered themselves allies against the Nazis again. We are in orphanages, field hospitals, and military publications offices in Iran, Iraq, and finally Eretz Yisrael and Egypt, preparing to strike one of the final blows against the Nazis in Italy, just across a tumultuous sea.
And we are in Brooklyn and the Catskills from the mid-1940s until the present day. In synagogues, yeshivas, and bakeries, in children’s hospitals, in flats above tailors’ shops, and in once-coveted well-heeled apartment buildings. We are in mental hospitals upstate and in the Catskills, summer haven for New York’s vacationing Jews, in camps and rented cabins and on docks by the lake. We view the surrounding hills from mountaintop resorts, downtown coffee shops, and doctor’s houses, in police stations, post offices, shops, and cafes under siege by protesting students from the university campus, itself a place of division and ever-warring factions.
And finally, we are in a mountaintop cabin that housed three generations of pain, of writers striving to know themselves and the truths they each tried to hide from one another. There we are witness to this and other struggles, including births and deaths under the moon as man first walked on it. And down below it, we are at a stream that leads to and from the falls, where one story ends and another begins.