Today I welcome Jan Krulick-Belin to my blog. Her book, Love, Bill: Finding my Father through Letters from World War II, was released last year. Be sure to read the excerpt after her interview. You can purchase Love, Bill on Amazon.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Becoming an author has been a surprise. I have spent the last 40+ years of my professional life as a museum educator/curator and art and jewelry historian. I served at institutions like the Denver Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and Corcoran Gallery of Art. I “retired” as Director of Education at the Phoenix Art Museum but continue to lecture and consult, and serve as guest curator at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Phoenix. I have a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University. My husband and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. Writing a book about my father was the last thing I expected to have happen. I always thought that any book that I wrote would be about my field. One never knows what surprises life has in store for us!
Please tell us about your current release.
“The Greatest Generation meets Love Letters meets Yentl.”
Long before becoming a museum curator, I curated memories… photographs and mementos of my father, who died when I was just six. My mother rarely spoke about him again, until a year before her own death, when she gave me a box of nearly one hundred love letters he had written her during World War II. What follows is the true story of my emotional and life-changing pilgrimage of the heart to find and reclaim the father I thought I’d lost forever.
The letters led me on an extraordinary journey following my father’s actual footsteps during the war years. Each letter brought a bygone era to life, while a series of amazing twists, turns, uncanny coincidences, and the kindness of strangers led to unexpected discoveries from Morocco to Paris to upstate New York. The adventure came full circle when I decided to find the Jewish-Moroccan family that provided Dad a feeling of home, fulfilling a wish unearthed in one of his letters. Along the way, I discovered details about my parents’ great love story, and learned about the war in North Africa and the horrific fate of the Jews in Morocco, Germany, and France, thus, bringing me even closer to my own Jewish roots. Most importantly, I discovered the man I thought I would never have the opportunity to know.
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?
My initial goal never included the writing of a book. I simply wanted to find out, first, exactly where Dad was stationed during the war so that on an upcoming trip to Morocco my husband and I might visit the place. We had made many journeys to other WWI and WWII sites, and thought it would be more meaningful to visit a place where we actually had a connection. Second, when I reread the letters to look for clues as to his location, I noticed the mention of this family and particularly the young man that Dad had become very close to while stationed in Morocco. He wrote that he hoped to go back after the war to find this “brother” of his. Since Dad died young and never had that opportunity, I decided to see if I could find the family for him. As the search/story began to unfold, it became more and more amazing. Friends and family kept telling me that it deserved to be a movie or book. But once I promised my two nieces that they deserved to “meet” their grandfather and that I would write this book, I was committed.
How did you come up with the title?
The title came from the way that Dad signed most of his letter to my Mom.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I had to learn a lot about the North African Campaign of WWII — a more unfamiliar part of the war for most people. I also had to learn about the history of the Jews in North Africa as well as some of the details of the experiences of the Jews in France during the war. I had to learn how to research declassified documents/military records and websites; how to search for marriage and divorce documents; and even how to publish a book.
What was the most difficult thing/scene to write in this story?
The first and last chapters of the book were extremely difficult to write as they were so emotionally charged. The first chapter recounts the last time that I saw my father — he was sneaking out of the house to go to the hospital. He didn’t know that he would never return. I was only 5 1/2 years old. The last chapter is a love letter that I wrote to my father. It serves as a recap of my journey and what I learned about my father and who I am in relation to the man that I got to know better.
Do you have an all time favorite book?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I reread it every few years.
What book are you reading right now?
I am finishing up The Titian Committee by Ian Pears. One of a series of art historical mysteries. I like art historical fiction, and it’s a fun read that I started on my vacation.
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. 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. …
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.
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.
Somewhere in North Africa
March 10, 1943
I’m off on one of my old moods again. You used to hear me a long time ago complain of “itching feet.” I’ve got them worse than ever now. This being marooned in one spot without any of the things happening that I wrote to you about from Georgia right after my furlough, seems to make me feel a fool. I gave up a great deal because I was still idealistic enough to think that there were millions like me who desired a quick end. There still may be, but the seeming slowness grips one’s vitals and instead, minds long for other pastures.
There is a thing or two that can’t be taken from us. One is the happy faculty of sitting back on an evening and reliving most of the joyous moments in the late past. In some it makes for melancholy, but with each memory I have of you and me, I breathe and live once more a human being. It is far from the most satisfactory thing in the world, but what you once termed “my overworked imagination,” stands me in good stead. Of course on some nights, I tend towards the pessimistic, and wonder whether we are of one mind yet, whether being out of sight is out of mind until my letters arrive, but I always try to squelch such thoughts. As long as you keep on writing, sign yourself MISS, and sometimes end with your love at the end of the note.
I think that some few letters ago I told you about the reactions of some of the men to news they receive from home. It still keeps on happening, and turns some of the boys into men. When the test comes, these I’m sure, will be the men who feel that they have little to lose, and will become either heroes, or dead men. Perhaps that time will never come to us, who have been fortunate in our wanderings thus far. God has been kind in only taking us away from our loved ones by space that can be measured in miles. The discomforts that we have undergone are like nothing compared to some that others I know have been through.
For me there is only one dream and hope left, that at the end of my journey, you will be there to welcome me. I try not to look beyond that, for an old specter haunts me. But with the dawn of the New World that we hear so much about, perhaps there will be a place for me; one that will make it possible to make it a place for two.
All the love, darling, that I haven’t been able to give you for these many months, and all that I haven’t written into my letters has been choked up in my heart. Tonight I must tell you. You’re the ship that will carry me safely home, the armor that will shield me from harm, and the breath that comes into my body. Every wonderful African sunrise is the light that shines from your eyes, and every sunset the curve of your lips. The sea that I saw the other day with my CO was the color of your eyes, but far less beautiful. The lapping of the waves upon the shore was your voice whispering to me. Wherever I go, whatever I see, the wondrous, the magnificent and the enchanting are always you. There is nothing that is good and kind that crossed my path that doesn’t make me think of you. I’m hungry and thirsty, I’m tired and weary, I’m savage and beastly—I’m all that is wretched, only because we are apart. One kiss from your lips and hunger and thirst would flee; one touch from your hands and I’d be gentle and rested.
You have created storms in my breast whose fury if unleashed would have torn us both apart. Even in its wildness there was beauty, for the calm that came afterwards was incomparable. I loved even when I thought I hated. I know, every fiber of me knows, that for you I live. Without you I might walk, and talk, and do what every mortal does, but without consciousness. I’m just trying to say what has been said so many millions of times before by poets and singers, and said so much better. Sweetheart, I love you.
Love, Bill traces a daughter’s discovery of the father she thought she barely knew. This memoir is a testament to the enduring power of determination, love, family, and the unbreakable bond between fathers and daughters.
After inheriting a box of 100 love letters written by her father to her mother during World War II, Jan Krulick-Belin set out on a five-year journey to discover the father who died when she was six years old. Using skills honed as an art historian, Krulick-Belin uncovers details of her parents’ great love story, and embarks on an emotional pilgrimage that takes her from Paris to Morocco and New York with the help of kind strangers. Along the way, she learns about the war in North Africa and the horrific fate of the Jews there, bringing her closer to her own cultural roots. The adventure comes full circle when Krulick-Belin finds the Jewish-Moroccan family who provided her father, a lonely solider, a feeling of home. Only then is she able to carry out a wish her father expressed in his letters, but never lived long enough to fulfill.
About the Author
Jan Krulick-Belin has more than four decades of experience as a museum and art consultant, and art and jewelry historian. She has served at institutions such as the Denver Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and Corcoran Gallery of Art. She retired as director of education at the Phoenix Art Museum but continues to lecture and consult, and serves as guest curator at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Phoenix. The New York native has a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University. She and her husband, Jim, live in Phoenix, Arizona.
You can find more about Jan on her website.
You can purchase Love, Bill on Amazon.