Off the Shelf: A biography, a memoir and a history by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Courage and determination: that’s what ties the stories found in the three non-fiction works in this review. Whether it’s fighting for the right of workers to unionize, helping the French resistance, or using a road race to symbolically represent a defeat of fascism, each character or narrator offers lessons in courage and determination.

“Rebel Cinderella”

From poverty to riches and then back to poverty: that summary doesn’t do justice to the life of Rose Pastor Stokes, whose name once graced newspaper headlines and who is now largely forgotten. In his “Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Adam Hochschild not only tells Rose’s story, but places it into historical and sociological context.

Rasiel (Rose) Wieslander was born in 1879 in a small town in Eastern Europe, but later took her stepfather’s last name, Pastor, as her own. When she was 3, her family traveled to the U.S. to join her stepfather, who had already immigrated to Cleveland, OH. Times were difficult and it wasn’t long before she, her mother and her half siblings were left to fend for themselves. Rose began working in a cigar factory at age 11 and remained there for 12 years. Fortunately, she had some writing talent and was offered a job with the Yiddush Tageblatt, which was located in New York City. Rose’s life changed when her editor forced her to interview James Graham Phelps Stoke, who belonged to one of the richest families in the city. Graham, as he was called, had joined others in his social class who volunteered at settlement houses in New York helping the poor. The two fell in love and, against the wishes of his family, married.

At first, their story seems like a version of Cinderella, as was noted by many newspapers at the time. The two became involved in the socialist and the labor union movements, as well as mixing with members of the radical literary scene. Unfortunately for their marriage, Rose was the more dynamic speaker and writer. She also became far more radical than her husband, who later began to embrace his family’s conservative attitudes. Their fairy-tale love story had a very unromantic ending.

However, it’s not the love story that will speak to readers, but rather Hochschild’s vivid descriptions of life in America and the radical differences between economic classes at that time. He also does a wonderful job showing how people embraced World War I (before they realized what a wasteful slaughter the war was) and socialism (before they learned how their socialist ideals would be perverted by the newly socialist Soviet Union). The cast of characters that pass through the book – from Emma Goldman to Eugene V. Debs to Margaret Sanger – shows the wide range of Rose’s interests and the many causes for which she struggled. This rich biography also serves as a view of the Gilded Age of America by those who did not share in its glories. In addition, it portrays the men and women who willingly risked for their lives to create a better and more just world. 

“The Art of Resistance” 

Justus Rosenberg almost makes surviving World War II sound simple and easy. That’s helped by the conversational tone the 99-year-old author takes in his memoir “The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground” (William Morrow). The subtitle doesn’t do justice, though, to the breadth of the work, which includes details of his life before and after the war.

Rosenberg does an excellent job placing his early family life in context. His parents left their Polish shtetl because their families would not have accepted their marriage. (They were from two different social classes). Settling in Danzig, which was a free republic at the time, the family assimilated, considering themselves Germans first and foremost. For example, Yiddish was not spoken in the house and Jewish holidays were only rarely observed. Then, in 1937, a Nazi-inspired pogrom against the Jews of the city made them realize the danger they faced. Shortly afterward, Rosenberg left for Paris in order to continue his studies, although he was only 16 at the time. He notes that neither he nor his parents realized they would not see each other again for another 15 years.

At first, his life in Paris went well, but that changed when the Germans invaded the country. No longer able to attend school, he worked with Varian Frye, helping him save Jewish artists and writers, although Rosenberg was unable to get a visa for himself. Then, rounded up with other foreign Jews, he managed a rather daring escape and was able to take an active part in the resistance. For the most part, Rosenberg makes those years sound far less dangerous than they must have been. After the Allies liberated France, he worked for the American Army and took part in the denazification of Germany. Then Rosenberg made his way to the U.S., where he became a professor.

“The Art of Resistance” is fast paced and easy to read. One of the most interesting scenes occurs when Rosenberg visits his uncle in Berlin and hears Hitler speak in person. The author does not blame all Germans for Nazi actions against his family. His is a more nuanced approach: he sees no purpose in punishing innocent people for what the guilty few have done. The memoir concludes with a very satisfying epilogue in which he tells what happened to the people he met before and after the war. This well-done work will be of interest to those who want to learn more about the resistance and the life of this modest, and impressive, man. 


Even readers who are not interested in discussions of car engines and the aerodynamics of different car body shapes should enjoy “Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best” by Neal Bascomb (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Although the outcome of the final race is revealed in the title, the book is still filled with action and suspense.

The subtitle also reveals something with which one of its subjects would disagree: race car driver René Dreyfus, the son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, considers himself to have no religion. However, his name alone was enough to get him blackballed by German car manufacturers, who were looking to receive funds from the Nazi government and knew better than to have someone with a Jewish name driving their cars. Lucy Schell, one of the few women race drivers, gave up her career to back her own series of cars – working with a non-German car manufacturer that needed the money. Bascomb writes of their races and cars, before and after Lucy and René joined forces to break German dominance in the Grand Prix – something Hitler thought proved German superiority. Although René did not consider himself Jewish, he considered a victory in the Grand Prix a symbolic victory against Hitler. 

For those not interested in racing or cars, the real focus of the book are the stories of the different race car drivers. Bascomb explains why these men raced when they could easily be killed or crippled. They loved the travel and competition, the push to perform better each time and beat a record and, of course, the money, fame and attention. This desire to race – the idea that life is meaningless without it – is personified in the most interesting character in the book: Rudolf “Rudi” Caracciola. Rudi returned to racing after being seriously injured – so much so that his legs were different lengths – and continued to drive even though he was in pain during the races. He was also willing to lend his name to the Third Reich and praise Hitler if that was what he needed to do in order to race.

“Faster” ends by explaining what happened to the people it features during and after the war. Fortunately, René survived although, after the invasion of France, his wife asked for a divorce on the grounds that he was Jewish. Bascomb also informs readers about the location of the winning car, although there is a debate over which of two cars actually ran in the race. This well-done, well-researched work is perfect for car lovers and racing fans, but it also tells a human story that will be of interest those who are neither.