Audrey Birnbaum is a speaker and an author and is featured in national media and TV including ABC TV, CBS TV, CW TV, FOX TV and more. Her new book has caught the attention of book lovers and media so much so that she has appeared on many TV shows. We caught up with Audrey Birnbaum to discuss her fascinating family, her book “American Wolf: From Nazi Refugee to American Spy” and more.
What is the significance of the title?
I thought of the title before I had even started writing the book and I absolutely knew that’s what the title had to be. My father’s given name was Wolf, and as soon as he came to this country he was asked to give it up, or “he would be teased mercilessly.” Giving up one’s core identity and assuming another became the essence of the book, and I tried to weave his story around this key theme and return to it throughout the book.
Can you share with us something about the book “American Wolf” that isn’t in the blurb or excerpt?
Surely. It took over four and a half years and a sponsor for my family to get a visa out of Nazi Germany and into the U.S. My father and grandparents did not know that the state department (and head of the visa department) was deliberately putting obstacles in the way of immigration and trying to delay the granting of the visas for as long as possible. By the time the visas came through, WWII was already two years in progress. And when the visas finally did come, they were only granted three visas, not four. My grandparents had to figure out who would be left behind, and chose my father’s 17 year old sister, my aunt Anita. The visas ended up expiring by the time they got to their point of embarkation…but that added excitement you will just have to read about.
What scene would you point out as the pivotal moment in the narrative? How did it make you feel?
There is a scene in the book that I still to this day cannot read without crying. It is the moment my father is finally leaving Berlin, the way in which he and his parents must say goodbye to friends and family in the moments before their departure is such a heartbreaking scene. I had no trouble writing it because I could always see the movie version in my head. But if I were to watch it in a movie theater, I would be sobbing like a baby.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned about your family’s story when writing your book?
I had no idea that my father’s cousins were on the infamous boat the St. Louis. This was a passenger ship that was denied entry to Cuba at the last moment despite everyone having proper documentation. The United States would not let the ship into its waters even though it was to be sent back to Germany. In the end, a few European countries took in the refugees, but over 250 were ultimately murdered. My father did not mention this history, but I found it in my research (including photos). Our family has not been very lucky with their ocean voyages.
How did the book make you feel once it was completed? What emotions did it evoke?
I felt wrecked! I always thought I had known my father’s “escape” story, but I never knew the weight of all his loses. And until I actually read the notes he left behind, I could not have fathomed the loneliness…so much loneliness as friends and beloved family members disappeared. I felt tremendous sympathy for him as a parent, and also how that affected my sister and me growing up, in ways that were not positive. But sometimes I felt as though I were embodying him and reliving his experience. That was profoundly emotional, as it felt as though it were happening in the present.
About “American Wolf: From Nazi Refugee to American Spy”
In the summer of 1941, 11-year old Wolf is growing up amidst the rubble and antisemitism of war-torn Nazi Berlin. Destitute and facing deportation, he must leave behind his sister and travel with his family across a continent entrenched in war. With nothing in hand but expired visas to the US, Wolf and his family must figure out how to sneak aboard the Spanish freighter the Navemar, a ship that will gain its reputation as the “Hell Ship of Death.” But this is only the beginning of Wolf’s saga.
“American Wolf: From Nazi Refugee to American Spy” is a heart-stopping true story full of last-minute rescues, near-death encounters, and survival against untold odds. It is also a story about coming of age, family dysfunction and national identity, and is a resounding testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
Using the notes compiled by her father, author Audrey Birnbaum vividly retells a poignant account of Wolf’s childhood in Berlin, his riveting escape from Nazi Germany, and the continued challenges he faced even as he reached freedom.
About Audrey Birnbaum
Growing up in New York in the late 1960s, Audrey Birnbaum assumed that watching Holocaust documentaries was a perfectly normal family activity. On her first day of elementary school, Audrey sat in the cafeteria, unwrapped her liverwurst sandwich, and excitedly told her new classmates about her public television proclivities. Her Brady Bunch-watching peers had never heard of PBS, but they had heard of PB&J (and they weren’t too keen on liverwurst either). They made it abundantly clear: Audrey’s childhood was, in fact, not normal at all.
We will never know whether it was schoolyard bullying or watching tragic Shoah documentaries that was responsible for Audrey’s acute sensitivity to others; but that empathy may have helped pave the way for her choice of medicine as a career. Audrey chose to specialize in Pediatric Gastroenterology – for who needed more help than children; and where could anyone feel more suffering than in one’s gut? Day in and day out, she watched intricate family dynamics play out in the context of fragile health. Audrey listened to each patient’s story until she could retell it with clarity and give it meaning. Through witnessing and recording these tender dramas, the seeds of writing had been planted.
Shortly after her father’s death in 2018, Audrey stumbled upon his extensive notes detailing his childhood escape from Nazi Germany. Audrey felt compelled to start writing his riveting story – a story addressing themes that are pressingly relevant today. While “American Wolf” deals with tragedy and loss, it punctuates the triumph of the human spirit. It is a memoir of Holocaust survival, a family drama, an immigration tale, and an often funny coming-of-age story that is sure to have an impact on anyone who has experienced prejudice, displacement, or questions about their identity.
With her cherished medical career in the rearview mirror, Audrey now enjoys singing, writing, reading, and being with friends who also had quirky childhoods. She lives with her husband in Westchester County, New York, and has three marvelous grown children. Audrey is currently working on her second book.
“American Wolf: From Nazi Refugee to American Spy” by Audrey Birnbaum is available at retailers and online including at Barnes & Noble, Walmart and at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CHXXC9J8?tag=vangoghdrawin-20&th=1&psc=1&geniuslink=true
For more information on Audrey Birnbaum and “American Wolf: From Nazi Refugee to American Spy,” visit: www.audreybirnbaumauthor.com
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