‘The Plot Against America’ comes back to haunt me

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I can vividly remember reading Philip Roth’s novel when it was published in 2004 and being completely gobsmacked that Charles Lindbergh was the American President. We were on holiday in Portugal in the same place we’d gone back to every year since who knows when, for a week of walking, Scrabble and reading. I can still hear myself saying to dearly beloved   ‘When was Lindbergh the President? ‘He wasn’t,’ came the reply from a sun lounger…’But it says here …. blah blah blah…’ So taken was this naive reader by Roth’s imagination that for a while I was disorientated. I seriously questioned my memory/history/cognitive abilities.

‘The Plot Against America’ depicts an alternative history in which wartime America is run by fascists. Photo: Sky

Reliving the novel through the medium of TV in the American film adaptation currently on Sky Atlantic, Roth’s The Plot Against America is terrifying. I keep asking myself what I would have done if I was raising a young Jewish family in Newark in 1941? Would I, like Bess Levin, who is not from a Jewish ghetto like her husband, Herman, have put our names on the list to emigrate to Canada? Would I have been captivated by the oily, insincere, ridiculous but, some think charismatic, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (played by John Turturro), and seen Lindbergh as anti-war rather than antisemitic? Would I be persuaded by Bengelsdorf’s nonsense about his Just Folks programme being a fine opportunity for young Jews to assimilate with good Christian American folks in Kentucky and middle America. Assimilate in farm states where most of the natives had never seen a Jew before? Could I have bought into the Rabbi’s vision of a kind of utopian Habonim Kibbutz but with pigs? Even more worryingly, when this utopian dream turns into the ‘Homestead project – basically a way of relocating Jewish families to these same redneck wilderness towns – what would I have done? Canada being less and less possible, antisemitic attacks becoming a daily news item, Ribbentrop invited to a White House dinner – do I pile the family into the car and hit the highway?

In “The Plot Against America,” the political rise of Charles Lindbergh, left, played by Ben Cole, inaugurates a more hateful era in America. With John Turturro as Bengelsdorf. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

Bess is a fighter, her husband, Herman is weak, gullible and basically a good man who believes in Roosevelt. His heart is in the right place, but his brain refuses to see what is happening to the country he loves. As a father, his power gradually collapses so that the two Levin sons, Philip and Sandy, see – like we all have to do one day – that parents don’t have the answers, they can’t protect their children from everything, they are not all powerful. They are only – as Bruno Bettelheim the distinguished child psychotherapist wrote, ‘Good Enough Parents’.    

The most chilling of many moments in the TV adaptation was the White House dinner when the oleaginous rabbi and his fiancée, Evelyn (Bess’s gullible sister), mingle with the great and the good, the Daughters of the American Revolution and their husbands. In their formal, swanky attire, they reminded me of the song, ‘We’re a Couple of Swells’. Of course, Bengelsdorf and Evelyn were not a couple of swells, they were two token Jews – visibly snubbed by President Lindbergh. 

“It was hard for me to forget that my character was so on the wrong side of everything,” Winona Ryder said. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

In 2004, Roth’s book struck me as a brilliant read and not much else. Yes, it worried me, but it didn’t ruin a holiday, keep me up at night or make me think I needed to run for the hills. Today, with the whole world going to hell in a handcart, everything is up for grabs. No, I don’t see Nazis around every corner, and I have always called out when confronted, however unintentionally, by someone saying an unpleasant and unjustified comment about Jews. And yes, I do agree when the Jew in question – usually someone prominent – does something shameful and embarrassing, etc., etc. No need to name names. We all have our own list. But and there is always a but, I get nervous around North West London Jewish bakeries on Friday mornings, when the queue is long. Which is why I tend to go on Thursday night. Yes, I’m a coward. 

In 1941, my mother and sister – who was then aged seven – accepted a family decision to evacuate to America from Manchester in order to escape the bombs, shortages and horrors of the war. Like my father, who was in the Home Guard, husbands were not able to evacuate. So, my mother joined the exodus of lucky mothers who left for Canada and the US where their lives would inevitably change. 

Mine went to stay with wealthy relatives in California. They were family they had never met who provided papers and sponsorship. This great act of kindness was based on another act of kindness by my maternal grandfather (he died before I was born). Grandpa had left Rostov on Don in Russia at the turn of the century because of the antisemitic attacks. The California relatives – his first cousins – left later and were stuck for months in Constantinople in one room. The jewellery sewn into blankets when they left Russia just about kept them alive. My grandfather sent them money to continue their journey to New York. Eventually, they all settled in California. The cousins, who had owned a big factory in Rostov on Don – fulfilled their American Dream and were very successful, as well as philanthropic, within the local, the Jewish and the Black community. 

In 1941, when my mother and sister crossed the Atlantic in convoy from Liverpool on board The Baltrova, they spent seventeen days in life jackets which they never took off, vomiting into buckets. One convoy boat was torpedoed. My mother and sister must have been terrified. They finally arrived in Boston where the unknown cousins met them for the first time at the incredibly grand Statler Hotel.

Morgan Spector, center, as Herman Levin, and Zoe Kazan, right, as Bess Levin, in HBO’s “The Plot Against America.” Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

As it turned out, my mother loved her time in the San Fernando Valley in her house with the picket fence on Pickford Street. It was a Jewish neighbourhood. She could pick oranges from the trees. At least that’s how I imagine it. She never really talked about it much – she just looked sad. I always wanted to go to the place where my mother had been happy. She had to leave eventually, return to North Manchester early in 1944 and start again in the winter, with rationing, ruin and learning that her beloved father was dead. I found immigration papers allowing my mother and sister to enter America anytime during the following year (1945).  But she never went back. Neither did my sister.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve worked and had holidays in America. I also loved being in the US until one day, I stopped loving it. When the current incumbent  tarnished the office with his horrible orange face. There’s no way I want to go back – not in this new New World.  

Would I have had the courage to go in 1941? I honestly have no idea of my answer. In the year when we can’t go anywhere, and there’s no one left to sponsor anyone when Israel is definitely not the Promised Land, and there is no longer an American Dream, I feel blessed not to have to make a choice – yet. I may need more than my mother’s courage. 

Philip Roth seems too prescient to ignore.


Sue Fox is a freelance journalist who has been interviewing famous people for the Sunday Times, Times Magazine, and many magazines since she was 18.  She has also been associate producer on TV documentaries and a film archive.
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3 years ago

[…] Faulkner– just to name a few….this article first appeared in the on-line magazine JewThink. Thanks to Sue for letting us publish here as […]

Karen E. H. Skinazi
3 years ago

Thanks for this, Sue! I also thought the show did a brilliant job of asking “What would you do?” and I like the way you think through this question by looking at your family history.

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