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Lisa-Catherine FANNY THE BOOK
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Lisa-Catherine SYNOPSIS

Fanny is the biography of Fay Samulon, an eighty-five-year-old Swiss-born Jewish woman. In 1947, Fay (then called Fanny), emigrated to America with, and basically, because of, her husband, Henry Adam Samulon. Henry (then known as Heinz), who died in 1997, was a German Jew. He had been a brilliant student in the Federal Institute of Technology, Switzerland’s MIT, but as soon as he graduated, the year WW II began, he was classified as a German Jewish refugee.


As a result of the Jewish refugee classification, Henry and Fay suffered years of abuse at the hands of the Swiss Fremdenpolizei (the Alien Police). The two made countless futile attempts to emigrate to many countries. Repeatedly, America refused their applications despite a personal recommendation from Albert Einstein himself to the US State Department. Almost two years after the end of the war, Henry finally got his American immigrant visa. In 1947, during the winter, the worst possible time to cross the Atlantic, Fay and Henry Samulon, carrying their six-month-old son in a dog basket, boarded the Gripsholm, where they had separate quarters in the second-class section. Eleven miserable days later, the family arrived in New York.


When the Samulons left Zurich, Fay was a practicing dentist. (In Switzerland, becoming a dentist required the same amount of schooling it took to become a physician in North America.) When she arrived in New York, however, Fay was shocked to discover that she would not be allowed to practice without going to school all over again though, as she says, a tooth is a tooth. Fay and Henry came to America with enough money to last one month. Their plan was that to whomever got a job first would fall the task of supporting the family. That took four months, and it was Henry.


Henry Samulon was an electrical and acoustical engineer. During his life in America, he co-invented the radio system by which astronauts speak to Earth, and the method whereby a spaceship’s trajectory is redirected. He was instrumental in the development of color television, the Polaroid camera, the Xerox copier, the microwave oven, and the modernization of the Bell Telephone System. It is shocking to think that, despite Einstein's ardent recommendation, America did not at first accept a man who became such an important asset to his new country, and, indeed, to the world at large.


A generation apart, Henry Samulon and Albert Einstein had studied under the same professor of Higher Mathematics at the ETH in Zurich. Fay shares wonderful stories about Einstein, some of which are recounted nowhere else. She allows us to read their private correspondence. Readers will be pleased to gain further insights into the man Time Magazine named Person of the Century.


Fay's story exposes little-known facts of what life was like for Jews in Switzerland during WWII, and recounts the day-to-day conditions in the pro-Nazi Switzerland of the '30s and '40s in heart-wrenching detail. Many people are finally becoming aware of the financial aspects of Switzerland’s heinous involvement with Hitler, for which justice is being achieved only now. We know that Switzerland’s border police turned away as many as 30,000 Jews, sending them to their inevitable and horrific deaths. But few people know that it was Heinrich Rothmund, Swiss head of the Fremdenpolizei — the Alien Police — who asked his friend Hitler to stamp the big red J in the passports of German Jews to help him keep them out. Even fewer people know what really went on inside this falsely called “neutral” country during The Third Reich. Many Swiss today still believe in their country's neutrality during the Second World War. (Indeed, in March of 2000, the Swiss Web site (Switzerland. Com) made the claim of neutrality.


The Jews who lived in Switzerland during the war have been, justifiably or not, afraid to reveal their truth, fearing to make things worse for the Jews living there today. Since the dollar amount owed by the Swiss banks to the progeny of Jewish account-holders jumped from $20,000 to four billion (due to the courage one Swiss bank clerk, Christophe Mehle, who did not shred the documents he was supposed to; instead he sent them to mayor Koch and Edgar Bronfman, advocates for Jewish/Swiss justice), Swiss anti-Semitism has leapt out of hiding. All the more reason to focus every possible ray of light so as to banish greed and injustice. Fay Samulon is willing now to become one such ray; it took courage for her to tell me her story, some of which was not easy to relive.


For fifty-four years, Fay Samulon was a devoted wife to a man who was a publicly recognized genius in his field. She was, indeed, the wind beneath his wings. But Fay is a strong and multi-faceted woman in her own right, a woman worthy of our attention. Fay is a published poet and a classical pianist. She speaks four languages and is studying two more. She is a League of Women Voters activist, a generous humanitarian, and a writer of wise letters that are frequently published in the Los Angeles Times. She is the mother of two successful sons whom she raised mostly by herself, because her husband was so involved in his work. She is the grandmother of five high-achieving grandchildren. (One worked as an environmentalist in Nicaragua; another recently received a New York University School of Law degree.) Despite all these accomplishments, Fay considers herself to have led the life of a “boring housewife.” Her story proves her wrong. Telling it has changed her. Selling copies made an even bigger impact.


When Fay’s father was fifteen years old in the early part of the 20th century, he left his father’s house in pogrom-ravaged Kiev, with no money and no passport, and walked the thousand miles to his sister's house in Zurich. Both sets of Fay's grandparents had also fled Russia. Fay's mother, Anna, was the first child to survive after five brothers and sisters died in infancy. Later, eight more siblings were born and Anna, as the eldest, had to help take care of the younger ones and work to bring in extra income. Anna missed out on the formal education for which she earnestly hungered, so she educated herself and became an actress in the Yiddish theatre.


Lest it happen again that any brother or sister get something that another doesn’t, when Anna met her husband and began a family, she made sure that her child would receive the Holy Grail of an education, by having only one child. That Fay could not practice dentistry in America, thus putting to waste this exalted and so-sacrificed-for education, made her a terrible disappointment to her mother, and a complete failure to herself. Freedom in America or a career? She made the choice gladly. But she would have preferred both.


Fay Samulon did some daring things along the way, to save the life of her then-fiancé, Henry, and any other Jewish refugee she was able to help, by any means she could. She risked everything: her valuable passport, her citizenship, her freedom (risking prison), and even her life! Despite the danger they lived through during those years, some of her anecdotes, from this distant and safe vantage point of hindsight, elicit a wry chuckle or two from her, and provide the reader some much-appreciated comic relief. (Her family is peppered with some fascinating and offbeat characters!) A healthy sense of humor, as it always will, helped to get Fay through. Truth be told, we see by her family history that taking impulsive action in the face of adversity, and courageously acting on one’s convictions is in her very genes! On both sides.


Listening to Fay’s life, I wept in despair and I bravoed in triumph. I laughed, and sometimes, I gasped in amazement... and as I heard the facts she recounted to me of the appalling examples of legal anti-Semitism, of the moments of genuine fear for Henry’s life, I was enraged. And through it all, I was captivated. Fay, rather than feeling powerless against circumstance, simply and calmly took matters into her own hands, and sometimes, what she did was nothing less than heroic.


Underneath the gamut of emotions one experiences reading these pages is gratitude to the writers. If, as Elie Wiesel says in the epigraph, by telling our story, we transform it into an act of conscience, Fay Samulon has risen to the task.


The foreword has been written by Dr. James E. Birren, who is called the “Father of Gerontology of North America,” an oft-published author and sought-after speaker around the world.


Included in this important book are photographs and reproductions of documents from the war years in Switzerland. Some of these are evidence of the intolerable practices and policies of the Swiss authorities. FANNY is indeed an exposé. The recent information about Switzerland’s “complicity in genocide” during WWII makes this book especially timely. Fanny belongs in every Jewish library, museum, and book collection.
 
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