The Macwire Interview
September 7, 2019
The following interview with Robert Rosen appeared on M.A. Cassata's entertainment site, The Macwire, on September 6.
Bobby in Naziland (Headpress), a memoir about growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, in the 1950s and 60s, among Holocaust survivors and W.W. II veterans, is the third book from Robert Rosen. Best known for his John Lennon biography, Nowhere Man, he's also written Beaver Street, about his years as a men's magazine editor. In Bobby in Naziland, Rosen brings to life a New York City lost to time—a place where the Second World War lingered like a mass hallucination, racism ran rampant, and the candy store served as the nexus of neighborhood activity. Bobby in Naziland was published September 1.
Why did you write this book?
The roots of Bobby in Naziland can be found in the opening pages of my previous book, Beaver Street. I describe the scene in my father's candy store, in 1961 when I was nine years old. I'm sitting at the window making change for newspapers, listening to my father, who'd fought in the Second World War, talking to his friends, the candy store regulars, about the Battle of the Bulge. As I was writing this scene, I knew that I was only scratching the surface. I knew that something was going on at that time and in that place that demanded further exploration. So I wrote down everything I could remember about Flatbush in the 1950s and 60s. When I looked back at the 400 single-spaced pages of notes, fragments, ideas, and anecdotes that had accumulated, what jumped out at me were Nazis. They were everywhere. And that's how the book came about.
How is Bobby in Naziland relevant to the world in 2019?
I talk about that in the Afterword: On a personal level, as I was writing the book, my two nephews, who live in Upstate New York, along with a number of their classmates, were being subjected to persistent anti-Semitism in school. They were beaten up; they were pelted with coins; scores of swastikas were drawn on the school's walls; and one of their classmates was held down while a swastika was drawn on her face. My brother, his wife, and two other families complained repeatedly to the school authorities. Nothing was done. Finally, they sued the school district, and the students were awarded $4.48 million. The story was on the front page of The New York Times. And Orange County, New York, is hardly the only place where this kind of thing is going on.
Then there's Donald Trump. The racism and hatred that I describe viscerally and in depth in the book is the kind of racism and hatred that Trump knew intimately while he was growing up a few miles from Flatbush, in Queens, and that he and his father, Fred Trump, practiced when they refused to rent apartments to people of color. He knew that that kind of hatred lurked just below the surface, despite the progress American society had appeared to make over the decades. Trump was able to exploit that hatred to win the presidency.
How did you overcome that bigotry?
It was a gradual evolution. The big change came when I enrolled at the City College of New York, in Harlem, and joined the radical student newspaper there, Observation Post. The staff of the paper, most of whom were passionately dedicated to the antiwar movement, were also anti-racist, anti-corporate, and, not surprisingly, super-anti-Nixon. So, I met people who showed me there was another way to be than what I'd learned growing up in Flatbush. I grew my hair long; I became a hippie; and eventually I became the editor of the paper. It was simply a case of meeting the right people at the right time.
How have people in the book reacted to it?
Philip Roth said that it's a curse to have a writer born in the family, and Bobby in Naziland is a pretty good example of why that's true. I did what I could to re-create my family, my neighbors, and Flatbush itself as accurately and vividly as I could. I want readers to know how Flatbush looked, felt, sounded, smelled, and tasted. My brother is the only person in the book who's read it, and he's fine with it. So that's a relief. My father passed away 14 years ago. He hated the candy store, never wanted to talk about it, and after he sold it, pretended it never existed. I'm sure there are parts of the book he'd hate but other parts that he'd be proud of. My mother is still alive. She's 92, living in Florida, having trouble with her eyes, and can no longer read. The only question she's asked me about the book thus far is, "Did you write about the candy store?" I told her I did. She wanted to know why. I said, "Because it was such a big part of our lives for so many years, I couldn't not write about it." I have an aunt who plays a small but crucial role in the book. She asked me to use her real name. Another relative, who's well known in certain circles, gave me permission to use his real name. With most other people I changed their names to protect their privacy. Who knows how they're going to react? Maybe they won't even recognize themselves.
Do you ever go back to Flatbush?
For a long time, no. When I was writing the book I was doing it all from memory. But lately, by chance, I've been going back quite a bit, and it's changed a lot. Flatbush used to be a Jewish enclave. Now, it's primarily people from the Caribbean and Latin America. A section of Church Avenue, which is one of the book's main settings, has been renamed Bob Marley Boulevard. The place on Church Avenue where my father's candy store used to be is now part of the subway station. Not one store is the same. On my block, East 17th Street, the buildings are still there, but they've put up all these fences and planted a lot of greenery, so it looks very different from what I remember. The Parade Grounds, which used to be a dusty place with baseball diamonds and football fields, is now covered with artificial turf and soccer fields. Erasmus Hall High School and the Dutch Reform Church are still there, but the Flatbush Avenue movie theatres are gone, two of them converted to places of worship. The Loew's Kings, however, has been renovated and now it's a beautiful venue for concerts. I saw Crosby, Stills, and Nash there in 2015 and Bikini Kill a couple of months ago. It was surreal walking down the avenue and seeing those names on the marquee.