Q. Where were you born?
JB. Westerbork, The Netherlands, in 1943. More accurately, Transit Camp Westerbork. My father was a tailor, my mother a seamstress and housekeeper.
Q. This was a camp from which a train left for Auschwitz every Tuesday, and only about 1 in 20 Westerbork inmates survived. Do you know the circumstances of how you, as a baby, were one of them?
JB. How I came to survive is a complicated story. The fact that my father was a tailor, ‘volunteering’ to work at German headquarters in The Hague in return for a ‘promise’ of exemption from transport, helped but wasn’t decisive. My mother’s pregnancy (with me) also helped, seeing that women going into their third trimester were exempted from transport, only to be deported, baby and all, subsequent to delivery. The ‘third trimester’ was a trick designed to lull inmates into believing that things couldn’t be all that bad ‘in the work camps in the East’ (another euphemism) and keep them in the dark as to their ultimate fate. In fact my mother wasn’t quite in her third trimester yet, but a doctor with some clout with the commandant certified that she was. As I said, it’s a complicated story. In the end, we were just plain lucky, like most survivors.
Q. Were any particular people, or books, a strong influence on you?
JB. No particular person. My all-time favorite book, though, is Don Quixote.
Q. How did this project begin?
JB. After years of reading, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust, I was more than ready to return to a previous interest of mine: intellectual history. The Writers’ Congress seemed to be a perfect fit, bringing together politics, history, and literature in a crucial year. I believe that it was Menno ter Braak’s reporting on the Congress that got me going — that, and the fact that there was as yet no monograph on this event.
Q. While working on your book, I often thought of the Congress as being like a play, with a huge cast of colourful characters, and you follow a good dozen of them closely. Do you see them more as larger-than-life individuals, living up to being ‘great writers’, or as representatives of the age in which they lived?
JB. Certainly, having a colourful cast of characters was an important consideration. A congress composed of lesser lights would have been less attractive. On that head, then, I must have seen them as ‘larger-than life’. On the other hand, dealing with larger-than-life individuals posed other problems: what, for example, can one say about a Gide or a Brecht that hadn’t been said before? So I tried to present capsule biographies that might shed some light on their conduct and speeches. Popular Front constraints presented a problem that I had to compensate for in other ways — by focusing on the more interesting speeches, personalities and eyewitness reports — in short, bricolage — as well as include some total unknowns to the English-speaking world. Congress delegates reflected the antifascist consensus among more or less politically engaged writers and intellectuals.
Q. Of course a historian can't have heroes or villains, but would I be right in supposing that you felt some affinity with the cultural critics who appear? I'm thinking particularly of the Dutch critic Menno ter Braak, who might well be better known today if he'd survived the war.
JB. Well, yes, of course, I had my heroes and villains, and it’s quite obvious who they are, most notably Menno ter Braak. Non-English-language writers from small countries don’t get much of a break on the world’s literary stage, and I took advantage of the Congress to showcase this little known cultural critic. (Indeed, I’m working on translating some of his works that would be of interest to a larger public.) I was also attracted to Bertolt Brecht, despite or because of his cynicism vis-à-vis intellectuals; Magdeleine Paz because she resolutely broke with Congress ‘protocol’ to raise the plight of Victor Serge holed up in the gulag while the Congress was in session; and Serge himself, whose books ought to be better known.
Q. You've previously written about individuals caught up in the Holocaust. In your book We Are Witnesses, all five of the teenage diarists you follow are killed, and by the 1940s it's simply too late for them. But in this new book, it's only 1935: Kristallnacht is three years away, the Wannsee conference seven. Was there still an opportunity for the worst not to happen?
JB. With this question we enter the realm of counterfactual history, the what-ifs. Theoretically anything is/was possible. History, however, is a lot like a book: once published, there’s not much one can do about it, regardless of the degree of writer’s — or history’s — remorse.
Q. What surprised you most when you were researching into the Congress?
JB. What surprised me is something that seems rather minor but telling: On Bastille Day 1935, as a march organized by the Communist Party filed past the crowds lining the sidewalks, the marchers were greeted with shouts of ‘Long live the Intellectuals’!, ‘Long live the teachers!’, eliciting Malraux’s observation that the masses, unlike the cadres, were not hostile to intellectuals. As someone who has spent a good deal of his life in the United States, where anti-intellectualism has long been the norm, the idea of crowds expressing sentiments such as these is akin to something out of a fairy tale.
Q. Outside of your academic life, what do you read for pleasure?
JB. Among the stack of book recently read for pleasure, broadly conceived, or in the process of being read, I note the following: Mihail Sebastian, Journal 1935-1944; two books by Svetlana Alexievich, Second Hand Time and Zinky Boys; Patrick Modiano, La ronde de nuit; Jan Fontijn, Onrust (about the life of the Dutch poet Jacob Israël de Haan); Chris Kraus, Summer of Hate; Torgny Lindgen, Sweetness; Richard Parry, The Bonnot Gang; J. L. Borges, Collected Fictions; The Journal of Jules Renard; Mario Vargas Llosa, Conversation in the Cathedral; Elsa Morante, History. A Novel; Henry Miller, The Books in My Life; Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa. And I can recommend The Fall of the House of Wilde, by Emer O'Sullivan.
Jack Boas’s book Writers' Block: The Paris Antifascist Congress of 1935 is now available from Legenda in hardback, and comes out in paperback in Spring 2018. His edition of five diaries of teenagers caught up in the Holocaust, We Are Witnesses, is used widely in school curriculums.