Mr. Neff, a 1949 Blair graduate, who later studied at Cornell University, worked for many years managing a part of the Rockefeller family’s international interests. His latest accomplishment is the completion of his first book Über Alles, which I had the pleasure of interviewing him about. A nice summary can be found here.
Savannah Doelfel (SD): Can you tell me a little bit about your life leading up to when you decided to write this book?
Robert Neff (RN): I had a military life and I had a business life running companies. I had a life where I was offering securities to the public, and now I have a life where I’m trying to write. I try to break it up into 4 different segments– each one a little bit different than the others, but each leading to another one. Each of the phases of my business life has involved writing, which led to a bucket list where the writing would be my proprietary work with my name on the cover.
SD: What is the general synopsis of this book?
RN: I have called it either a love story in a history lesson or a history lesson within a love story. The history lesson is about a period of time with more attention [paid to it] than any other in history: the period of World War II. I had to find a way not to repeat what other people have done.
My book is about two people who in normal times would not have interacted with each other– one a piano jockey working in a bar, the other the daughter of a German general. These were people who would not usually come into contact, especially as a romantic pair. Each had a Jewish mother, and with that a burden to move under the radar. The young man was subject to rules applied to young German men, the young lady had a more difficult time (her mother now part of the Polish intelligence service).
Both come together with a common interest in music, and discover the similar burdens they both have to work around. Under certain circumstances, they become fugitives trying to avoid capture. One ends up in German concentration camps while the other ends up singing with Django Reinhardt. Their lives fall apart in different directions, and you need to read [the book] to see what happens [to them] when the war was over.
SD: What makes your story unique from others that may be similar?
RN: I have tried to do what I see Dan Brown doing in books like The Da Vinci Code, using it to teach [readers] things that are interesting and unknown.
There are many different sub-lessons in my book, including the subject of Theresienstadt (one of the concentration camps holding many artists and musicians). Theresienstadt was unique – it was the only one of the camps which occasionally opened its doors to public scrutiny (because it was in Czechoslovakia and could not be hidden as effectively as those camps in Germany, Austria and Poland ). The musicians and other artists were interned there, so they could demonstrate that the camps were humane, and the inmates had an opportunity to create. It was called “the Village Hitler Gave to the Jews”. It was a total fraud, but many bought into their charade.
Another is called the Oster Conspiracy (something people have not heard a lot about), which was a general movement to get rid of Hitler. The Oster Conspiracy was an attempt by some high-ranking military officers to eliminate Hitler, but not a “general movement”. Oster was a Colonel in the Wehrmacht Intelligence Command and he sold the idea to others. But some backed out at the very last minute, so it wasn’t successful. There are also subsets about music and how people in both sides of the war liked the same music, while musicians took on a special type of treatment than others did.
The fourth is [about] how countries involved on our side of World War II did not have effective arms, but since Poland was squeezed between the Russians, Germans, and Austrians, they had their own network of intelligence made up of many young women. The countries on the Allied side lacked an efficient Intelligence Organization within Europe, so they used the very fine Polish network – even after Poland succumbed to the Germans. Their service was called the SWW – many of its agents were intelligent young women who relied upon their charm to extract information from German officers and businessmen. I’ve thrown these subplots in the book, so if someone doesn’t like my story, they [will be] able to at least learn something new.
SD: What inspired you to write this book, and were there any moments when you did not think it would ever become a book?
RN: Every day you think you can not do it perfectly. The reason I wrote it was because all the other phases of my life had to do with writing in one way or another. But none was creative, so I wanted to write a definitive book about something I know a lot about.
When you realize that other people who know a lot about the subject will read it as well, you become uncertain about your own knowledge. They then come back and say it was absolutely wrong for this reason or another. You then have no escape except to come up with something that nobody else is going to believe. For example, authors who invent a new type of imaginary airplane or someone learns how to fly. I did not want to make anything unbelievable since logic is what drove me. Instead, I wanted things the reader could believe would happen and be happy that it was not fantasy.
SD: Did you have any help along the way?
RN: I printed advanced reader copies of the book that I sent to people who would read critically and who knew about aspects of the subject matter. I wanted to make certain that I projected this well. I sent it to my European friends since I didn’t want to have a street running the wrong way. You get into real trouble if you are talking about Memorial Hall ten years before it was actually built.
Chan Hardwick, who became a good personal friend, is a good writer and appreciates good writing. When I was back in the manuscript part of the book, he read it. I remember him telling me that “you’re linear.” [referring to how his book was too straightforward]. He explained it’s like a story you tell to your kid at bedtime, and that “good books bring threads into it from different places.” I took his advice, and it helped me a lot.
I also did a lot of my writing in Nicaragua, where we stayed with a young lady who would come to our house often. When we first stayed in her house, I had my manuscript (40 or 50 thousand words done), and she asked to look at it, giving me advice about how to implement love into the story.
My favorite part of the book was when my male protagonist arrives in Prague trying to look like he is a German soldier. He walks out with another German soldier smoking a cigarette and ends up in a brothel in Prague. This quickly changes the character of the book, and puts him in a bad situation with the lady he just fell in love with. This was a moral dilemma that she showed me how to include.
SD: How do you feel education at Blair and Cornell helped you later in life, and eventually helped get you to the point of writing your book?
RN: I came to Blair as a postgraduate, almost by accident. There were lots of great teachers, but some of what you’re doing as a PG is for the second time. But I learned at Blair from a teacher named David Elliot, who was a voracious reader and writer. He made me learn a lot of classics and poetry, which I can still recite […] all evening long. I learned about what the poet is actually trying to say instead of only what he wrote down on paper.
I then went to Cornell for engineering and double-majored in law school. My first exam in law school was for a professor named Peter Ward. He picked up my paper in front of the class, read all the answers, and finally said, “This is the worst thing I ever read.” He later became one of my very best friends all the way through law school. Later in life, I got ahold of his son who told me I was one of his father’s favorite students. When I asked why, he said, “Because you were willing to learn.”
These two teachers taught me a lot about myself. They both knocked me down and helped me to get back up and learn as much as I wanted to know.
SD: Is there anything else you would like to add about your book?
RN: I was privileged to go back and forth to Germany many times, and people who had worked for me were people who had also been in Germany during [the] Nazi era, serving in the military. I realized that even as the war went on, people tried to do things they felt were a part of their everyday lives. None of that happened [on the]surface [during] the turmoil, but, below the surface, there were people who lived. I wanted to tell a story [about what happened] below the surface, almost the same way Gone With the Wind was told. Both are historical novels which do not emphasize the details of a military war, but rather try to portray the survival stories of the people who must continue to function below the turbulent surface.
(Copyright Savannah Doelfel)