Today on the blog we're sharing a guest post from Lauren Belfer, author of And After the Fire, on sale in hardcover now!
About the Book:
The New York Times-bestselling author of A Fierce Radiance and City of Light returns with a new powerful and passionate novel—inspired by historical events—about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.
In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him.
In America in 2010, Henry’s niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family’s history—and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past.
In Berlin, Germany, in 1783, amid the city’s glittering salons where aristocrats and commoners, Christians and Jews, mingle freely despite simmering anti-Semitism, Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician, conceals the manuscript of an anti-Jewish cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an unsettling gift to her from Bach’s son, her teacher. This work and its disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come.
Interweaving the stories of Susanna and Sara, and their families, And After the Fire traverses over two hundred years of history, from the eighteenth century through the Holocaust and into today, seamlessly melding past and present, real and imagined. Lauren Belfer’s deeply researched, evocative, and compelling narrative resonates with emotion and immediacy.
From the Author:
When I first faced the fact that researching And After the Fire would require travel in Germany, I was – I have to admit it – scared. Many of my family members were murdered during the Holocaust. Germany set the Holocaust in motion. What might happen to me in Germany?
But I had no choice. The idea for the novel wouldn’t let me go. It pursued me relentlessly, and I was powerless to resist. So I took control of my anxieties and made travel plans.
From the moment I arrived in Berlin, I felt at home. Instead of trying to suppress the past, the Germans have confronted it head-on. I learned a fantastic word: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. This really is a word in German. It means, coming to terms with the past. Berlin has many memorials to its murdered Jewish citizens, and this open recognition of the Nazi era eased my fears and allowed me to experience the city fully. A vibrant energy fills Berlin today, and the city reminds me of New York.
My husband, Michael, and I walked for hours through Berlin’s neighborhoods. At the Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee – yes, a Jewish cemetery survives in Berlin – I unexpectedly came upon the grave of Amalia Beer, one of the real-life characters in And After the Fire. Seeing her grave was deeply moving to me, a link to her across almost two centuries. Michael and I spent hours on what is now Berlin’s Museum Island, plotting out the probable location of the long-gone home and garden of another real-life character, Sara Itzig Levy. Sara was a feisty one, and she refused to move when the king wanted her estate for a new museum, so he was forced to build his museum at an odd angle, to accommodate her. We also visited the small Mendelssohn museum on Jägerstrasse, where I found pictures, documents, and artifacts relating to Lea, Fanny, Felix, and Paul Mendelssohn, all characters in the novel. These materials made them come alive for me.
I’m forced to confess, however, that my most fulfilling (and filling) discovery in Germany was this: German desserts. Each afternoon around 4pm, Michael and I stopped our explorations, went to a café or a bakery, and carefully chose a treat from among the generally extensive offerings. In the park between the Staatsoper and the Opernpalais, as starlings flitted among the tables searching for leftovers, we indulged in two varieties of Linzer torte. At a bakery on Sophienstrasse, I selected a fresh croissant, warm, flaky, buttery, and oozing marzipan. Michael and I shared it in the leafy churchyard across the street. In the garden of the Literaturhaus on Fasanenstrasse, I tasted an apricot tart so sublimely luscious that I could only gaze into the distance in awe.
The most extraordinary cake I enjoyed in Germany was a dense chocolate with layers of marzipan. I ordered it at Kaffeehaus Riquet in Leipzig, at 3:35pm on a Thursday afternoon. My mental image of Kaffeehaus Riquet is that it’s hidden at the end of a dark alleyway, a secret emporium filled with dozens of varieties of cake and pastry. Michael wants me to tell you that Kaffeehaus Riquet is quite out in the open, close to Leipzig’s central square, and easy to find.
In And After the Fire, I shared my love of German desserts with all my characters, but I reserved the Kaffeehaus Riquet marzipan-and-chocolate cake – the best cake – for Sara Levy and her great-niece, the composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. I gave it to Sara and Fanny in honor of the pivotal roles they play in the novel, and also out of my immense respect for them both.
I traveled to Germany four times to research And After the Fire, and I’m looking forward to many more trips in the future. Now that I’ve finished the novel, I’m considering writing a travel guide to the desserts of Germany, possibly to be titled, German Pastry I Have Known.
In the meantime, I’d be thrilled if you read And After the Fire. I hope you enjoy it.