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BOOK TALK: Swiss Family Meijer: A Jewish saga

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By Carolyn Cohn

LONDON, May 21 (Reuters) - "Melnitz", Swiss writer Charles Lewinsky's saga of a Jewish family from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, has been translated into 11 languages since it was first published in 2006, but has only recently been translated into English.

Her story begins in 1871, in one of just two villages in Switzerland where Jews were allowed to live, as the family of Salomon and Golde Meijer receives an unexpected late-night visitor.

As the story unfolds and moves on through the generations, it contains the rivalries, love affairs and twists of fate you expect of a family saga. But at certain moments, the warning spectre of old Uncle Melnitz appears.

Lewinsky spoke to Reuters by telephone about the book.

Q: What made you want to write a family saga?

A: There's a very simple rule - write about what you know. I could never write a book about - let's say - a family in Bali, because I haven't lived in it. When it comes to a Swiss Jewish family, I not only know its history, I know how it smells, how it feels and how it moves. I think you need that to write this kind of story.

I never planned to write a saga - it happened. What interested me was the time between the two world wars, and then I realised that I couldn't explain some things without explaining what happened in the late 19th century, so the story got bigger, the book got longer and longer.

Q: Why does Melnitz appear, reminding the family of persecution of the Jews?

A: When I started on the family saga, suddenly he was there. He just happened to sit there and wouldn't leave, he became part of the story. You might say he gate-crashed the book.

Because of what was done to him, he can't stay dead. He has to come back and relive it and no one will ever believe him. But as he concentrates on all the negative aspects of being a Jew, he frees the other characters to live their lives, to enjoy life and fall in love.

Q: Switzerland was not involved in the world wars but was it still affected?

A: Switzerland was one of the very few countries not destroyed by the First World War, that's when Switzerland started to change from being the poorhouse of Europe to a rich country.

During the Second World War, the actions of the Swiss government were not heroic, but they managed a very difficult feat, namely to keep wriggling until the war was over without being invaded. If you are attacked by thugs, elegance doesn't count, but Switzerland survived. So that changed it again, because it was the only place where things were kept safe. It became a financial centre, which it hadn't been before.

Switzerland is famous for always lagging behind in cultural development. We wait with developments until we see how they go wrong in other countries, then we don't start them.

Q: "Melnitz" is a book about a very specific community. What do you think gives it its widespread appeal?

A: I had to think about that when I wrote an introductory note to the Chinese edition. What could I tell them? I wrote, 'You are not going to understand anything about this book, I am talking about a community that has fewer people than are born in China every day.'

There is one thing you recognise because that's the same thing all over the world. That is family. The international appeal of it is just the plain fact that it is a family story and we all have family. We all have the same kind of uncles or grandparents, so we can empathise with that.

(Reporting by Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Michael Roddy and Larry King)

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