Interview with writer Jan Krulick-Belin

Writer Jan Krulick-Belin helps me wrap up this
week. We’re chatting about her memoir, Love,
Bill: Finding My Father through Letters from World War II.
Bio:
Jan Krulick-Belin is a museum and art
consultant, and art and jewelry historian with nearly forty years of experience
at such institutions as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Denver Art Museum,
Beaumont (Texas) Art Museum, and Smithsonian Institution. Retired as Director
of Education at the Phoenix Art Museum, she still works with museums, art
organizations, and private collectors, and serves as guest curator at the
Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Phoenix.
Jan has a
bachelor’s degree in art history from the State University of New York,
Binghamton, and a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington
University in Washington, DC. She grew up in New York City, and currently
resides in Phoenix, Arizona.
Welcome, Jan. Please tell us about your
current release:
“The Greatest Generation Meets Love
Letters Meets Yentl”
Long
before becoming a museum curator, Jan Krulick-Belin curated memories…
photographs and mementos of her father, who died when she was just six. Her
mother rarely spoke about him again, until a year before her own death, when
she gave Jan a box of one hundred love letters he had written her during World
War II. What follows is the true story of the author’s life-changing pilgrimage
of the heart to find and reclaim the father she thought she’d lost forever.
The
letters lead Jan on an extraordinary journey following her father’s actual
footsteps during the war years, leading to unexpected discoveries from Morocco
to Paris to upstate New York. She learns about her parents’ great love story,
about the war in North Africa, and about the horrific fate of the Jews in
Morocco, Germany, and France. The adventure comes full circle when Jan finds
the Jewish-Moroccan family that provided the lonely soldier a feeling of home,
fulfilling a wish unearthed in one of his letters. She drew on her research
skills to delve into her past, creating Love,
Bill
as a labor of love to fulfill her father’s dream as well as her own.
Love, Bill is a testament to the enduring power of
determination, love, family, and the unbreakable bond between fathers and
daughters.
What inspired you to write this book?
The story was
never intended to be a book. When I inherited the love letters written by my
father to my mother, it took me five years after her death to build up the
courage to read them. When I learned that Dad had been stationed in Morocco
during WWII and that he had become very close to a family while there, I
decided to try to find this family – something he had planned to do after the
war, but passed away before having the opportunity. When my husband and I were
originally planning to vacation in Morocco in 2010, I thought that it would be
a great opportunity to both visit the town where Dad was stationed and perhaps,
find this family for him. The problem was that all the letters from WWII were
censored. I had no location or last name for the family! That’s where the
detective story began. As the coincidences and amazing twists and turns kept
unfolding, friends and family thought this saga was tailor-made to turn into a
book or movie. Once I promised my two nieces that I would write the book so
that they too would “get to know” their grandfather, I was committed!
Excerpt from Love, Bill: Finding My Father through Letters from World War II:
(Pages 20-22)
…With each
passing day, my father’s presence gradually evaporated 
from our lives. Only the few picture
frames holding his photograph 
provided a quiet reminder that he had
once been with us. Once a year, 
a Yahrzeit candle sat on the
kitchen counter in his honor. For the 
twenty-four hours that the flame burned,
he was back in our house. 
Then both would be extinguished for yet
another year. When I needed 
to, I could always close my eyes and
replay the selection of scenes in 
my mind that included him. Every detail
remained as clear as could 
be, except for the one thing that I
couldn’t hold on to, no matter how 
desperately I tried; the first thing
that disappeared from my memory 
was the sound of my father’s voice.
There were no tape recordings or 
family movies to refer to. In my mind, I
could see his lips moving, but 
I could no longer hear how the words
sounded. In time, however, I 
would learn that there were other ways
that my father would talk to 
me.

It
became my secret mission to ensure that my father didn’t slip 
away completely. I hoarded any physical
evidence of his existence. 
Having spent my professional life as a
museum educator and curator, 
I fully understand the power of objects.
Even the most commonplace 
item has the ability to soak up the
deepest meaning, retell a lifetime 
of stories, or instantly evoke a
cherished memory. Like a picture, an 
object can be worth a thousand words,
but it’s not the object itself 
that’s important; what is important are
the emotions and memories 
we attach to that object. Once touched
by a loved one, an object can, 
in turn, touch the person who is left
behind. We remember our loved 
ones through those objects, and then
have the need to pass those 
objects—and the memories of those we
loved—on.

In
Europe, a curator is called a keeper. In a way, I became “my 
father’s keeper”—the keeper of anything
that would keep my father 
alive. By high school, I had
commandeered Dad’s Army dog tags and 
would occasionally wear them around my
neck like a precious talisman. 
Then it was
the gold pocket watch that my grandfather had 
given him; I sometimes wore that on a
black velvet ribbon. Over time, 
a few purloined photographs from my
mother’s photo album made 
their way into my wallet, and a year
before my mother died, I put the 
engagement diamond that she had received
from my father into a 
pendant. The diamond had previously
belonged to his mother, 
Grandma
Fannie Kruleck (for some reason that has never been 
explained, my father changed the
spelling of our last name to 
Krulick). To this day, that pendant
remains a fixture around my neck.

As meaningful
as these keepsakes were, however, they were never 
enough. When you lose a parent at such a
young age, you’re left with 
a cavernous hole in your heart, a
constant, raw reminder that something 
is missing that can never be replaced.
That hollowed-out emptiness 
grew bigger with each successive
milestone in my life from which 
my father was absent: birthday parties,
dance recitals, theater productions, 
my Sweet Sixteen, my first breakup,
graduations, award ceremonies, 
my first public lecture, and, most of
all, my wedding.

It’s probably
true that every woman gets her first taste of the love 
and security that is to be found in a
man’s arms from the times spent 
in her father’s. They’re the memories
and lessons that we carry with us 
for the rest of our lives. They’re the
ones that we return to each time 
that a relationship goes wrong or when
we feel desperately alone and 
ask ourselves “Will I ever be loved
again?” Sometimes we call upon 
these memories when we need reassurance,
and other times, they 
appear like specters conjured up by a
particular smell, song, or 
memento. They’re buried so deeply inside
of us and are so indelibly 
imprinted upon our very souls that they
can never be erased or forgotten. 
Our fathers
are our first loves, our little-girl heroes, and the 
mirrors in which we first learn to see
ourselves as special and capable 
of giving and receiving love. If our
fathers love us, then we can love 
ourselves. When they shower our mothers
with love and tenderness, 
we learn to expect the same from all the
other men in our lives. Our 
fathers teach us about strength, wisdom,
and life’s practicalities. 
When they run alongside our two-wheelers
for the very first time, they 
know when to hold on and when to let go.
When they scare away the 
demons in our nightmares, it helps us to
be unafraid to dream. Before 
we learn to stand on our own two feet,
we must first learn to dance by 
standing on theirs. As little girls, we
always think that we will marry 
our fathers; instead, they are here to
walk us down the aisle and give 
us away to someone else. There is truly
no other bond like the one 
between daddies and daughters.

Ironically,
in spite of my father’s glaring absence from my life, he 
actually remained the biggest presence
in it. He may not have been 
with me physically, but hardly a day has
gone by when I haven’t 
thought about him.
What exciting story are you working on
next?
It is really
hard to top my debut book for now. I am waiting for divine inspiration!

In the
meantime, I am busy writing a couple of lectures that fall into my other
career—art and jewelry historian. I will be speaking at an antique jewelry
conference in February. The topic is on “Sweetheart Jewelry from WWII.” The
topic obviously has great meaning for me since writing the book about my Dad, but
I had already started a collection of my own before that ever happened— another
interesting coincidence! I really enjoy the stories behind these pieces of
patriotic symbols of love. My other recent lectures have been “Double Dutch and
Diamonds: Portraits from the Age of Rembrandt,” “Betrothals, Brides, and
Brooches: Portraits from the Italian Renaissance,” and “Pelicans, Posies, and
Pearls; Portraits from the Age of Elizabeth I.”
When did you first consider yourself a
writer?
I have always
written lectures, articles, grants, and museum labels as part of my career as a
museum educator and curator. But a book was quite another thing! I think when I
opened the first box of books from the printer, I knew I was a real author.
What would you say is your interesting
writing quirk?
I need
absolute quiet and a tidy space to write.
As a child, what did you want to be when
you grew up?
I think I
first wanted to be a ballet dancer. After that, I never really thought about it
until college.
Anything additional you want to share
with the readers?
I firmly
believe that our loved ones never really leave us. If we open ourselves up to
listen and looking out for “signs,” we can follow the paths they set out for
us. Also, sometimes the best things in life that happen to us are the ones that
we hadn’t planned.
Links:

Thanks for being here today, Jan!

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