The Untold Story
Alan Fleishman '61 taps into his Jewish identity through writing a novel
by Lauren Davidson
January 1, 2011
While on campus this fall, Alan Fleishman '61 noted the changes in Jewish life from his time here. "It's really evolved," he said. "Now there are opportunities available and it's easier to be who you are. I'm proud that Dickinson has come this far in 50 years."
The Holocaust was the most horrific and widespread genocide in history and resulted in the death of 6 million European Jews. What some people don’t realize is that shortly before the Holocaust, 2 million Jews fled Europe to escape the pogroms—government-sanctioned mob attacks against the Jews.
Among those 2 million were Max and Tillie Fleishman and their newborn son Ben. Their flight from Eastern Europe to America recently found new life in Goliath’s Head, a historical novel written by their grandson, Alan Fleishman ’61.
Before arriving at Dickinson, Fleishman didn’t have a strong Jewish identity. He was raised in Berwick, a small central Pennsylvania town with a meager Jewish population. Once in Carlisle, he connected more to his culture, joining Phi Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity.
Fleishman’s exploration of his Jewish identity might have started at Dickinson, but it did not come to fruition until years later—after he served in an Army tank battalion in Germany, where he met his wife Ann; after a successful corporate career in sales and marketing; after three children and six grandchildren. Many people would see that as a complete life but not Fleishman, who at age 71 is pursuing a new career as an author.
While he studied Russian history and literature, Soviet sociology and comparative governments at Dickinson and knew his ancestors came from what was then Russian territory and is now Ukraine, he didn’t know what brought them to America. In 2005, a trip to Ukraine uncovered answers.
He and his wife toured the area near where his family is from and were horrified to learn that his father was born in the middle of one of the worst pogroms in history.
“We saw a Holocaust monument that was very moving,” Fleishman says. “It was located in what had been the Jewish marketplace in Odessa. That same place is where they rounded up the Jews, marched them to the edge of town and executed them. I had one of those profound ‘it could have been me’ moments.”
After this trip, Fleishman “let the information percolate in the back of my brain for a while.” He decided this pre-Holocaust story needed to be told with his family history as its foundation.
“That time in Russia was so ugly, most people just wanted to forget,” he says. “When they came here, they didn’t pass the story down.”
Fleishman realized that fiction was the only way to tell the story in all its emotional richness and complexity.
“Reading historical nonfiction only gets you so much,” he says. “It doesn’t show you how people talked and felt.”
After he took writing courses from an online community college and learned the narrative tools he would need, the first draft came surprisingly easily.
“I would start at 5 a.m. and write for four to five hours,” he recalls.
Set in Uman between 1891 and 1905 and interspersed with details of the era, the story follows the Jewish hero, Avi Schneider, and the fiendish gentile, Viktor Askinov, painting a moving picture of love, loss and hope.
The only part that stumped Fleishman was the title.
“I didn’t have one when I finished,” he admits. “Someone called to my attention that this was a David and Goliath story, and there’s a phrase in the book that has to do with our hero and whether or not he will take Goliath’s head. I won’t tell you what happens!”
The book was published by B. Bennett Press in March. As reviews accumulated, the novel jumped from No. 44 to No. 23 on Amazon.com’s list of hot new historical fiction. A Facebook fan page formed and a strong following emerged, showing appreciation for a work that shined a light on this dark time. Fleishman also was interviewed by Erika Funke, host and producer of National Public Radio’s ArtScene.
“It’s really gaining traction, and I feel tremendously gratified,” Fleishman says. He and Ann enjoy traveling around the country for book signings and readings, although he admits that “to see people’s rapt attention is startling, and sometimes I have to stop and remind myself, ‘I really did write that!’ ”
He visited bookstores and Jewish cultural centers in the Berwick area and spent two days at Dickinson this fall talking with students and administrators, leading a bagel brunch discussion of the Jewish diaspora at the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life and speaking to a Judaic-studies class. And he was delighted to see his novel for sale in the College Bookstore.
Fleishman already is working on his second book, a sequel to Goliath’s Head. “I have the first 35 pages and the last 35 pages,” he says. “I just need the middle.”
Learn more about Fleishman's novel, Goliath's Head.