At first glance, Bram Presser looks more like a punk rocker than a sensitive novelist. He has two big lip piercings, a few scraggly dreadlocks and a quirky beard only under his chin line.
Presser, 43, was the lead singer and songwriter of Yidcore, an Australian punk rock band that achieved considerable success in the early 2000s with its covers of Jewish songs — such as the entire score of “Fiddler on the Roof” — and original compositions.
But Presser, remarkably, wrote The Book Of Dirt, just awarded the Jewish Book Council’s Goldberg Prize for debut fiction. A thoughtful, lyrical examination of his family’s Holocaust past, it begins with a warning: “Almost everyone you care about in this book is dead.”
Those are the voices of his family, starting with his grandfather, Jan Randa, who, like many survivors didn’t talk about his wartime experiences. Still, Presser writes, “the nightmares had a way of sneaking out, just like the screams [that] kept my mother awake throughout her childhood.”
“He absolutely did not want to transmit the trauma he went through,” Presser said in a phone interview from his home in Melbourne.
His grandfather, who changed his name to Jacob Rand, spoke about his experiences exactly twice. The first time it was on Yom Hashoah at a Melbourne Jewish school where he taught, and where the students were mesmerised by the manner in which he described even the smells of the camp. He spoke again at the bar mitzvah of Bram’s older brother for 45 minutes to a less receptive audience. He never discussed it again.
However, a reprint in the Australian Jewish News of an older article about Rand sparked Presser’s interest. It reported that Rand was part of the Talmudkommando, a select group of scholars assigned by the Nazis to evaluate the Jewish books and artefacts they stole. Supposedly the most valuable were to be included in the Museum of the Extinct Race, the Nazis’ planned “memorial” to the Jewish culture they hoped to erase.
“I didn’t really set out to write a book,” Presser said. “I wanted to find out what happened to my grandfather. I wanted to write about a boy from a small village in the Carpathian Mountains.”
The more he learned, the more fascinated Presser became by his family’s history. There was his great-grandmother, Frantiska Roubickova, a convert to Judaism, and grandmother, Dasa, a “mischlinge” (the Nazi term for someone of mixed race) who married Rand. A host of real historical figures — from a prewar Czech president, Tomas Masaryk, to Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, one of the leading rabbis of the region in the 16th century — are also part of this multi-generation story. It quickly became clear to Presser that he needed to create a fictional landscape for it all to work.
He spent years in research, making multiple trips to the Czech Republic, Israel, Poland, the United States and Britain, and he devoured “hundreds of books.”
The final product alternates between a mystical retelling of his family’s past and an account of Presser’s own research.
Presser has left Yidcore behind, qualified as a lawyer, and has a young daughter with his partner. He continues to write (he’s concurrently working on two books, one he calls a “fable” of sorts). He’s also still busy promoting The Book Of Dirt, which was published last autumn, while on leave from his law firm.
What an incredible night!!! Such a thrill to be in New York to pick up the debut fiction prize at the National Jewish Book Awards for #TheBookofDirt. Thanks to the @JewishBook Council and everyone who helped it rock so hard!! @text_publishing #surreal #jewishLit pic.twitter.com/vRFpVXbPls
— Bram Presser (@BramPresser) March 6, 2019