Cherry Hill author reimagines wartime story

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel was inspired by a true World War II story.

Author Pam Jenoff said there’s a tendency when we’re talking about history to paint time periods in broad brush strokes of black and white. But that’s not the area that’s piqued Jenoff’s interest. Instead, it’s the nuanced shades of grays — the stories in between — that captivate her imagination.

So when Jenoff stumbled upon the little-known, true story of a group of Jewish people who lived in sewers during World War II, she wondered how they survived and what their lives may have been like. From that curiosity came the author’s most recent novel, “The Woman With the Blue Star,”  a work of historical fiction that follows the lives of Sadie, who lives in the sewer, and Ella, an affluent Polish girl Sadie sees buying flowers as she gazes through the sewer grate. When Ella catches a glimpse of Sadie one day, an unlikely friendship unfolds.

Jenoff grew up in Marlton and currently resides in Cherry Hill. She studied international affairs at George Washington University, history at Cambridge, and earned her juris doctor from the University of Pennsylvania. Today, she is a New York Times’ bestselling author and professor of law at Rutgers University, but Jenoff is quick to describe herself as just another member of the community. 

“I’m just a busy Cherry Hill mom,” she noted. “I love living here. I’m never going anywhere else. I’m grateful for the whole village.” 

Jenoff has always had an affinity for history, but her writing didn’t necessarily stem from that innate passion. The inspiration for her World War II-related writing came from a time in her life when the U.S. State Department sent her to Kraków, Poland, to serve as a diplomat. 

At the time, Jenoff was in her early 20s, and without a cell phone or other technology to keep in touch with her family, she was isolated across the globe. While in Kraków, the Jewish-born Jenoff found herself gravitating toward Holocaust survivors who, in many ways, became like grandparents to her while she was away from home. Learning about their harrowing experiences during the war transformed her perspective on World War II. 

“I came back from those years really moved,” Jenoff said.

Since that time, she has been drawn to stories set during wartime.

“I love finding a bit of history to educate, to build my story around,” Jenoff explained. “I love to find that unknown story that makes me gasp.”

“The Woman With the Blue Star” is Jenoff’s 12th novel. As she was doing some research to find an idea that intrigued her, she came upon the story of a group of Jewish people who lived in the sewer for more than a year during the second world war. She wondered how they survived and who helped them. 

As Jenoff read on, she came upon a brief anecdote in which one of the girls in the sewer looked up through the grate and saw a girl close to her own age in the street buying flowers. In the anecdote, the girl asked her mother why the girl got to buy flowers while they hid, and her mother responded that one day, there would be flowers for her, too. 

Jenoff wondered what might have happened had those two girls met, and her book is a work of fiction telling that story. Her publisher asked her to rewrite the story to spend more time in the sewer and have the story unfold from both girls’ perspectives, so the author ultimately rewrote 95 percent of the book over five months.

Part of the rewrite took place during the pandemic, and Jenoff said it was fortuitous timing to write about isolation and the search for human connection as the world grappled with the very same things. Jenoff said war brought together people who, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t come together.

Her hope is that “The Woman With The Blue Star” inspires readers to empathize with someone who is different and eliminate some of the “other-ness” in their thinking. “The Woman With The Blue Star” is currently available on Amazon and at other major bookstores. To learn more about Jenoff, visit https://pamjenoff.com