September 2004

Walter Zacharius

An unsung hero
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Walter Zacharius always dreamed of writing a book. But Zacharius, the chairman and CEO of Kensington Publishing Corp., wasn’t content to write just any old novel. "I wanted it to be a page-turner,"  he tells BookPage.

Songbird, Zacharius’ first and, he says, last novel, the compelling personal tale of a young woman’s struggle against the Nazis during World War II, certainly has the kind of plot to keep you up all night. The fast-paced storyline takes readers from Europe to America and back again, all in the space of less than 300 pages. The action begins in 1939, when Mia Levy, a 17-year-old Jewish girl from a wealthy Polish family, is on vacation when German forces invade her country. She and her family struggle to survive in the Lodz Ghetto and are eventually sent to Auschwitz. Mia manages to escape to Warsaw and makes her way to New York City to live with her aunt and uncle. Once there, she falls in love with Vinnie, a young musician from Brooklyn. But her peaceful life in America ends after Pearl Harbor is attacked. The multilingual Mia is recruited by the government and returns to Europe to work with the French Resistance.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this gripping tale is that it’s based on fact. While Zacharius is reluctant to disclose the identity of the woman who inspired his main character, he assures BookPage that Mia’s remarkable adventures are, for the most part, true. He supplemented the real-life story with research and stories from survivors of the war, as well as with his own experiences. "Part of the book is fiction, but she’s for real,"  he explains.  "When you read the book, you’re really reading history."  

Readers of the novel have noticed. Best-selling author Barbara Taylor Bradford says that Songbird "has such a ring of truth to it that I was haunted long after I’d finished the book."  This endorsement, from a woman he’s never met, means a lot to Zacharius, and not just because it could boost sales.

"I have other wonderful quotes, but this got to me because she’s from England and she’s part of that generation, too. She understood what happened."

Dapper in a sophisticated charcoal suit with lavender pinstripes, Zacharius is tall and fit, and speaks with a brisk New York accent. He’s not reluctant to talk about his service in WWII, which mostly took place within foreign regiments, and smiles as he recalls his participation in the liberation of Paris in August 1944.  "I was 19 years old, and it was probably the most exciting time in my life, because people went crazy,"  he says. In fact, it was a conversation about his time spent in Germany that led him to write Songbird.

"It really all happened many years ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, when my publishing partner, Roberta Grossman, asked me about the war. I told her part of [Mia’s] story, and she sort of dared me to write it."   Zacharius accepted the challenge and began a manuscript that would eventually reach 800 pages. After Roberta’s untimely death from cancer at age 46, he put the unfinished novel away in a closet. Twelve years later, when his wife asked him what he was going to do with the manuscript, he picked it up again and realized  "the story I’d written wasn’t the story I wanted to write."  He’d included everything: military maneuvers, scenes from Auschwitz, the history of the world in those days. But the heart of the book was Mia’s life.

"There are many heroes who never got medals, but without them, I probably wouldn’t be here. Can you imagine doing what she did, killing people, sleeping with the Germans, getting information, getting it back to the Allies? Sure she survives at the end, but she’s really giving up her life, and I thought, this is the story I really want to tell."   Telling that story required Zacharius to write from the viewpoint of a young girl. He didn’t consider that an obstacle.  "When I wrote it, I knew some of her feelings [because] I also had those feelings."

It shows: he describes Mia’s life and inner struggles with compassion and sincerity. Though he considers her a hero, she’s not above making mistakes.  "War, in many ways, dehumanizes people. And I thought of things that I saw in the war that had a terrible effect on me for the rest of my life."  In one of the book’s more heart-wrenching scenes, Mia kills someone she thinks is a spy, only to discover that the person was innocent. A recurring theme in the novel is music, one of Zacharius’ great loves. Mia is a pianist, and her American boyfriend Vinnie is a clarinetist. Robert Schumman’s Fantasy Pieces, a piano/clarinet duet, is played at pivotal moments in their relationship. Zacharius himself didn’t learn to play an instrument until 10 years ago, when he took up the piano.

"I gave my son [Steven Zacharius] credit because he played the piano, the organ and everything else. I said, it’s the only thing you ever did I was jealous of. So at the age of 70, I decided I wanted to play the piano. It’s a big challenge, but it’s a tremendous amount of fun."

Challenges have always been fun for Zacharius, whose Kensington Books is now the only independent full-scale publishing house in America. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be a publisher, but had a hard time explaining to his parents just what that entailed.  "I remember being in a library with my mother, and my mother said to me, ok, we’re in the library, tell me: what’s a publisher? I looked at her and pointed at all around the room to all the books on the shelves and I said, somebody makes the determination what’s in those books, and it’s probably the publisher. Of course, years later, I learned the hard way that it was not the publisher alone. Writing Songbird has been another dream come true, and one even longer in the making. It took me 60 years to finally write this book, and I’m glad I did. Now I hope it becomes a big bestseller. "


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By Walter Zacharius
ISBN 9780743482110

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