Island Bookshelf: Finding art in pieces of the past


JZ Holden’s novel “Illusion of Memory,” reflects the pain and questioning that haunt children of Holocaust survivors, like Ms. Holden herself.

She’s confronted those emotions in many ways throughout her adult life, through Jungian therapy, meditation, even visits to places like Auschwitz, to reckon with the trauma she feels is transmitted from parents to their offspring. The book tells, through a series of journal entries and letters, a story of a woman struggling to know if her haunting memories and dreams are her own, or versions of what her family has told her.

This week, Ms. Holden celebrates her second anniversary with cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer, with whom she lives on Shelter Island. They were married in a ceremony combining Jewish and Buddhist traditions, officiated by Shelter Island Town Justice Mary-Faith Westervelt. The couple met in 2005 when she attended a writing workshop Mr. Feiffer was teaching at Stony Brook’s Southampton campus.

Ms. Holden is currently putting the finishing touches on a play — although it didn’t start out to be a play. She had accumulated three years of notes for a book, set in Germany at the time of the Weimar Republic, in a box that unexpectedly went missing in 2014. After some searching, she checked with Mr. Feiffer’s assistant, who reported that she had needed a box and simply threw the notes away.

While wondering how she would ever reconstruct the material, she and her husband attended a Berliner Ensemble performance of “Threepenny Opera” in Germany. “I was so blown away,” Ms. Holden said. “I was inspired to write my story as a play.”

“Kingdom of the Spirits” has had several successful readings in New York and may be produced in the coming year. It’s based on the story of Ms. Holden’s great-aunt, who owned a German nightclub, and although she was Jewish by birth, managed to survive World War II. “The family myth has been that she just put on her best furs and jewels one day,” Ms. Holden said, “and walked across the border to Yugoslavia.”

When research suggested that her aunt’s life had actually been spared by a high-ranking Nazi, Ms. Holden decided to construct a fictional story around her. “I imagined she was a spy, arrested by the Allies after the war as a suspected Nazi collaborator,” she said.

The play opens with an interrogation scene, then tells the tale through flashbacks of twists and betrayals. “She was a woman in a man’s world, alone,” Ms. Holden said. “She had to survive the best way she knew how.” The writer draws parallels between the interrogation scene and some of the suspense in the headlines today, asking “Who will flip, who will cut a deal?”

She has a special chair she sits in to write — large, purple and comfortable — in her second-floor study. She enjoys the same view of Shelter Island country life through her window that her husband watches while he works outside on his deck: chickens, turkeys, deer and the occasional small plane taking off and landing at Klenawicus Airfield.

“I was a bit concerned when we got married,” she said. “We were two big personalities each wanting to focus on our own work. How do you do that without killing each other?”

Their secret seems to be giving each other the space and time for work, then meeting for dinner, sometimes relaxing at a local restaurant. Her cat, who doesn’t play well with others, is cordoned off on the second floor, well away from her husband’s two cats downstairs.

Ms. Holden is also a painter. Her brightly-colored pictures, as well as Mr. Feiffer’s, adorn their walls. In her previous career, she was a movie makeup artist, specializing in gory special effects.

“In 1996,” she said, “I decided it was time to hang up my puff.”

She took a year to concentrate on writing and painting, and continued to channel her creative energies into those pursuits.