The Antiquarian and the Creative Writing

by Natalie Jacobs April 29, 2016
 

 

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Sixteen years ago, Stan Katz had never written a book. The longtime owner of several antiquarian bookstores, Katz knew a lot about books, and had an extensive collection of classics. But he never considered writing one himself, until he heard the story of Colonel Sidney Mashbir. 

It was 1999 when someone came into one of Katz’s bookstores with a box of photos and documents.

“I didn’t have any idea what I was really looking at other than it looked really interesting,” he says from his home office in Oceanside.

Katz could immediately gather that the documents were related to intelligence before and during World War II.

“My mom was an Auschwitz survivor and so was her sister. I’ve long had an interest in WWII and what was going on and how it came to be. And then all of a sudden I had the papers of a spy who was very integral in winning WWII, I found out.”

And so began Stan Katz’s investigation into the life and work of Colonel Mashbir, a little-known historical figure from a dense and complicated time period. To help decipher the personal letters and photos from the box he acquired that day in his bookstore, Katz purchased Mashbir’s autobiography, itself an antiquarian rarity (Mashbir’s son later gave Katz the rights to it).

That he had no experience with creative writing didn’t stop Katz from exploring possible ways to use this information, which he immediately felt touched on an important and untold story about a great but mostly forgotten man. Katz spent about a year working on a screenplay, but it didn’t have the “fullness” Katz was looking for. So he settled on an historical novel. But why fictionalize the story if it is so compelling?

“First of all,” he says, “when it comes to spies, you never know the whole story. What happened was, over and over again, I was told by [Mashbir’s] son, by others, that history, in a lot of people’s mind, is boring, it doesn’t engage people.”

To Katz, this was primarily a spy story.

“I would come up with an action-packed espionage novel that’s 70 percent nonfictional in nature, 30 percent fictionalized.”

Katz says he tried to remain true to history even in the fictionalized parts, which required research into people and events that branched off from Mashbir himself. Take, for example, Charles Lindbergh.

“Whether he spoke to Mashbir or not at certain points,” Katz says, “wasn’t as significant as [the fact that Lindbergh] was leading an isolationist movement in America to prevent us from going into WWII. You’ll understand that Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were leading a massive effort to keep us out of WWII, regardless of what the Jews were going through.”

So instead of a screenplay, in order to explore the depth of not only this figure Mashbir but also the complications of the WWII era, Katz wrote a 500-page novel called “The Emperor and the Spy, The Secret Alliance to End WWII.” The editing process alone took five years.

Sidney Mashbir was Jewish, and very early on in the book, Katz has Mashbir confront that Jewish identity. He’s young and in the Arizona guard, about to embark on a mission to bring the Mexican revolutionary Poncho Villa to a meeting with General John J. Pershing. One of his colleagues says, “Mashbir, is that Jewish?” Mashbir brushes it off, ignoring the question.

“His grandfather was very Jewish Orthodox,” Katz explains. “He forced Mashbir’s mother to move from Tucson where there weren’t that many Jews at the time [late 1800s], to New York to marry a Jewish Russian immigrant. They married, they have a very unhappy marriage. They go back to the Southwest, they try to make it work but Mashbir sees this constant conflict between his Jewish parents and his grandfather who is Orthodox.

“I have to interpret this,” Katz concludes, from his interviews with Mashbir’s son and other genealogical research.

“He got into the military first in 1904. How were Jews treated in our country? How were they seen? Most wouldn’t even be broadcasting that they’re Jewish.”

After a series of military starts and stops, in 1942 General Douglas MacArthur tapped Mashbir to lead the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) within the Southwest Pacific Area. This was a group of nearly 5,000 intelligence agents working to investigate Japanese war crimes.

Katz pulls out a narrow pamphlet filled with names. It’s a list of all the Japanese enemies identified by ATIS; Mashbir’s personal copy.

Katz discovered that Mashbir’s greatest ally in the Japanese government was Emperor Hirohito’s right-hand man, Prince Iyesato Tokugawa.

“There was an intimacy between Mashbir and Tokugawa,” Katz says, holding up a greeting card sent to Mashbir from Tokugawa, and flipping to a photo of the two at a “prestigious luncheon” in Japan.

“[Mashbir] said Prince Tokugawa was so important that if he hadn’t died, the Japanese would not have allied with the Axis Powers. [Mashbir] said that in his autobiography.”

Katz makes the connection that three months after Tokugawa died, in June of 1940, Japan allied with Germany.

“What Mashbir and the war in the Pacific taught was there was a rising fanaticism who felt they were superior to other races and other creeds and they were going to take over by force. The story depicts how the counter effort was – here are individuals, statesmen, who are trying to use cultural, art, science, music interchange, student exchanges, all these different means to create bridges between people so as to prevent conflict and not let militant extremists, close-minded, narrow-minded people, take over.”

For Katz, the fact that Mashbir himself was ultimately unsuccessful in that effort does not diminish his legacy or the importance of diplomacy.

“Mashbir’s insight into the Japanese culture was such that he was able to guide General MacArthur and other leaders, when the war ended, how best to treat occupied Japan and how best to lead it so that it could become the democratic country that we could be allies with.

“We went into a country like Iraq,” Katz says, bringing the argument to present day, “without really understanding the culture, the leadership, how to move forward, and the country fell apart into civil war. The same thing could have happened in Japan.”

Since publishing “The Emperor and the Spy,” Katz has also completed a 300-page online timeline, which chronicles Mashbir and many of the people he came in contact with throughout his life. That document includes rarely seen photographs of Japanese leaders and members of the U.S. military and general society, from documents that Katz has added to his personal collection throughout the years. One of his goals for the book is to see it used in high school and college courses.

“One of these days, it will be used in teaching a very strong message about why the state of Israel happened, how the Holocaust preceded, and about an American Jewish spy who had major impacts in us winning a war. I think he’ll be a household name.”

Katz’s next book project will be a biography on Prince Tokugawa.

Colonel Sidney Mashbir is buried at Fort Rosecrans in Point Loma. Details on the fictionalized account of his life can be found online at theemperorandthespy.com.

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