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This interview was conducted by
I recently had the pleasure to read and review a remarkable account of Hans Keller, a highly intelligent man who was also an atheist, who was hand-picked by the Third Reich's Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, to attend seminary and serve as a mole in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He would, in effect, be Hitler's priest, and his story and that of many others who lived under the brief but bloody regime of the Third Reich are told in S.J. Tagliareni's novel, Hitler's Priest. I recently had the honor of interviewing the author, who was himself a Catholic priest. I hope you enjoy reading the following interview I conducted with the author.
Douglas R. Cobb on August 30, 2012.
Douglas R. Cobb: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me, Salvatore! Before I ask you questions about your novel, Hitler's Priest, could you please tell our readers a little bit about your background, and literary influences? For instance, what made you decide to become a priest, how many years were you one, and when/why did you become fascinated with the WWII era?
Salvatore Tagliareni: I started out as a Journalism major in College and my first employment was with a Wall Street firm. I lived in Jersey City and was strongly influenced by the kindness and social awareness of the priests in my parish. It was the living example of the Beatitudes that attracted me to the priesthood. I was active in the ministry for approximately ten years.My fascination for the WWll period began when I studied with Dr. Viktor Frankl in Vienna and California.
He was a survivor of the Holocaust and through him I met many other survivors.
Douglas R. Cobb: I've read that one person who was a major influence of you was Viktor Frankl. Who was he, how did you meet, and what about him inspired you to want to write Hitler's Priest?
Salvatore Tagliareni: Dr.Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist that developed the third school of psychiatry. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and wrote a book about his experiences in the camp entitled "Manís Search for Meaning". The book and his gifted teaching ability changed the lives of millions all over the world. He was my mentor and friend. He once said to me "Salvatore you are much younger than I and now that you know you must be a witness." Hitlerís Priest is my attempt to fulfill that request.
Douglas R. Cobb: Besides Viktor Frankl, there are other people you dedicated Hitler's Priest to, like Stefano and Severio Pittelli. They were two of my favorite characters in your novel, as well. Could you please tell our readers who these brothers were, how they inspired so many people on both sides of the Atlantic, and what role they play in your novel?
Salvatore Tagliareni: Stefano Pittelli is the father of my best friend. Severio is his uncle.The Pittelli families have flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. From simple beginnings the family today has influenced the fields of medicine, law and business. Severio became one of the most famous jurists in Calabria. Stefano was the neighbor sage and patriarch that imbued all he met with wisdom.
Douglas R. Cobb: I really liked that you didn't demonize the Nazis who are charcaters in Hitler's Priest, Salvatore. There were many Nazis who did truly terrible acts upon their fellow man, but you didn't do what many authors do, which is to make the Nazis into complete monsters. You put a human face and spin on their behavior and actions, which, in a way, makes what they did even more vile and despicable.
For instance, Josef Goebbels seems more human in his motivations than I've read him portrayed as being in many other accounts, both nonfictional and fictional . He desires to use his writing skills and be admired for them, and it doesn't hurt that this success also means he suddenly attracts the opposite sex more than at any other time in his life.
Related to this topic and Josef Goebbels, who are your characters Elsa and Magda? Are they based on real historical figures?
Salvatore Tagliareni: Magda was a real part of the Nazi regime and in some respects played the role of Hitlerís first lady. Married to Josef Goebbels she filled the role of hostess for all of the significant German social events. Elsa is a fictitious character that I used to portray the bridge to Magda becoming involved in the Nazi party.
Douglas R. Cobb: Another aspect of your novel that I really liked, and which also is brought up in the excellent novel, The Book Thief, is that not everyone who was a German and who lived in Germany under the Third Reich was a fan of the actions of their leaders. This sometimes tore families apart, with people like the Grandpa in The Book Thief and the father, Johann Richter, in your novel being opposed to Hitler and the Third Reich, while Johann's son, Georg, is a staunch supporter of both, as is a son of the Grandpa in The Book Thief.
Did you base Johann Richter on an actual historical person, or did you invent him to portray the conflicts and differences of opinion that existed in many German families during the WWII era?
Salvatore Tagliareni: Johann Richter was created to show the goodness of many Germans and the tensions that existed in many families. Not every German fully subscribed to the monstrous acts of the Nazis, but all to some degree knew that the party had abandoned decency, especially in their dealings with the Jews.
Douglas R. Cobb: Hans Keller seems to be the perfect person for Josef Goebbels to select to be a mole to infiltrate the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and to be used by Hitler and Goebbels to exert influence from within the ranks of the Church. He is highly intelligent, logically minded, has a remarkable memory, and is agnostic.
What causes him to begin to see things in a different light?
Salvatore Tagliareni: He is initially blinded by ambition and the opportunity to participate in the thousand year Reich but at one point he is forced to see the implications of his blind obedience to Goebbels. He becomes aware of the contrast between himself and those committed to the spirit of the gospels.
Douglas R. Cobb: Hans is definitely attracted to the character of Sarah Lehman. She is also attracted to him, though she is engaged to be married to another man. Hans gets his opportunity to kiss her when they're canoeing and he rescues her life.
Why does Hans tell her "Sarah, we mustn't."
Salvatore Tagliareni: In a sense he is in love with Sarah but nothing can stand in his way of being a significant player in the evolving Nazi goals. She is Jewish and that alone makes the relationship fraught with peril. In addition he must be the perfect celibate to fulfill the role he has agreed to play.
Douglas R. Cobb: Who is Patrick O'Hara, and why does he have doubts about whether or not he belongs in Rome and has a calling for the priesthood? How does he become a friend of Keller's?
Salvatore Tagliareni: In some respects characters reflect the conscious and subconscious parts of the author's mind. Every seminarian has doubts about their vocation, and in my case that was particularly true. I love the concepts of service and ministry but the seminary was almost impossible for me.I kept my eye on the goal which was the Beatitudes but the rigid rules were most difficult. As an Italian I view all rules as suggestions.
Patrick becomes a friend purely by an accidental meeting but I wished to contrast their development in the book. One grows in grace while the other turns into a pawn that promotes evil.
Douglas R. Cobb: Your novel is epic in scope, presenting the POVs of several characters. There are many characters I enjoyed reading about, and one other one I'll mention is Professor Aaron Lehman. What is the bad news he gets in Chapter Eighteen, what were the "racial laws," you write about, and why had Professor Lehman believed he would somehow not be effected by the racial laws?
Salvatore Tagliareni: Many German Jews ,especially those who held prestigious positions believed that they would be above the persecution. In many respects Aaron is as much German as Jewish.Gernan Jews were the most loyal citizens who committed themselves fully to the German way of life before Hitler. They could not believe that the Nazis would really gather and maintain power. Aaron initially cannot believe that his post at the university is abolished purely because he is Jewish.
Douglas R. Cobb: How/why does the character of Karl Hunsecker try to help the Jewish population of Germany? What eventually hampers his ability to aid a greater number of Jews escape from Germany?
Salvatore Tagliareni: Karl Hunsecker represents the highest form of courage in that he puts his life on the line to assist Jews in escaping the Nazi net. Through his official position as the German ambassador he issues secretly passports, travel visas and a host of other documents that allow Jews to flee to Switzerland. He is surrounded by Nazi loyalists and his ability to perform these heroic acts is curtailed by the scrutiny of those who report to him.
Douglas R. Cobb: You've given some great answers so far, Salvatore! I have just a couple more questions for you. If you'd rather pass on this one, just say "I pass," if it might reveal too much of the last part of Hitler's Priest.
What is Father Hans Keller's eventual fate, and how did he serve as an inspiration to other priests?
Salvatore Tagliareni: Canít totally reveal this because if you have not read the book it would give away the plot. I will say that he as a character runs the gamut of innocence, betrayal and ultimately like all of us is confronted by the legacy that we shape.
Douglas R. Cobb: Are you currently working on writing another novel? If so, what is it called, and when can we expect to see it published? Also, IMHO, Hitler's Priest would make a fantastic movie. Has anyone approached you yet about that possibility?
Salvatore Tagliareni: I am working on a sequel which as of today does not have a title. The feedback from readers has been consistent that it would make a fantastic movie but no one has approached me yet with that proposal. All of my friends have signed on to be walk ons.
Douglas R. Cobb: Thanks once again, Salvatore, for agreeing to let me interview you. You are a first-class author and person, just as I called your novel, Hitler's Priest, a first-calass WWII novel. I wish you much continued luck and success in you writing career, and I hope to get the chance to read and review more of your novels in the coming years!
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