She felt better lately about Father’s Day, Jan Krulick-Belin admitted. “I used to be envious of people who had fathers to celebrate and buy ties for,” the author and art historian said of the annual holiday. “Since writing a book about my father, I’ve gone from trying to ignore that day to having a reason to acknowledge it.”
Her book, Love, Bill: Finding My Father Through Letters From World War II, documents Krulick-Belin’s globetrotting pilgrimage in search of the father who’d died when she was a small girl. Led by a stack of nearly 100 letters written by her dad to her mother before they were wed, Krulick-Belin traveled from her home in Phoenix to Morocco, Paris, and upstate New York. She retraced her father’s wartime steps through Germany and North Africa, where she encountered the fate of the Moroccan Jews and met people who’d known her dad “back when.” Their stories about him and connections to him helped her “know” him in a way she couldn’t otherwise have.
Krulick-Belin didn’t know the love letters existed before her mother gave them to her shortly before she died. “Like a lot of other things, she never talked about them,” she sighed. “She knew if I knew about the letters, I’d have asked to read them, and she didn’t want to be around to answer my questions. It was one more way of her saying she didn’t want to talk about how she’d been married before my father, which was supposed to be a secret. Back then, it was shameful to have been married and have it annulled. She never wanted to talk about that.”
The former education director of Phoenix Art Museum wrote the book in isolation. “I didn’t know there was a conventional way to write a book, where you have beta readers, you share content,” she said. “I had no clue. Someone said I should write the parts I’m comfortable with first, but I’m pretty linear. I had to start at the beginning.”
She was grateful to have done her research in the digital age. “I’d still be researching if I hadn’t,” she admitted. “There’d be no book because I’d still be trying to find the links in the story. Would I have flown to St. Louis to look through library card catalogs? I don’t know. But being a detective, that’s why I became an art historian — I love the a-ha moment when you figure something out.”
In Love, Bill, Krulick-Belin wrote of her disappointment in not getting to revisit her childhood home in New York when the current owner declined to let her in. “Maybe it’s better I didn’t,” she mused. “When you want to see things the way they used to be, you get caught up in ‘Why did you change the kitchen?’ and ‘Why did you hang a painting there?’ I worried about how not going inside would affect the narrative of the book, but I got what I needed from sitting on the front stoop. That way, my memory didn’t have to be updated.”
Her history was richer for having had to piece it together herself, she believed. “If you grow up knowing all the stories, and hearing them all the time, they fall to the back of your brain. You go, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that story before.’ But if as an adult you have to do all the work to find out who you are, there’s more resonance and meaning to what you learn.”
She swore she didn’t envy people who aren’t sentimental about their own past. There were rewards to caring about where you came from, Krulick-Belin thought, if you bothered to do the work. “And it was a lot of work. There were times I thought, ‘Why do I care about this, why am I doing this, I have two older brothers, what the hell?’”
Finally, she decided it was her late father who was responsible for what she calls her “journey.” She wanted to think he was guiding her as she traveled in search of his past.
“Maybe not in a concrete way, but I like to believe he’s been with me all along,” she said. “It’s comforting to think it’s possible he knows about the book, and it’s a way to stay connected to a father who’s no longer here.”