A thriller novelist would be hard put to the invent the real-life adventures related in “The Lost Airman: A True Story of Escape from Nazi-Occupied France” (Berkley Caliber, $27). Shot down over France in 1943, turret gunner Arthur Meyerowitz managed to evade the Nazis for nearly six months with the help of members of the French Resistance. He masqueraded as a deaf-mute, nearly undone when he flinched at the crash of dropped dishes in a French cafe. He hiked over the Pyrenees Mountains into neutral Spain with bullets from German snipers whistling around him. His family knew hardly anything about his ordeal, says Arthur’s grandson Seth Meyerowitz, who with co-writer Peter F. Stevens produced the new book. A recent conversation with Meyerowitz, who was born and raised in Merrick, revealed that excavating this buried past was as significant for his grandson as living through it was for Arthur.
What prompted you to start researching your grandfather’s past?
I was planning to visit Spain, and that sparked a question to my father, “Hey, where was your dad in France?” Dad didn’t know much, but he said, “Here’s a box of his stuff.” There were letters from people who had helped him, some in French and others in English, some typed and some written in 1940s cursive, which was quite difficult to read. It quickly became a challenge and an adventure to piece it all together. I started doing research online, and within 36 hours I had found Arthur’s debriefing documents, which had been declassified. From that I was able to get in touch some people in France; I actually spoke to Patrick Chauvin, the son of a couple that had hosted him in Bordeaux. Within two weeks I decided to alter my trip to include a visit to France and convinced my dad to go with me.
What was that like?
My dad was very emotional the whole time. My grandfather died in 1971, before I was born, and I had never really asked much about it, because he died young and it seemed like a touchy subject. I think Arthur really struggled when he got back, dealing with PTSD and the various injuries he had. In France, we were able to visit some of the homes he had stayed in; seeing those places he had been was very special. I also had some meetings with historians and people at Resistance museums. And Patrick was wonderful; I’ve since gone and stayed with him and his family many times. Every time, he keeps thanking me for my grandfather’s liberation of France! I say, “Grandpa Arthur got shot down on his second mission: it was you French who got him home!”
When did you realize you wanted to write a book about all this?
I originally tried to put it together as a movie, with the help of a talent agent who’s a friend of my brother-in-law, but nothing really happened, and I was working on other things so it wasn’t really a primary focus for me. But then about a year later the talent agent was having lunch with a literary agent, told him the story, and the guy loved it. So we very quickly got back on track, found a writer to work with, and in March 2014 we got a book deal.
Were you surprised to find out that Marcel Taillandier, an important leader in the French Resistance, was personally involved in your grandfather’s escape?
Marcel stepped outside his orders from General de Gaulle to help Arthur. That information came directly from the head of the Resistance Museum in Toulouse, who became very interested when I told him what I had learned about Arthur’s contacts in the Resistance. He said he had never seen an American with so much access to Marcel’s group, Morhange, who were real gangsters — these guys shot first and apologized after. It’s clear that Marcel and Arthur buddied up together, but I don’t think we’ll ever know why they were so close. We’re thankful for it, because we owe Arthur’s life to him.
Now that you’ve told his story, will you go back to your day job running an online marketing firm?
Actually, I’m currently working on another book, about a Canadian husband-and-wife spy team who were making their way into France as Arthur was making his way out.
So you may switch careers to become a writer of historical nonfiction?
I’m hopeful, and we’re still working on getting a film made of “The Lost Airman.” So maybe I’ll be a movie producer, too.