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In her debut novel, Ridgefield native Janet Benton pays homage to her family’s Jewish past

Lilli de Jong is the debut novel of Ridgefield native Janet Benton. The novel will be published on May 16. Benton will discuss her new book at the Ridgefield Library on May 25.

Written in diary form, Lilli de Jong tells the story of an unwed mother’s decision not to give her “illegitimate” newborn daughter up for adoption and her attempts to raise her and give her a decent life.

Using the experience of her father’s family as a model, Benton created the character of fishmonger Vera Bernstein, who proves to be a savior of a sort when Lilli de Jong and her baby are living on the street. Through this character, Benton pays homage to her family’s heritage of aiding the vulnerable. In fact, her family’s original name was Bernstein, before it was changed to Benton to give her father and easier entree into medical school in New York state, where there was a strict quota on the number of Jews allowed.

Benton’s paternal great-uncle, a lawyer named John Bernstein, was a founder of HIAS in 1901 and active in the American Jewish Committee. Her paternal grandmother was president of the national women’s division of HIAS in 1960-61 and served on the national board for many years. Her great-grandmother Anna and great-grandfather James spent more than 20 years running the HIAS operations in Europe, aiding in the emigration and rescue of tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi Germany and other occupied lands through 1946.

Their histories infused Benton with a deep sense of justice that permeates the novel, and the spirit of her courageous ancestors lives on in the character of Lilli de Jong.

The Israeli publisher, Sefer Lakol, is in the process of translating the novel into Hebrew and will release it in paperback.

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