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  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

Getting tougher- alternative Holocaust narratives

If you’re a writer putting your work out into the public eye, you have to develop a thick skin. I am months from publication of my first book, and recently read two disturbing reviews written about books in my novel’s genre. Both were written in periodicals that I hope might one day review my book.

The first article caught my attention because it charged authors of Holocaust fiction with succumbing to numerous “literary and moral dangers” by clothing banal characters and plots in the dress of Nazis and their victims. My novel, Even in Darkness, takes place in part during the Holocaust. It is based on the lives of a number of my own family members, and was the result of a decade of research, interviews and translation of letters as well as travel to the locations in which the story takes place. My characters make choices, as a result of their experiences up to and in the Holocaust that depart significantly from many others’ and fall into what I’m calling an alterative Holocaust narrative.

The review article mentions three recent novels, one of which had just garnered a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. The article trashed all three novels. High on the list of complaints was the presence of romance and sex in the books’ pages. (Mine has some of each) The question raised is whether the novels’ authors were working toward faithful reconstruction of events or simply exploiting the horror/fascination that the Holocaust inspires in readers to tell stories that were somehow beneath consideration in that context. After a painful recitation about specific tortures at Treblinka, the review article’s author proclaims that anyone who writes, promotes, or endorses a novel set in the Holocaust, and who doesn’t know the terrible facts of what happened, should “stop now.” And if such people do know and continue their work, there is little that can be said.

Really?

Then came a second review of a book that I had just finished reading and absolutely loved. Again, the book is a historical novel with the Holocaust at least in part as the backdrop to the story. The author of the review quotes another critic, saying that historical novels should reach only as far backwards as the era of the author’s grandparents, and that hindsight can be ruinous to historical novels, the danger increasing when the author crosses the ‘grandparent gap.’

Again, really? The reach of the book in question back and forth across more than a century of time was one of the interesting historical aspects of the work. My own book spans the whole of the twentieth century.

I wonder whether these reviewers remember that it is fiction under discussion? More to the point regarding these particular novels, there are second and third generation characters (and their authors and readers!) attempting to reconcile what they do and do not know and who they are in relation to this enormous Holocaust past.

I do not personally know the other authors discussed in these reviews, but I am the daughter and granddaughter of German Holocaust survivors. I have heard the stories, and lived with them. I worked hard to create as authentic a setting as possible for my novel, which though based on family members, is fiction. My book traverses a century of time and takes place in Europe, the US and Israel. I actually admire and appreciate the lengths to which other authors mentioned in these reviews researched the locations and details as they relate to their stories. I don’t find the research “barely buried,” as one reviewer complained. And any of us who are fortunate enough to have preserved or recovered objects that belonged to family members lost to the death camps would be insulted at the claim by one reviewer that an author tells her Holocaust story via “precious trinkets.”

What bothers me the most in these reviews is the sense that there is only one way to regard and therefore write about the Holocaust and any story relating to it. It must be unerringly sad. It must place the horror at the center of the story and never deviate from it. The facts of real people’s lives notwithstanding, too many still believe that a fiction writer who attempts to suggest that any of the horror of the Holocaust can be mitigated, commits injustice against its victims.

But what if the victim herself chooses a different narrative, one that allows genuine rebirth of spirit, a reconciliation of humanity to the horror experienced, a victory of love over pain and suffering. And what if (as in my book) she violates the boundaries of religion, generation and societal expectation to achieve these? Is that narrative to be vilified and suppressed out of misguided guilt or disbelief in true resilience after that particular horror? When will there be stories outside the stereotypical that are no longer accused of injustice, of indecency, of tone deafness, of moral danger?

As I have written before, Even in Darkness is not just my first novel. It is a story of my heart and the finest tribute I can craft to two remarkable people and to other Holocaust survivors everywhere.

Time to develop some thick skin…