Since the debut last spring of my novel Even in Darkness, which is based on the unusual WWII survival story of my great aunt Kläre, I have spoken a great deal about the legacy of family members’ Holocaust experiences on 2nd and 3rd generations to those who escaped, survived or were lost to that nightmare time. I have noted along with other writers in this corner of the historical fiction world, that we may be one and sometimes two generations removed from the events of WWII, but we are not removed from their impact on our families and our worldviews. We don’t necessarily trust everything our governments say. We view our family histories an
d attachments with great care, because they have been decimated and we understand that they are fragile. Our horror at news of other genocides reaches a deep and frightening place in our consciousness. And perhaps, as happened to me, we have been surprised and inspired to find the stories of love and redemption amidst the horror.
Of the dozens of readers who have reached out to share their appreciation, identification, and/or common experience with Even in Darkness, two contacts in particular have fulfilled my dream of bringing meaning to those whose lives have connections to Even in Darkness’s story.
The first of these “You don’t know me but…..” letters came to me last July from a family member of Leo Baeck. Baeck, the chief rabbi in pre-WWII Germany, appears as a character in Even in Darkness. The family member, herself a rabbi, had read my book, liked it very much, and shared the book with her 90 year-old mother-in-law, Marianne, who is Baeck’s granddaughter. Marianne, in turn, wrote me the following email.
I am so looking forward to meeting you and have a chance to talk to you. I read Even in Darkness and was very much moved by it. I learned some things about my grandfather that I did not know. He rarely talked about his experiences to my parents and me after he came to London in 1945. Your whole book is a remarkable story..
In real life, Leo Baeck spent the same years in the same concentration camp as my great aunt Kläre, and according to direct interviews with my aunt and the priest with whom she lived in Germany, Baeck and my Aunt Kläre became friends in the concentration camp. They held each other in high esteem, particularly for the strength, courage and hope that others drew from each of them during the dark and dangerous days in Theresienstadt. Reportedly, Leo Baeck dubbed Kläre, “the angel of Theresienstadt” for her tireless efforts on behalf of other inmates, and I heard directly from my aunt, how profoundly she came to rely on Baeck’s spiritual sustenance and urgent directive to survive.
A second letter came a short time later, this time from my mother’s second cousin, whom I’d heard of but had never met, and whom she’d not seen in more than 40 years. He had known all the real people on whom the characters in my novel are based. He wrote, My brother Ralph, informed me of your book, and sent me the review. I downloaded it around noon yesterday and just finished it this morning, He goes on to describe my great aunt Kläre’s visit to his home in Ohio during the 1950s on her first trip to America after WWII. We spent one unforgettable day together. This vibrant woman with flaming red hair knew more about Cincinnati than I had learned in a quarter century…. She was, as you so accurately describe, indefatigable and unforgettable. It was impossible for me to put down your book. The descriptions of those I had met.. just captured them….During my years growing up and for many years thereafter, as you wrote, “We considered Europe under the Germans as the enemy. This reality caused us to block out our past so we didn’t speak about it.”
I have recently had the privilege of meeting both these fascinating 80- 90 year olds, and their families. They do not know each other, but they have a great deal in common. They were children in Nazi Germany, and were sent out of Germany on Kindertransports by prominent parents who themselves eventually escaped and survived. They each are related to the real people from whom important characters in my novel are drawn and I was able to show each of them letters written by their long departed loved ones from research that I did. Each of their parents withheld significant aspects of their experiences before and during WWII.
I have said that writing fiction gives authors who are 2nd and 3rd generations to survivors and refugees, the opportunity to pull readers directly into the lives of vivid characters, and plots that can be focused on the themes that best embody our understanding of what happened during and around the Holocaust. Some elements of Even in Darkness pulled each of the two special readers who contacted me this summer into Kläre’s story, but also into their own stories.
If, as I have also frequently said, it is never too late or too hard to find ourselves anew and restore meaning to our lives, and that this legacy is the primary reason I wrote the book, then the letters I received, and the subsequent contacts with this last generation to have lived in 1930s and 40s Germany, fulfill my dream of touching others with that shared experience. In some way, by bringing a related family story to the page these two survivors have been brought back to their own stories. Their shining eyes, and the interest their children have shown feel like a lovely benediction for Even in Darkness.