Why accuracy matters so much in Shoah literature

It’s very unfortunate when fake Shoah memoirs and novels with beyond-implausible storylines and events are published, since it gives fuel to the deniers’ fodder. These are some of the books I’m thinking of:

Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne
Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca
Angel at the Fence, by Herman Rosenblat
For Those I Loved (Au Nom de Tous les Miens), by Martin Grey (né Mieczysław Grajewski)
Hannah: From Dachau to the Olympics and Beyond, by Rosemarie Pence
Memorias del Infierno, by Enric Marco
Stoker, by Donald Watt
The Man who Broke into Auschwitz, by Denis Avey
The Fifth Diamond, by Irene Zisblatt

I’d also include the film La Vita È Bella as a beyond-implausible tale of the Shoah, since it might as well have been titled Ernest Goes to a Concentration-Camp.

Irene Zisblatt’s story was critiqued piece by piece by Joachim Neander, Ph.D., at a scholarly anti-denial blog. I watched part of her testimony at the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, and couldn’t make it all the way through her easily-debunked stories. She packs in so many tropes and clichés, as much horror as possible, and has the most WTF story about an escape from a gas chamber, culminating in a Sonderkommando throwing her over an electrified fence, right into an open railcar, unnoticed by the SS and unreacted to by the other women in the train.

Memory isn’t infallible. The way we remember something, and how much, depends on many factors. Even people within the same family or group of friends may have slightly different accounts of the same events. These factors may include:

Personality (e.g., super-shy, very outgoing, go-getting)
Birth order (e.g., an overprotected youngest sibling, the independent oldest sibling, an unassuming sibling somewhere in the middle)
Age at the time
How long ago it happened
How long it took to begin talking or writing about it
State of mind at the time (e.g., depressed, in a state of denial for the purposes of self-preservation, shell-shocked)
Circumstances (e.g., an adult with several friends or siblings, a 13-year-old all alone)
Setting (e.g., hidden in a cellar, a death camp, hiding in the woods, a cushy detail in a factory)
How long one was in the situation

People may even misremember something much less consequential, like what a particular notebook, article of clothing, or rug looks like. It can be confused with something else owning to not seeing it in a long time, or only the general description remains. Sometimes we also confuse our own memories with something we read or heard somewhere else, and we don’t even realize it.

However, there’s a huge difference between putting events in the wrong order, not remembering every single thing, getting your dating slightly off, or misremembering a name, and outright making things up.

Mrs. Zisblatt’s story reminds me so much of the kind of Shoah stories I myself wrote in my early and mid-teens, or would’ve believed without any vetting. Don’t even ask what the rough draft of my Treblinka escape scene was like! It’s waiting on its fourth and hopefully final version, the most accurate and bone-chilling I can make it. The last thing I want to be accused of is being historically ignorant or flippant. If it hadn’t been even remotely plausible, I would’ve ditched it and created a whole new storyline to fill the timeline of July 1942–September 1943 for Lazarus, Malchen, and the Roblenskies.

Many works of fiction have elements which aren’t entirely common or realistic, to make characters and storylines feel more relevant to a modern audience, or to increase drama and tension. But that doesn’t mean we have free license to write whatever we want. The audience needs a compelling reason to go along with it, it must be within the realm of plausibility, and it should also be stressed that this wasn’t an everyday occurrence.

Many Shoah survivors, scholars, and laypeople have unintentionally passed along misinformation. Again, this doesn’t make them liars, but rather operating under faulty memory. Just take the urban legends of the human skin lampshades and soap made from victims, or the story about gas chamber victims being given soap and towels. They’re now proven false, but many people initially believed it, and thus passed along these stories to many other people. When someone in a position of authority conveys information, we tend to believe it and not check for corroborating sources.

I myself am 100% guilty of believing certain things I read in now-outdated books or heard from unreliable witnesses in documentaries, and of being that kid who read too much and understood too little. But I’m always glad to correct my mistakes and learn new information. For example, it was only very recently I discovered many of the prisoners in Lager C of Auschwitz never received tattoos. This was a transit camp for Hungarians, and very little official work was done there. Regular selections were performed here, and people who were taken to other camps and factories had no reason to get tattooed. Only people who were admitted to work details in the main camp had any reason to be tattooed.

False or wildly exaggerated memoirs, and equally-implausible novels, only play into the hands of Shoah deniers, and may possibly even influence an uninformed person to become a denier oneself. There’s nothing wrong with being honest and saying your book is a novel, not a memoir, or sticking with established history to craft your story.

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One thought on “Why accuracy matters so much in Shoah literature

  1. Pingback: An ahistorical slap in the face « Welcome to My Magick Theatre

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