WeWriWa—A liberator’s gift

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes from Chapter 20, “Remnants Rescued,” of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, set during April 1945.

Kálmán and Móric are the only two boys left of the group that set out from Jawischowitz in January. Apart from two who escaped and another who was left behind at Mauthausen, everyone else has perished. The end of the road was Buchenwald, whose strong resistance immediately put them into a boys’ brick-laying detail. Their two remaining older friends insisted on working in the quarry with the other men, and weren’t as lucky.

The sickly Móric was hidden in the typhus ward by their Communist Kapo, and Kálmán insisted on joining him. Shortly afterwards, the camp resistance sent messages to the U.S. Third Army, killed their remaining guards, and liberated themselves. Now the soldiers have arrived, and Kálmán begs them to help Móric.

“We’ll bring doctors and nurses here as soon as we can, and give you whatever food we have,” a freckled soldier said in German. “You boys will be very well taken care of.”

“We’re not boys, we’re men,” Móric said softly.

The freckled soldier smiled at him. “How old are you fellows?”

“I’m fourteen, and he’s fifteen.”

A leathery-skinned soldier took off his gold-faced chronograph watch with a black leather band, and extended it to Móric. “You deserve this more than I do.  Don’t try to refuse it.  You deserve a lot more than just a watch after what you went through, but this is the nicest thing I have to give you.”

An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

Let’s talk about the Mengele trope

FYI: It’s absolutely NOT my intent to call any Shoah survivors liars or ignorant. What I’m interested in is the how and why of this commonly-cited trope which isn’t borne out by careful examination of historical evidence. There’s also a moral obligation to represent this period of history as accurately as possible, to avoid adding any fuel to the deniers’ fire.

When I read Joachim Neander, Ph.D.’s excellent rebuttal of Irene Zisblatt’s wildly exaggerated, so-called memoir The Fifth Diamond, I was quite surprised to discover “Dr.” Mengele didn’t perform nearly as many selections as Shoah survivors routinely depict him as having done. He was still a vile, evil POS who shouldn’t have escaped earthly justice, but he wasn’t some all-powerful being who was everywhere at once either.

I totally understand how jarring it can be when we discover something we long accepted as fact is challenged by new evidence, but we can’t keep clinging onto falsehoods because of personal feelings.

There’s a perfect example in that author’s surname, Neander, which is shared by the German valley which gave our Neanderthal cousins their name. (BTW, the H is silent.) When I first started reading about prehistory in second grade (almost 30 years ago), it was believed Neanderthals were the final step before Cro-Magnons.

Then we found out they were distant cousins, and then it was believed they were victims of Cro-Magnon genocide. The latest evidence shows most people of European and Asian descent have 2-4% Neanderthal DNA, with some outliers who have more. There was more interbreeding than genocide. I can’t wait to have an ancestry DNA test to find out how much Neanderthal DNA I’ve got!

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I’ve watched countless testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, and there’s a common line coming up around selection at Auschwitz:

“And this, of course, was Mengele.”
“As we later found out, this was Mengele.”
“And all the while, the whole goal was being pushed towards Mengele.”
“You know this was Mengele.”
“How do I know it was Mengele? How do you know who Bill Clinton is? You see his picture all the time!”
“He was a beautiful German officer whom we soon found out was Mengele.”
“Mengele pushed me to the right.”
“Mengele selected so fast.”
“This, of course, was Mengele.”

This so-called doctor did perform selections, but not nearly as often as survivors report. There were also “Drs.” Heinz Thilo, Horst Fischer, Bruno Kitt, Fritz Klein, and several others. One reason so many survivors may think Mengele selected them is because he did frequently appear off-duty at the ramp, searching for twins and other “medical curiosities.”

Another reason was mentioned by Vera Laska, a Czech political prisoner. She suggested so many people might name Mengele because that’s one of the few names they know, and it’s human nature to want to put a name and face to this kind of traumatic event. Imagining him as nameless, faceless evil wouldn’t be as personal.

On a side note, I loved how Vera admitted she married her husband because his surname, Laska, means “love” in Czech. That’s a really awesome name to have.

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Survivor Emanuel Mittelman, one of the few remaining survivors with his number branded on his chest instead of tattooed on his arm, claimed he encountered Mengele in 1942, though Mengele only arrived in May 1943. Mengele has become such an icon of the Shoah, he’s reported as being sighted even when he wasn’t there.

Many Buchenwald liberators have similar testimonies, that of having encountered the vile Ilse Koch. She and her husband left the camp in disgrace and headed off to prison in 1943, never to return.

Mengele was never one of the camp brass, and was never even the chief “physician.” Yet not only do many survivors paint him as the only one who ever performed selections, but as doing other things going on at the same time.

How could one person be conducting selections for both men and women and children, performing additional selections after realizing not enough people had been chosen for labor, pushing children alive into bonfires (because the gas chambers and crematoria couldn’t work fast enough to keep up with all the Hungarians arriving in 1944), performing selections in Lager C every day, AND doing medical experiments?

Mengele was evil, twisted, and grotesque enough without assigning omnipotence to him. I don’t fault Shoah survivors for not remembering every single detail correctly, but historians and historical novelists shouldn’t perpetuate this trope.

WeWriWa—Closeness in distance

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when one of the rescuing Czech partisans, Jaroslav, asked Emánuel about the semi-fast day he mentioned. It’s the ending of this section of the chapter.

The illustrations are from illuminated scrolls of the Book of Esther.

“It’s called Ta’anit Esther, and commemorates how Queen Esther fasted before going to make her petition to King Xerxes for her people’s lives.  Tonight, the holiday of Purim began, celebrating our deliverance from evil.  God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther, but he was working behind the scenes the entire time.  Sometimes God is closest to us when he feels most distant, perhaps because he wants us to be proactive in fighting for our deliverance and not passively wait for Divine intervention.  Tonight you were God’s emissaries, after Adri and I made a run for it.”

“What about all the other guys still on the march?” Adrián asked. “God hasn’t delivered them yet, and most of them didn’t try to escape.”

“We each have our own destiny, existing alongside free will.  It’s not for us to try to understand Divine ways, though it’s nice to know the chapter of our lives as slaves has ended.”

Emánuel’s sentiment about how “God is closest to us when he feels most distant” is echoed a number of times by unplanned secondary character Tímea, a Bible Student (Jehovah’s Witness offshoot) who’s with the girls. She never wavers in her strong faith, though she often says she doesn’t know why any of this happened or why some people fared relatively better than others.

WeWriWa—Dinner is served

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a bit after last week’s, when 18-year-old Emánuel begged Dr. Svoboda to remove the number on his arm. Dr. Svoboda said he’d be glad to do it later, but that Emánuel had more pressing heath concerns, and might come to see it as a mark of pride someday.

Seventeen-year-old Adrián has just asked for food, and mentioned it was a semi-fast day, with the caveat that it wasn’t much different from any other day. They haven’t had much food since they started out from Mauthausen a few weeks ago.

Copyright mick; Source http://www.flickr.com/photos/panasonic-kei/6132672345

Jaroslav pulled a potato out of the stove, cut it in half, and put each piece on a plate.  Adrián leapt on his like a famished wolf, while Emánuel had to wait until Dr. Svoboda was done taking his vitals.  After they’d eaten and Dr. Svoboda had taken Adrián’s vitals, Ondřej brought them each a large mug of ginger peach tea.

“Ginger soothes the stomach, and peaches symbolize long life in Chinese folklore,” Ondřej said. “We’ll bring you chicken broth next.  We’ve got some in our icebox, and it won’t take long to reheat.”

“Děkuji mnohokrát,” Emánuel said, using one of the Czech phrases he’d picked up from fellow prisoners. “God should bless all of you for your righteousness and altruism.”

“It’s nothing doing, just what any good partisan and human being would do,” Jaroslav said. “May I ask what the semi-fast day was for?”