WeWriWa— “Still standing tall”

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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 immediately follows last week’s, and closes this section of this chapter. Soldiers from the U.S. Third Army have arrived at Buchenwald in response to several radio messages sent by the camp’s robust resistance, and two of them have given their chronograph watches to 15-year-old Kálmán and 14-year-old Móric.

Móric has just announced he doesn’t feel well enough to keep standing, and lowered himself onto the ground. As the youngest and most slightly-built member of their original group of twenty-four, he’s survived so long because the older boys took care of him. Kálmán surreptitiously carried Móric on his back during the homestretch of the march to Buchenwald, and when Móric became too sick and weak even for the boys’ brick-laying detail, their Communist Kapo hid him in the typhus ward.

Virdzsi (VEER-jee) is Kálmán’s brother Virgil, named after the great Roman poet. As it turns out, Virgil may have survived after all.

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“That’s okay.” Kálmán knelt beside him and put his arm around Móric. “You’re still standing tall and strong.  The Americans came in time to save us, and as soon as we’re well enough to travel, we can go home and start planning our immigration to Palestine.”

“It won’t be easy to go back into the world.  I don’t think we’ll ever be normal again.”

Kálmán put his other arm around Móric and rocked him back and forth. “It never is easy to go from one extreme to another.  Like Virdzsi’s namesake said, ‘The gates of Hell are open night and day; smooth the descent, and easy is the way; but to return, and view the cheerful skies, in this the task and mighty labor lies.’”

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia, Jean-Baptiste Wicar, 1790–93

When Kálmán’s family was taken to the Abony ghetto last May, one of the items strewn across their front yard was his mother’s gold-leaf, illuminated Aeneid, fluttering open to a passage about how everyone’s final day is fixed. When Kálmán returns home, that book is one of the items given back to him by some Catholic friends who went around recovering and hiding as many things as possible from their Jewish neighbors before they were plundered by enemies.

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WeWriWa—A very meaningful 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 right after last week’s, when 14-year-old Móric tried to give his chronograph watch from a soldier to his 15-year-old friend Kálmán. Kálmán refused it, and then another soldier gave Kálmán his own chronograph watch.

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“Thank you very much.” Kálmán put the watch around his left wrist and buckled it on the innermost notch. “I haven’t had any personal possessions since last June. This ugly uniform, my ragged blanket, and my beat-up bowl don’t count. We weren’t even allowed to have names.” He indicated his tattoo.

Móric let go of Kálmán and eased himself onto the ground. “I’m too dizzy to stand anymore.”

WeWriWa— “I don’t need my watch either”

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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 U.S. Third Army soldiers arriving at Buchenwald after the prisoners liberated themselves gave 14-year-old Móric Heyman a very nice chronograph watch.

Zaki is Móric’s oldest brother Zakariás. In September 1944, he and Móric’s other older brother Viktor were chosen to go on transport as mechanics. Zakariás entrusted their friends with the care of his little brother, and said he’d never be able to face his mother in the other world if her youngest remaining child were murdered.

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“Thank you very much.” Móric took the watch and extended it to Kálmán. “You deserve this more than I do, since if not for you, there’d be no me.  I wish I could give it to Zaki, but he might not be coming back.”

“You must keep it,” Kálmán insisted. “I’d never take your presents away from you.”

The freckled soldier removed his own chronograph watch, which had a platinum face and brown leather band. “You can have mine.  I don’t need my watch either.  It can’t give you back all you must’ve lost, but it’ll probably make you feel a little happier.”

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.