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.

A very important lesson learnt about vetting sources

I can’t believe this happened long after I thought I knew better about vetting appropriate sources, but everyone makes mistakes sometimes. There, in the bibliography file for Journey Through a Dark Forest, was a link to a Further Glory post about African–Americans involved with the liberation of several camps (linked to under because was down when I wrote this, and because also strips the offending page of its ad revenue as well as search ranking). I now know very well Further Glory is a Holocaust denial blog, which I’ve duly downrated on the Web of Trust extension.

I suppose I either didn’t read that post all the way through, or didn’t fully comprehend exactly what the blogger was implying. There’s no other excuse for why I fell for that post as a serious, scholarly source to put in a works cited page.

Even worse, I discovered Further Glory is the sister site to Scrapbook Pages, a historical website I’ve used as a resource a number of times over the years. There were a few things I read at Scrapbook Pages which gave me pause and made me kind of wonder, but I ignored those strange suspicions because the entire website seems so informative and well-put-together. Now that I know Scrapbook Pages is run by a Holocaust denier, I won’t be using it for any further research, will remove all the links in my various bibliography files, and will tell all my university friends not to use it as a resource for research papers.

When I was younger, I wasn’t careful enough with any of my sources. I just gullibly believed whatever I read, based on its emotional appeal to me, and didn’t bother checking sources with different POVs to see if my beliefs were corroborated by evidence from multiple sources working independently of one another. There’s nothing wrong with having an idea of where you want to go with your research, but you can’t only look at sources promoting one POV, and ignore or dismiss anything that doesn’t back up your rigid POV. That’s called working backwards from a conclusion set in stone.

This is why, until 2009, I refused to believe Lee Harvey Oswald had anything to do with JFK’s assassination (though I still think it’s possible there were other people involved). It’s the same reason it took almost 20 years before I was finally convinced Anna Anderson really was Franziska Schanzkowska, and not Grand Duchess Anastasiya.

Perhaps an author or speaker with a different POV has some great information or a perspective which gives us a whole new spin on an issue, and leads us to wonderful new material to consider. We should never be afraid to go outside of our own in-group. For example, just because someone is your political or religious opposite doesn’t mean s/he’s automatically full of falsehoods. The person in the video above doesn’t exactly share all my views, but I still shared his video because it’s the information on this particular issue which is important.

Holocaust Controversies is an excellent, scholarly anti-denial blog which tears apart all the deniers’ claims, as well as critically examining misinformation such as Irene Zisblatt’s ridiculous so-called memoir. We can always stand to learn new things, and admit some things which were once popularly believed were just urban legends or unintentional misinformation passed along in a game of telephone.

For example, many survivors’ testimonies identify “Dr.” Mengele as the one who selected them. However, he was never one of the camp brass, and performed selections no more than any of his colleagues. So many survivors associated their selector with Mengele due to his postwar notoriety; how frequently he appeared on the ramp off-duty to look for twins and other so-called medical curiosities; and how he took part in the frequent selections in Lager C (the Hungarian transit camp, where no one was tattooed).

As mentioned in the excellent essay debunking Mrs. Zisblatt’s fake memoir, the phenomenon of Auschwitz survivors believing they were selected by Mengele is quite similar to that of Buchenwald survivors believing they met the infamous Ilse Koch, even after she and her husband had left the camp in shame in August 1943 and gone to prison.

Bottom line: We should always carefully vet our sources, look for what kinds of sources our source cites, think about the POV being presented and whether it’s just a layperson’s opinion or propaganda, and look to see how seriously other people in the field take that author or source.

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.

Do you realize that the word “Nazi” actually MEANS something?

I honestly can’t fathom how the word “Nazi” ever came to be considered socially acceptable to just fling around so casually, instead of saving it for, you know, actual Nazis, either historically or modern-day neo-Nazis. It turns my stomach when I hear or see someone calling oneself or someone else a breastfeeding, grammar, spelling, punctuation, recycling, vegan, vegetarian, cleanliness, bicycling, etc. “Nazi.” I really think you mean to say something like “zealot” or “passionate advocate.” Don’t even get me started on the right-wing feminist-bashers who call my fellow feminists “feminazis.” Yeah, because wanting equal rights is in the same league as murdering eleven million innocent people.

I know most people who throw the word around like it’s nothing usually don’t do it on purpose to cause offense or upset, just as most people who wish you greetings for a holiday you don’t celebrate are generally just trying to be nice and don’t realize you’re not their same religion. But it’s not like WWII is THAT far in the past. There are still many living veterans and Shoah survivors. Would you like to tell one of them that you’re a “grammar Nazi” or that your sister is a “breastfeeding Nazi”?

I think it started with that stupid “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld, a show I usually liked except when there was Jewish content. I always felt so uncomfortable when serious religious matters were turned into cheap shots and mocked. It gave a false impression of certain things to outsiders. This is part of the reason why all of my Jewish characters are religious, whatever their chosen denomination. I wanted to combat the prevalent image on TV and in the movies and show that you’re not either some rigid fanatic or some secular, assimilated lox and bageler who works on Shabbos, only dates Gentiles, and never goes to shul. Don’t even get me started on the 99% intermarriage rate on TV and in the movies.

I’ve created many Shoah survivor characters, and have followed them decades after the War. Not only that, but I have vivid past life memories of a life during the Shoah, and began having vivid nightly nightmares about it at age three. I’ve met a number of Shoah survivors. I’ve read and own countless Shoah memoirs and novels, and seen many documentaries and films about the Shoah. After Russian history, the Shoah and WWII era is my area of most historical expertise. So I take very damn personally when I hear people flinging the word “Nazi” around so flippantly, as though they’ve forgotten what a Nazi actually is.

Shoah denial is a huge problem. I had at least four essays on my old Angelfire site about this issue, including one on people bashing the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance, which focuses on catching the remaining war criminals while they’re still alive. By casually using the word “Nazi” to refer to people who are anything but, that problem is indirectly contributed to. It’s bad enough certain people think we’re obsessed with the Shoah and need to just forget it and move on, stop prosecuting war criminals like John Demjanjuk and making new documentaries about it. Equally galling are the Turks who deny the Armenian Genocide. I also had a number of pieces on that on my old Angelfire site.

On that same note, it’s also rather offensive and an insult to historical memory to throw around the term GULAG to refer to anything other than a Siberian concentration-camp. 65,000,000 people died under that horrific system during the many decades of its existence. This is my specific area of greatest expertise in Russian history, and I still entertain dreams of someday getting a master’s degree or even doctorate in Russian history, specializing in GULAG. Aleksandr Isayevich, may his memory be a blessing, inspired me towards it, of course.

And while we’re at it, could we stop flinging around the words “gay,” “rape,” and “retarded” to refer to things and situations which they’re decidedly not? If you got a D on a tough exam, that sucks, but you weren’t raped by your teacher. And when you say something is “so gay” or “so retarded,” you contribute to homophobia and discrimination against the mentally ill. Would you say that to someone you know to be gay or someone with a mentally handicapped loved one?