The ProsenPeople

The Stories That Never Leave You

Friday, September 09, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Affinity Konar wrote about her first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the setting of Mischling, after she had already written the book. With the release of the novel this week, Affinity has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

There are stories that are unforgettable, and then there are stories that will never leave you. The best way to deal with such an obsession is to write about it. In my case though, I didn’t think myself fit for the telling: the story that wouldn’t leave me was the story of the twins of Auschwitz.

Like so many, I grew up reading Shoah narratives; I affixed myself to the fact that these atrocities had been detailed by some of the greatest minds the world will ever know. To attempt a fraction of their acts of remembrance would have been foolish, I told myself, and disrespectful. But after nearly a decade of self-negotiation, I focused on the thought that occurred when I had first read of the horrific experiments on twins during the Holocaust: my novel could be a conversation between two Jewish children who were not allowed to be children. It would not be an attempt to capture the vastness of the unspeakable, but a small stage for two Jewish girls, imperiled by the ultimate evil, to articulate an extreme love they have for each other, a love that blots out the name of Josef Mengele.

As the book has ventured out to into the world this week, I am finding that many people grew up with a startlingly youthful awareness of Mengele—a discovery often so overwhelming that such readers cannot pinpoint their introduction to the criminal. I am the same. But my introduction to the twins remains crystalline: when I was sixteen, I found the remarkable Children of the Flames by Lucette Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, which approaches not only the experience of the twins within Auschwitz-Birkenau, but their lives beyond it, and their struggle to acclimate to a broken world. Of course, there is also Mengele, comfortably evading prosecution and writing his memoirs in Brazil. It is maddening to read. And yet, you find some hope, too, in the testimonies of the survivors, and their commitment to telling a story that the world does not always want to hear.

People often seem ready to discuss Mengele. Since his all-too-peaceable flight and death, he has enjoyed an ability to transfix, to be treated—in all his reported contradictions—like a puzzle. But a puzzle is too charming a thing for a murderer, and in writing Mischling I decided not to take a route that explored how he was able to perpetuate his crimes. In times of doubt, I wondered if this choice was cowardly, but ultimately it felt sacred not peer into this unfathomable evil, to approach him as banal. I fastened myself to this story: he was a man who would give a boy a ride on his shoulders one day and deliver that same boy to the ovens with his own hands the next. Mengele tormented expectant mothers, Jewish women whose very beauty offended him, people who bore what he deemed to be genetic abnormalities, and many, many others. I wanted these crimes to speak for him, instead of an interest in trying to understand how he came by his malevolence.

But while Mengele could be put in the background, his works could not. Calibrating the degree of horror to portray was one of the most daunting tasks. The atrocities can never be brutal and dehumanizing enough on the page. You look at pictures of the people Mengele tortured and it breaks you. I always have to read Celan after seeing these images; only his suspension of pain within language would make it endurable. I did not want to torment the reader, nor did I want to dilute the trauma of the survivors. Some of the crimes perpetrated are unspeakable among those who experienced them and mentioning them would have felt like violation.

The most horrific experiment I chose to include is detailed not in scene, but through recollection, a little globe of memory. I found it important to highlight because it speaks to the absurdity of Mengele’s medical efforts—one can only imagine this act serving a sadistic impulse. I dearly hoped that poetic language might serve as a filter. I did not want to obscure torment; I wanted to show how someone might obscure torment in order to survive it.

That portrayal of survival was my utmost concern while writing. When I first began, I worried about how I might give power to characters who had been stripped of it. But remarkably, granting agency to the characters was one of the easier tasks, if only because you cannot read the accounts of survivors without being inspired by how they sustained themselves, whether it was through stealing potatoes or tricking nurses or sabotaging paperwork. The book owes its animation to so many, but I must always mention Eva Mozes Kor, Miriam Mozes Zeiger, Alex Dekel, Gisella Perl, and Zvi Spiegel. I was blessed to live in awe of them as I wrote.

Affinity Konar was raised in California and holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of the novel Mischling, out this week from Lee Boudreaux Books.

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Beyond the Birches of Oswiecim

Tuesday, September 06, 2016 | Permalink

Affinity Konar is the author of the novel Mischling and is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The Polish countryside flashed through the tour bus window: white chickens, nodding sunflowers, children on bikes. That such prosaic scenes could exist in such proximity to where the horrors had occurred was disorienting. I felt small, returned to a childish state.

Part of this reversion was due to the fact that I’d come to Poland as a grown woman accompanied by two overly-proud parents who boasted to any English-speaker about my novel, Mischling. I’d wanted to prove to myself that I could handle this trip alone, but when the birches of Oswiecim began to flash, signaling our proximity to Auschwitz, I was too grateful for the fact that they watched over me.

Because while I’d written a novel about the twin experiments at Auschwitz, I never imagined that I would see the camps myself. For over a decade, I’d studied narratives, photographs, personal histories. Long before the book’s genesis, as a teenager, I’d read every piece of Shoah literature I could find. So while no one can prepare for such depthless sorrow, I didn’t imagine I’d be broken by the mere sight of the woods that bordered Auschwitz. But too much history was suggested by these birches. They were woods that had been spied through the windows of cattle cars. The fact that they were beautiful, still, seemed an insult.

And once we arrived at Auschwitz I and stepped beneath the gate, with its message inscribed in the dust in shadow, it became clear that my emotions would bear more complexity than I could’ve anticipated. We walked through the place I’d long ago read described as a little city with window boxes and garden plots, from the building that housed the orchestra to sites of torture and death. To places I couldn’t bring myself to photograph, and places we were thankfully informed could not be photographed.

What couldn’t be photographed had been shorn and stolen and now sits under glass; it is mass dehumanization made visible. What couldn’t be photographed is what I will never forget the most. I know that the sight of it must reinvent grief and sorrow for many, that it must follow us as it should, but even now, at some distance I wonder, how we’re able to see such a sight and still speak. One would think that seeing such horror should make me unable to even write this, and yet, I was witnessing its effects at an extreme remove. The fact that poets and writers who survived found a way to articulate the unspeakable—I hadn’t thought my awe could ever increase, but there I was, trying to fathom, yet again, how they came by their bravery.

I tried to take a photograph of a child’s suitcase. His name was blurred by the shakiness of my hand. I erased the photograph. I didn’t take another. But the name remained: Pavel Kohn. Born 1935.

So much of Auschwitz blurred like that photograph, as if my mind wanted to keep a safe distance. Even the site of Rudolf Höss’ execution felt indistinct. I thought of my teenage self, obsessed with Nazi hunters and vengeance—back then, I would’ve thrilled to this sight. But to the right of those gallows, I saw the eaves of the Höss house, where his wife had boasted of a luxurious life, and this unseated the slightest glimmer of satisfaction.

To steady myself, I retraced my introduction to this place, Primo Levi’s Shema:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.

We boarded the bus and traveled to Auschwitz II. I saw the path the twins had walked, over and over, dressed in striped uniforms they’d never worn, for the Red Army’s footage of liberation. I saw that so much had been destroyed by Nazi hands in their eagerness to cover their crimes. Here, there were blank spaces to signify torment, all questioning the viewer. How was suffering endured? What did one held onto, or invent? How did saving someone save you? How many doomed themselves saving others?

Our guide, a resident of Oswiecim, whose ancestors were victims of the camps, offered story after story, all beautifully told. I’d hear one name and wonder how many other names have gone unrecognized. I’d hear an account of resistance, and wonder about others lost to us. I’d walk through the women’s barracks and wonder about the relationships between mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, strangers whose details will never be fully known. Some speak of a catharsis in visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t feel that—if I did, it took a mysterious form. Because what I truly felt was this: a belief that the wondering will be endless. And it should be.

Affinity Konar was raised in California and holds an MFA from Columbia University.

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