The ProsenPeople

Talking with Debut Novelist Kim Sherwood

Monday, January 14, 2019 | Permalink

By Amy Spungen

Kim Sherwood’s debut novel, Testament, tells the story of a young woman whose beloved grandfather dies, triggering her quest to find the truth of his past. A Jewish native of Budapest, Joseph Silk is forever changed by the Holocaust, and the effects of his experience and the choices he makes afterward weave together themes of survival, betrayal, forgiveness, and the redemptive power of art. Sherwood recently answered some questions about her novel.

Amy Spungen: Kim, Testament focuses on the experience of Jews in Central Europe, especially Hungary, during the Holocaust. Can you tell us why you chose this geographic area? Is this story personal for you?

Kim Sherwood: My paternal grandmother is a Hungarian Jewish survivor, and she lived with us in London while I was growing up. We’ve always been very close, but she only began talking about her experiences a few years ago. I wanted some way to understand what she went through, so I began researching the Holocaust in Hungary. The novel grew from there. Though it’s not my grandmother’s story—because, of course, that’s hers to tell—writing about Hungary helped me to articulate my grief at all I was learning, and also to reconnect in a meaningful way with our heritage. I spent a lot of time in Hungary while writing the novel, and now know Budapest as well as I do London.

AS: Toward the beginning of the novel, Joseph Silk’s granddaughter, Eva, reads from what I believe is a J. C. Squire poem titled “Testament” at his funeral. The book ends with Eva reflecting on the same poem: “You wrote your name on the sands when the tide was out, knowing time would come again at the flood. I stand in the breakers.” Eva has learned a lot about her grandfather’s history since his death. Her circling back to this poem from a deeper perspective implies understanding, forgiveness, and love. Can you say something about these interwoven themes? Did you intend to leave readers with a sense of hope?

KS: It’s lovely you’ve pulled that poem out—it was written by J. C. Squire, my maternal great-grandfather, a poet and editor. My maternal grandfather, George, died in 2011, and I read the poem at his funeral. George was like a father to me, and losing him left me unmoored. That poem became a kind of compass for me: I’d return to it, imagining George saying, “Do not think, when you think of me, of a ghost that haunts the lamenting sea.” In the novel, as you said, Eva uncovers her grandfather Silk’s hidden histories, and comes to understand what exactly he left written in the sand.

Writing Testament was part of my grieving process for my grandfather. In those difficult years after his death, I thought a lot about how our relationship with someone we’ve lost doesn’t end when we lose the person. The relationship keeps growing as we grow. Memories are seen in a new light. Though I didn’t set out to end the novel on a note of hope, this feeling gave me hope nevertheless: that though loss might scar us, we heal around the scar, and it becomes part of us, just like that person’s voice and vision is part of us.

AS: In less skilled hands, Eva’s romance with Felix—uniting English Jew with German gentile—could have become a trite device symbolizing the progress of enlightenment. Instead, you portray their growing interest in each other realistically, sensitive to their personal and cultural baggage. Can you talk about how you envisioned these two characters? Did their relationship evolve as you wrote the book, or did you have a clear picture of their roles from the start?

KS: Thank you, that’s very kind. Felix took me completely by surprise. Initially, he was just the voice at the end of the phone when Eva calls the Jewish Museum Berlin to find out more about the witness testimony left by her grandfather. But I enjoyed Felix’s voice, and he made me laugh, so I thought I’d write one scene between Felix and Eva at the museum. And then he wouldn’t go away!

AS: Silk’s eyesight is forever altered by a beating. Ultimately, he turns this affliction to his advantage, creating art that brings him fame. But in another way his vision fails him—it’s difficult for him to truly empathize with others, to see things from their perspectives. What made you decide to use eyesight in both a literal and figurative sense?

KS: The initial idea came from a passage in Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in which the protagonist is struck by the beauty of a sunset over the gulag. I began to think about perception shaped by trauma. As I started writing the novel, there was the terrible mine collapse in Chile. News reports suggested the men’s eyesight might be damaged. I was also researching the Bor mines in Serbia, where the Hungarian forced labor service used Hungarian Jews and others as slave labor. I called up the Royal National Institute for Blind People and talked with them about eyesight damage, and the ideas came together to create Silk’s eyesight. Silk emerges from the mines only able to see the color blue, which, as you say, fuels his abstract expressionism. But it’s also a metaphor, of course—he recreates his life after the Holocaust, cutting away his past. He forces those around him to become an audience to his star performance, which involves a willing blindness on his part to the pain this causes his family. But the blue of the Danube always follows him—he can’t escape his past.

AS: One of the most riveting aspects of your novel for me was your use of some of the actual questions asked of survivors by the Hungarian National Committee for Attending Deportees (DEGOB) in 1945 to guide readers into the sections of Testament. What inspired you to use these questions the way you did?

KS: I visited the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2011, and was really struck by the voids—inaccessible concrete shafts that cut through the museum. I began to think about the voids as tunnels from past to present that we can never fully traverse, just as we can’t bring the dead back—but that narrative can traverse. In my research, I discovered and was transfixed by the DEGOB questions, which reflect how much our understanding—of everything from death to history—was about to change. The interviewers first asked the survivors if they experienced or witnessed any crimes or violence, what methods were used to kill people. Then they moved from past to present tense, asking survivors where they intended to go next, how they planned to rebuild their lives. I saw the questions as a kind of ladder I could drop into the void, allowing the narrative to move between past and present. The questions divide the historical and present-day timelines, but also link them.

AS: How long did it take you to write Testament? Did you find any surprises along the way?

KS: Six years. Like a lot of people, I grew up with a generally good understanding of the Holocaust. But as I began to research deeper into the history, I found myself shocked again and again, despite everything I’d already learned. There’s a line from Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces: “Two wars, which are both the rotten part of the fruit that can’t be cut away and the fruit; that there’s nothing a man will not do to another; nothing a man will not do for another.” One thing that surprised me in regard to the UK’s relationship with the Holocaust was how deeply suspicious and xenophobic many people were towards refugees, some believing them to be German spies, some simply hating the idea of “aliens.” I was struck by how much this resonates with the UK’s relationship to refugees today. I always knew, of course, that many people didn’t want to accept any Jewish refugees to the UK. But because we hold up the Kindertransport as a totem of our accepting nature, I had been lulled into believing a larger national narrative of open arms. While doing research for the novel, I read a lot of advice pamphlets for refugees, which advised them to speak English at all times, avoid speaking of the trauma they had endured, and to become as English as possible. I was also struck by the level to which the Anglo-Jewish community funded missions to rescue and financially support refugees, forming charities and lobbying a reluctant government and population.

AS: Were any of the characters particularly challenging for you? Why?

KS: I found Eva the most challenging character to capture on the page. Her voice resisted me for a long time. I began writing her sections in third person. Traveling around Berlin and Budapest, I’d make notes from her point of view in first person, and then change them to third as I drafted the novel. I wrote about 70,000 words that way, but Eva’s voice was still resisting me. So I wrote a letter to myself from Eva about how she felt about being invented. She was furious with me. She felt like I’d brought her to life in this moment of great grief, and then left her stuck there, unable to speak for herself. It had to be in first person. So I started again.

AS: Can you tell us a bit about your next novel, set in southwestern England? When can we expect it?

KS: I’m really excited to have just received support through a grant from the Society of Authors Foundation to help me write my second novel, A True Relation. Drawing on adventure fiction, the literature of roguery, and travel and life writing, the novel explores issues of gender, genre, and place in South West England. The main thread of the novel is a subversion of the smuggling tale, intercut by century-spanning conversations between male and female writers who either visited or lived in Devon. By placing these national figures–including Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe, Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson, George Eliot and Charles Dickens–in conversation, I hope to explore the portrait they paint of the UK, and the complexities they reveal about our national story. I’m going to say it will be out in 2020, and maybe that will manifest a finished draft!

Amy Spungen, a freelance editor and writer, has a BS in journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MA in English from Northwestern University. She lives near Chicago in Highland Park, Illinois.

Excerpt: Hitler's Pawn

Friday, January 04, 2019 | Permalink

By Stephen Koch

Everyone called him “the child.”

Whether speaking in Yiddish or German, Herschel Grynszpan’s mother and father naturally spoke of their youngest as das Kind. When das Kind was fifteen, Sendel and Rivka Grynszpan (pronounced “Greenspan”) got their son out of Hitler’s reach by sending him to live in Paris, where his Uncle Abraham and Aunt Chawa called their rescued nephew l’enfant. Two years after that, as the French police hustled this diminutive threat to European peace through a gauntlet of blazing flashbulbs and swarming press, reporters noted that the boy assassin looked closer to thirteen than seventeen. Later, Herschel’s French lawyers—antifascists vaunted as the best legal minds in France—always referred to their young client as le petit. When she formed a legal defense fund to advocate for “the little one’s” essential (albeit not literal) innocence, Dorothy Thompson, then the foremost anti-Nazi journalist in the English language, called him “this boy.” Even Adolf Eichmann himself—after interrogating Herschel in Berlin with a view to the propaganda surrounding the Holocaust—referred to him as der Knabe: the lad.

He was small, like many a pawn, and cursed with a baby face. He became famous on the cusp of maturity: In some photographs he looks like a frightened child; in others he is quite handsome, almost sultry, albeit in a boyish way. He had large, expressive, dark eyes and wore his black hair slicked back in the style of 1930s adolescence. He was frail. When he turned seventeen, he weighed just under a hundred pounds and stood a fraction of an inch taller than five feet one. His health was never good; as a child he may have had rickets. In early adolescence, there had been an appendectomy. Worst of all, he suffered from some sort of lifelong gastric problem—perhaps an ulcer—that was intermittently agonizing. Even in prison, he was a regular visitor to the infirmary.

He was clever with his hands and had a yen for sports; his main passion was for soccer, followed by Ping-Pong, which he played with the speed of an ace. According to most adults around him, he was “a gentle, self-effacing, obliging, and affectionate young man,” albeit moody. He may have been on the bipolar spectrum. He was subject to recurring depressions and sudden hot-blooded rages, even fistfights, on and off the soccer field.

But views of Herschel’s temperament vary. Among his contemporaries on the soccer field and at school, he was known as “the Hun king” because he was “dark-complected and very hot-tempered.” “Some who knew him in childhood remembered the boy as a quarreler.” Meanwhile, his brother, Mordecai, recalled his kid brother as a wit and a skilled and devastating mimic, whose imitations of pomposity could crack up a roomful of adults. There was something else: Both Mordecai and the lawyer who knew him best, Serge Weill-Goudchaux, used the same word to describe the boy. He was, they thought, fearless.

Herschel had grown up with Hitler’s consolidation of the Nazi tyranny. In 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, Herschel was eleven. In 1935, when the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were passed, he was fourteen and a student learning Hebrew in a Zionist yeshiva in Frankfurt, hoping to emigrate to Israel. When he was fifteen, his family sent Herschel to Paris to escape an increasingly dangerous Reich. When Herschel was sixteen, Adolf Eichmann sent Hitler a memorandum arguing that mere legal persecution would never force Germany’s Jews to leave the country and surrender everything they possessed to the kleptocracy. Eichmann recommended more persuasive measures such as lawless mass terror: a nationwide pogrom. This proposal foreshadowed the Kristallnacht. When Herschel was seventeen, Hitler summarily deported more than eighteen thousand Polish Jews living in Germany—among them Herschel’s mother, father, sister, and brother—stole all their money and worldly goods, and dumped them, penniless, on the Polish border.

It was when Herschel heard about his family’s deportation that he decided what he had to do and acquired what he had never so much as touched before: a gun.

Excerpted from Hitler's Pawn: The Boy Assassin and the Holocaust, copyright © 2019 by Stephen Koch. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

Stephen Koch is the author of two novels and many books of nonfiction on subjects ranging from Andy Warhol to the Second World War. After being chairman of the Creative Writing Division in the School of the Arts at Columbia, he wrote a classic text on writing, The Modern Library Writers’ Workshop. The director of The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC., he lives with his wife in New York, and has one daughter.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

On the Future of the Holocaust Novel

Friday, December 14, 2018 | Permalink

By Bram Presser

In the not-too-distant future, the Holocaust will have passed from living memory. There will be no survivors left to tell us of the horrors they endured, or the triumph of survival, or even the mundane minutiae that is so rarely acknowledged. What they will have left behind is, of course, extraordinary. In volume. In breadth. In depth. Countless words, many of them assembled into great works of literature, others into more modest efforts, written down so that their families might know. Thousands upon thousands of hours of audio and video testimony, pictures, diagrams, photos, ephemera of the most varied kinds. Soon, however, it will all begin to gather dust, to fade into history. It will become a setting, a context, just like every other historical catastrophe. If this idea offends you, I’m glad. It offends me too. But only because it is the one horror that I have truly known, that has befallen people I have loved. I cannot separate my own connection, my need to desperately cling to its importance, from the inevitable effect of time.

I often wonder about the shape of Holocaust memory in a post-survivor world. In particular, I question the role of the novelist in keeping memory alive. Fiction has always had its place alongside memoir and nonfiction when it comes to telling stories about the Holocaust. Even in the survivor generation, for every Primo Levi or Viktor Frankl, there was an Aharon Appelfeld or Imre Kertesz. Later, fiction became a way for the children of survivors to confront the trauma that had rendered their parents silent. The third generation, with the benefit of time and an enormous ocean of primary sources, could search for essential truths that the historical record alone could not hope to convey. So too, writers with no personal connection at all. But the one thing that anchored all of them—access to firsthand accounts that are not frozen in form or substance—will soon disappear. No longer will writers be able to speak with survivors, ask questions, clarify. This might all seem obvious, but it is also critically important because what is at stake is the future of Holocaust narrative.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the recent controversy surrounding The Tattooist of Auschwitz, an international bestseller based on “the incredible true story” of Lali Sokolov. Its author, the Australian Heather Morris, has long maintained that the novel is “95% fact,” but it has become increasingly apparent that she took considerable liberties with the story. Sokolov’s family is said to be dismayed by Morris’s portrayal. But more telling was the response from the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center. In an unprecedented move, the Center has come out against the book and its distortion of the realities of the camp. It even went so far as to publish a fact-checking report, which refutes many of Morris’s descriptions and historical observations. The Center’s press officer ultimately concluded, in an interview with The Australian, that The Tattooist of Auschwitz is “almost without value as a document.” Another leading Holocaust scholar called it “a sex story of Auschwitz that has very little historical accuracy.”

Of course, this is not the first time that such a fuss has been made about a successful Holocaust novel. Similar accusations were leveled at John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. Like The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Boyne’s book—which tells the story of a young Jewish boy who befriends the son of the camp commandant—was accused of minimizing and sanitizing the Holocaust. Even the U.K-based Literary Review, about as un-Jewish a publication as you could imagine, devoted an entire editorial to its problematic nature. But Boyne had his supporters, too. For the most part they pointed to the book’s allegorical, almost fantastical nature. It was a kid’s book, after all, and its value lay in its message, not its fidelity or otherwise to the historical record. That has been the line taken by Morris and her publishers: a novel does not claim to stand in place of history. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is fiction, and popular fiction at that. Sounds logical, I guess. But is there not an ethical obligation, no matter how fantastical your story, to get the basic facts right?

Leaving aside Morris’s claim about her book being only 5% removed from truth (despite multiple critical departures from Sokolov’s Shoah Foundation testimony, which it would appear she never watched), the real problem with The Tattooist of Auschwitz is not that it gets Lali’s story wrong but that it gets Auschwitz wrong. Very wrong. And given its success, the version of Auschwitz it describes risks becoming dominant in the historical narrative, especially at a time when studies show that general knowledge of the Holocaust is at an all-time low and falling.

So, if distortion is already a growing phenomenon, where does that leave the Holocaust novelist? What happens when there are no survivors left and the Holocaust exists, in the creative sense, as just another historical setting? One thing is for sure. It will continue to be fertile ground for fiction. As one English bookseller said to me, “Put in a few Nazis, it’s sure to shift units.” Holocaust narrative will also drift ever further from Jewish “custodianship.” Some detractors of both Morris and Boyne have pointed to their not being Jewish as part of the issue. They are, in my mind, wrong. While #OwnVoices (a term coined to highlight marginalized characters written by authors who are part of that marginalized group) has rightly sought to rectify the silencing of underrepresented minorities in literature, it does not preclude participation from outside the Jewish writing world. In fact, two of the best Holocaust novels of recent times were written by non-Jews: Daša Drndić’s Trieste, and The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. Drndić’s book, in particular, stands out for its meticulous research, intellectual ferocity, and eminent readability. I asked Drndić some years ago why, though she wasn’t Jewish and was from Croatia, a country with its own, more recent genocidal history, she chose to write about the Holocaust. Her response: the Holocaust is the universal symbol of barbarous inhumanity. Drndić used it as an indictment against our collective failings, to rub our noses in the worst our species has to offer. I would suggest, as a logical extension, that the Holocaust allows for the deeper exploration of themes because it carries with it a degree of assumed knowledge; you needn’t labor yourself with describing the atrocities. This allows you space that other genocides—those that might require you to write the story of the genocide, as opposed to writing a human story within it—do not.

And those are precisely the kind of stories we, as novelists, seek to tell. Not having to write the Holocaust, not having to document atrocities (itself problematic as many books tip into the realm of atrocity porn), sets us free. We can move away from the victim/hero archetype that has plagued much of Holocaust literature and return agency to those who lived through it. We can tell small stories, stories of relationships. We can confront taboos, crack open the silences. And we can do it without pages of didactic exposition.

Assuming knowledge, however, also carries considerable risk. It can breed complacency in both the reader and the writer. It can entrench errors and mistruths. And so it is incumbent upon writers to ground themselves in deep knowledge of any aspect of the Holocaust about which they write. Research, cross-check, question. All the more so if, like Morris, you are turning a survivor’s story into a novel that you will be passing off as “95% fact.” Trauma and time do terrible things to memory. Seeking to corroborate, to correct, is the ultimate act of respect, not some cynical surrender to doubt. Lali Sokolov deserved better than to have his story left open to questioning and criticism. His lapses can easily be accounted for. Morris’s cannot.

That said, I don’t mean to be proscriptive. We need not place limits on the creative endeavor. Indeed, some of my favorite Holocaust novels venture into the surreal, the hilarious, the speculative. Ladislav Fuks’s Mr. Theodore Mundstock, a forgotten classic of postwar Czech literature, centers around an old man who decides to prepare himself for the concentration camps by building a replica barracks in his apartment. Mundstock is both Chicken Little and practical sage, with a touch of Jakob the Liar. That he is accompanied throughout by his shadow and an imaginary bird (both fully realized characters), allows the reader considerable insight into a mind torn between despair and unbridled optimism. Similarly, The Dance of Genghis Cohn by Romain Gary hilariously tells of a prankster who, at the moment of his execution, flashes his buttocks at a Nazi firing squad and returns as a ghost to haunt the man who shot him. And then, of course, there is Shalom Auslander’s outrageously funny Hope: A Tragedy, in which the protagonist finds himself embroiled in a battle of wits with an elderly Anne Frank who, it so happens, is living in his roof and suffering one heck of a bout of Second Book Syndrome. Novels like these may do all sorts of strange things with the Holocaust narrative as we know it. They self-consciously depart from “the facts.” But they don’t pass off inaccuracies as historical record.

And therein lies the moral. Create, create, create. But do so from a place of knowledge, and always speak the truth.

Image: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons

Bram Presser’s debut novel, The Book of Dirt, won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the UTS Glenda Award for New Writing and the People's Choice Award at the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the 2018 Voss Literary Prize.

Where Are All the Happy Jewish Stories?

Thursday, December 07, 2017 | Permalink

Sacha Lamb is a part-time librarian, part-time student, and part-time YA writer and reader. She is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

A few weeks ago, I accepted an opportunity to return for one day to the ancestral Jewish homeland—New York City—for the Jewish Book Council’s annual Children’s Literature Seminar. I was invited on the basis that as a debut author through an independent, online publisher, I could offer a unique perspective for the author panel, which was otherwise composed of traditionally-published writers. I was excited to attend my first event as an author, and excited to hear from authors, editors, publicists and librarians, all of them offering Jewish perspectives on publishing.

The conference was an excellent welcome to the world of Jewish books, affirming not only of my status as a “real Jewish author,” but also of feelings, both positive and negative, that I have had toward the world of Jewish children’s literature, YA in particular. A major takeaway for me was that the need for universal marketing creates a gap between Jewish authors and Jewish readers when it comes to themes in children’s fiction—but authors and readers are, so to speak, on the same page, and we shouldn’t let our frustration keep us from telling the stories we need to tell.

Major publishers are reluctant to bring out books that would be termed “Jewish interest” if they don’t have a message that can be marketed outside of the Jewish community, because we represent such a small segment of the population. Unfortunately the easiest “Jewish issue” to market outside of the Jewish community is the Holocaust—it’s on school curricula, a major selling point. Both Jewish authors and Jewish readers express frustration over the lack of Jewish-themed books that aren’t about the Holocaust, and these frustrations surfaced at the conference, both from authors and from librarians and the representatives from Jewish book award panels. What we heard from our editors’ panel was that books need to sell, and even if Jews don’t want to read about the Holocaust, it does sell—to the much larger market of non-Jewish readers.

Even from the perspective of the editors, though, this wasn’t an entirely uncomplicated issue. While one editor emphasized the need for “universal” appeal in Jewish books, which often does translate to lessons about oppression, another added that her house is likely not to pick up new Holocaust-themed fiction, because their backlist is already stuffed with bestselling authors on the topic. What editors really want are original, fresh stories that have a lesson in them which can appeal to any audience—stories about family, stories about taking care of the environment, stories about learning to get along with others. These are all stories that can be written from a Jewish perspective and still connect with non-Jewish readers. The Holocaust is not the only Jewish experience that holds universal lessons, and we should not stop fighting to prove it.

As authors, we are frustrated by the idea that our happy Jewish stories don’t appeal to a non-Jewish audience; as readers, we are frustrated by the lack of happy Jewish stories. Our joy is as valuable as our genocide. And I am happy to say that there are signs that the market is beginning to understand this: for instance, a few of this year’s new Young Adult releases, such as The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli and The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, feature loving Jewish families, the former in the context of a romantic comedy (with a fat teen girl protagonist and a love interest whose spelling of God as “G-d” is one of the things that makes him cute!) and the latter in the context of collective memories—touching on the Holocaust without exclusively relying on it. And next year sees the anthology It’s a Whole Spiel with Laura Silverman and Katherine Locke as editors, entirely composed of Jewish contemporary stories by Jewish authors. The work isn’t finished—but it has begun. I am excited to be part of it, and grateful to the Jewish Book Council for assuring me that I am.

Sacha Lamb is a part-time librarian, part-time goat-herder, and part-time writer of queer Jewish magic realism for teens. As a teenager, Sacha loved YA fantasy, but never felt represented in it as a gay, transgender reader. Now a graduate student in library science, Sacha is dedicated to creating stories for other kids who need to know that they are magic. Sacha can be found online @mosslamb on Twitter.

Six Neglected Holocaust Narratives to Preorder for Fall 2017

Monday, April 24, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees

“To the Nazis, Freda Wineman’s crime was simple,” Laurence Rees’s new study of the Holocaust opens. “She was Jewish.” As a writer, filmmaker, and former Creative Director of the BBC TV History series, Rees has been the driving force behind historical literature and television programs on the Holocaust in Britain. In his newest work, Rees tackles the prevailing question of contemporary Holocaust studies—how and why did the Holocaust happen?—from a deeply human perspective, balancing historical analysis with 25 years of unpublished testimony from survivors and perpetrators of the Third Reich and the Shoah, polished and presented in Rees’s compelling prose. Wading through the individual stories of the people he has encountered over the course of his career as a historical documentarian, Rees imbues this new chronology of the darkest period in modern European history with the personal narratives—and human empathy—that are too often missing from contemporary Holocaust research.

Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers During
the Holocaust
by Mordecai Paldiel

Saved from the Holocaust with his family as a young child by Simon Galley, a Catholic priest who abetted Jews in crossing the Swiss border, Mordecai Paldiel headed Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations through the turn of the twenty-first century, adding approximately 18,000 names to the roster of non-Jewish rescuers honored by Israel’s national Holocaust monument and research center. In the process of this noble work, Paldiel discovered the stories of Jewish resistors who helped their clansmen escape Europe. Feeling that a significant narrative of heroism in the face of the Shoah and the Nazi occupation has remained neglected, upon retiring from his position at Yad Vashem Paldiel dedicated himself to chronicling the stories of Jewish rescuers who risked their own lives to remain where they could conduct operations to smuggle other Jews to safety. Focusing on different regions by chapter, Paldiel introduces a wide cast of previously unacknowledged saviors, from underground network agents to partisan fighters to a Berlin rebbetzin who facilitated the safe passage of thousands of Jewish German children to Palestine.

Stealth Altruism: Forbidden Care as Jewish
Resistance in the Holocaust
by Arthur B. Shostak

Exploring another neglected narrative of Jewish resistance in the Holocaust, Arthur B. Shostak redefines the very concept of heroism to include the acts of caring for others in an environment of evil and terror. Exploring the unrecognized instances of forbidden kindness among victims of the Nazi camps—holding weak neighbors up at roll call, switching tasks with prisoners assigned to hard labor details, sharing food and clothing—Shostak reveals the largely untold history of humanity at the darkest moments of the Shoah. The author also shares some of his research findings, interviews with survivors, and Holocaust memorial and education centers at

Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots
Against Hollywood and America
by Steven. J. Ross

While the United States trained its law enforcement agencies’ focus on Soviets and communists, the plots and activities of Nazi operatives on American soil in the early 1930s went unnoticed but for one vigilante spy ring headed by Hollywood attorney Leon Lewis, “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles” as the Nazis would come to call him. Viewing Hollywood as the greatest propaganda machine in the world—and eying key military positions and armories along the Pacific Coast—the Nazis planned out a siege of Los Angeles, plotting to massacre the city’s Jews and hang twenty of Hollywood’s brightest stars. From 1933 through the end of World War II, Lewis and his network of military veterans—and their wives—infiltrated all Nazi and fascist activities in the City of Angels, uncovering and snuffing out the Nazi’s sinister plot to destroy Los Angeles.

Textual Silence: Unreadability and the Holocaust
by Jessica Lang

Sidestepping Theodor Adorno’s famous aphorism, “To write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric,” Jessica Lang questions whether Holocaust literature across form and style can or even should translate the Nazi genocide to those who did not experience it themselves. Defining the expression of the limitations and barriers of language to adequately convey the horror and trauma of those who survived—blank spaces, trailing punctuation, italic, and narrative interruptions—as “textual silence,” Lang claims these critical breaks in poetry, novels, diaries, and memoirs as essential characteristics of the genre.

For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

Originally published under his penname in 1934, Iosif Mendel Hechter’s diary of Romania’s nascent antisemitism—growing increasingly rampant together with Hitler’s popularity in Germany and his installation as chancellor the year before—highlights the violence and injustices committed against Jewish populations throughout Europe, even within intellectual circles and institutions of higher education, long before the war began. Sebastian describes scampering around his university campus in Bucharest to avoid beatings on his way to lectures and discovering that even his closest friends and comrades believed the antisemitic propaganda proliferating throughout the continent—including the beloved mentor Sebastian asked to write the preface to this very book, which Sebastian nonetheless included in the original publication out of spite:

It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian… Remember that you are Jewish!... Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.

Recalling the widespread adoption and impact of such beliefs—and what they led to—seems especially important in wake of recent statements made in by the White House press secretary two weeks ago, drawing condemnation from Jewish organizations and scholars, including Deborah Lipstadt.

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Reading List: CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center

Monday, April 24, 2017 | Permalink

My name is Eva Mozes Kor. I am a survivor of Auschwitz, a survivor of human medical experimentation on twins by Dr. Josef Mengele, and now, I am trying to survive old age. As the founding director of CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, a human rights champion, internationally known author and speaker, and advocate for the power of forgiveness, I am recommending these books because they help us understand how the Nazis rose to power, what happened to many Jews and how they survived the death camps, and how the survivors coped afterwards.

As we come together on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Auschwitz Liberation Day, this list of books is geared to help us remember, but also to further understand the circumstances around the Holocaust at that time and how survivors moved forward with their lives.

If you’re looking for a book that discusses Nazi collaborators in our midst…
1) AMERICAN SWASTIKA by Charles Higham

If you’re looking for a book that discusses The Nazi-American money plot…
2) TRADING WITH THE ENEMY by Charles Higham

If you’re looking for a book that discusses America's recruitment of Nazis and its disastrous effect…
3) BLOWBACK by Christopher Simpson

If you’re looking for a book that discusses Hitler's Alliance with Germany's great chemical companies…

If you’re looking for a book that gives you an insider’s perspective of Dr. Josef Mengele…

If you’re looking for a book that showcases the unconditional faith in human beings' ability to heal…
6) MAN'S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Dr. Victor E. Frankl

If you’re looking for a book that provides a 10-year-old’s unfiltered perspective of Auschwitz and shows young people that we can overcome many hardships in life and even triumph over disaster….
7) SURVIVING THE ANGEL OF DEATH by Eva Mozes Kor & Lisa Rojany Buccieri

If you’re looking for a book that provides early childhood education about prejudice…

If you’re looking for a book that provides information about the twins’ perspective as guinea pigs of Dr. Josef Mengele...

If you’re looking for a book that shares the story of a Sunderkomando working for 3 yrs. in the gas chambers…

If you’re looking for a book that goes into detail concerning Nazi Eugenics to create a perfect race…
11) MURDEROUS SCIENCE by Beno Muller Hill

If you’re looking for a book about a 17 year old who escaped Auschwitz to alert the world, but the world didn't believe him…
12) I CANNOT FORGIVE by Rudolf Vrba

You can learn more about Eva Mozes Kor by visiting, following her on Twitter at @evamozeskor.

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Jimmy Fallon Reads Man's Search for Meaning

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Arie Monas

A couple of weeks ago, Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, tripped on a rug in his kitchen and fell. Initially, he believed it was an ordinary fall but as he got himself up, he saw that his finger was sideways. He was rushed to the emergency room and was then transferred to Bellevue hospital to have surgery done on his finger after being told he had a ring avulsion. The doctor operated on Fallon for six hours, leaving him in the intensive care unit of the hospital for ten days. Fallon had to keep himself busy while in the hospital, so he started reading the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Written during World War II, Frankl describes his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camp, Auschwitz, and how he came up with a purpose in life to feel positive about to keep him going. The question we all have is why Jimmy Fallon, whose job as a comedian is to make people laugh, was reading a very serious book. Frankl describes what it was like being a prisoner in Auschwitz, and Fallon was able to relate to his message given his state of being. He was lying in a hospital bed, away from what he likes doing most, and felt like a prisoner. He wanted to get out of the hospital; as he advised his viewers, “Get out of that hospital, get out,” urging them that they will be fine. While reading the book, Fallon found the true meaning of his life, which is to be on television and to talk to people who are at home or at a hospital and making them laugh. Upon finishing the book, Fallon said, “I absolutely loved it.”

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An Introduction to Jan Karski

Friday, April 17, 2015 | Permalink

by Joshua Muravchik

Few individuals risked more to try to save the Jews from the Holocaust than Jan Karski, and yet what makes his actions most amazing was that the cause of the Jews was secondary to his mission. That mission was to save Poland, and in itself it was a desperate, overwhelming, death-defying struggle that took every ounce of strength, courage, and wit that could be summoned by the Polish patriots who consecrated their lives to it.

A young officer at the time of the Nazi conquest, Jan Kozielewski quickly enrolled in the resistance that spring up almost at once among the occupied Poles, and he was given the first of a string of aliases of which the last, Jan Karski, remained with him the rest of his life. His photographic memory qualified him as a courier because he had a rare ability to recite verbatim long messages that he could convey among the Underground’s political and military leaders without carrying any incriminating document. His missions included travel across the length of the Third Reich to carry communications between the leaders inside Poland and the official Polish government in exile, based in London.

On one of these missions, he was captured and subjected to such tortures by the Gestapo that he chose to take his own life for fear he would succumb to the pain and betray his comrades. This choice reflected the character of a man who lived by the categorical imperative to do the right thing regardless of cost. He found a razor blade discarded by a guard and slit both wrists, but before the life had drained out of him he was discovered and his wounds bandaged. He was put under guard in a hospital to recover so that the Gestapo could resume his interrogation cum torture. But such was his importance to the Underground that a heroic operation was mounted to wrest him from his captors. In retaliation the Nazis executed some twenty to thirty-five (accounts vary) nurses, doctors, and priests associated with the hospital. That others died on his account tormented him to his last days, although the operation was not his choice: indeed his liberators had orders to kill him if they could not succeed in extracting him.

Once free, and given a little time to recuperate from is self-inflected injuries, Karski insisted on returning to his work in the Underground. The risk was now multiplied. The Gestapo knew of him, and the scars on his wrist were a sure mark of his identity. Nonetheless the Underground resumed giving him vital assignments because his gift was rare, and life was cheap.

As he prepared for another mission to London, in 1942, Karski was approached—with the approval of his superiors—by leaders of secret Jewish organizations and asked if he would be willing to shoulder the additional assignment of informing British and American officials, as well as Jewish leaders in the West, that the Jews of Poland were being not merely persecuted but systematically exterminated. Moreover, they said that his message would be all the more compelling if he could be an eye witness. Karski agreed, and he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto for several hours, a stroll through hell. A few days later he was taken a second time. Then, to top it off, he was insinuated, disguised as a Ukrainian guard who was bribed to lend his uniform, into a camp. Karski believed it was the death camp at Belzec, but later research suggested that it was a temporary facility where some Jews were murdered on the spot, others shipped to larger extermination camps.

Then Karski succeeded in his stealthy infiltration to London and where he recounted what he had seen to Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and to Jewish leaders. From there, he sailed for Washington where he repeated his stories to President Roosevelt and various prominent individuals. All, devastatingly, to no visible effect. FDR pressed him, as Karski later related on film with a bitter straight face, not about the Jews but about whether the Nazis had appropriated many Polish horses for their invasion of the USSR. And Justice Felix Frankfurter, arguably the highest ranking Jew in America, heard him out and then replied: “I cannot believe what you are telling me.”

His main mission, to liberate Poland, was lost as his homeland was freed from the Nazis only by a new conqueror. And his ancillary mission, to alert the world to the Holocaust, came to naught. To express his unbearable frustration at having been ignored, he took a vow not to speak of these events again, and made a new life as an exile in the United States. He broke the vow only after 30-odd years when he was discovered by Claude Lanzmann who was making his epic documentary, Shoah, and cajoled Karski into recounting his experience.

Karski can be seen on film, being interviewed in his Washington apartment. Punctiliously dressed, as was his habit, he begins: “Now I go back 35 years,” he says. Then he cannot go on: “No, I don’t go back.” Collapsing into sobs, he rises and walks off camera to collect himself before returning to continue.

After breaking his silence for Lanzmann, Karski spoke about these unspeakable happenings again often, and became a great tribune against anti-Semitism. Eventually he was given the rare recognition of honorary citizenship of Israel although he remained a devout Catholic all this life. The Jews were not his primary cause, but he was a man of such rare rectitude that when he saw what was being done to them, he gave everything he had to try to stop it. And yet, he once told a mostly-student audience at Georgetown University, where he taught, that he believed he would have to answer to God for not having done enough.

Read more about Jan Karski in the book Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World (Jan Karski).

Joshua Muravchik is the author of Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel.

Related Content: Read More about Jan Karski and Other Righteous Gentiles

Why Do We Publish Picture Books About the Holocaust for Young Children?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 | Permalink

by Marcia Weiss Posner

Editor’s Note: We are frequently asked by parents, teachers, and others a perplexing question: At which age and at which stage it is appropriate to introduce books about the Holocaust to young children? Publishers’ suggested age ranges for their materials vary and do not always seem to match the content they present in the pages of their books. This is often reflected within our reviews, with our reviewers noting that while a book may have great value in many ways and may be filled with beautiful art or poetic language, it is not necessarily right for its intended age group. With so many children’s books on the Holocaust being published in the past few years, it’s become a confusing issue which has led to a staggering number of inquiries. Therefore, we decided to consult an expert in the field of Holocaust literature for her take on this important topic.

Before we present books to children from ages 4-8 on a subject such as the Holocaust, we should provide stories about playing fairly, choosing sides, bullying, and standing up for a classmate or animal that is being mistreated. Each person passes through learning stages depending on physical and mental characteristics and upon the interaction of individual and environmental factors like whether they have become familiarized with the concepts of taking sides, helping a weaker being,bullying, etc. Developmental and emotional maturity of children vary because of the above, and according to age. Even when the words of stories are able to be read by bright younger children, that does not mean that analytical and critical thought is present. It occurs later, by Grade Five at the earliest, for the brightest, most mature students. It depends on their schooling, reading ability, home experiences and the communities in which they live. We can give children books on parent figures and children being mistreated by other adults, but not until they are at least 10 years of age. There are several stages to understanding what one is reading and why the action is happening. Why do we think that children under 10 or 12 are ready for this? The next step in reading incorporates more than one point of view and includes motivation for the action and the fuller development of the characters in the story. The reader has to be able to deal with the layers of facts and add concepts to those acquired earlier. Usually, this begins in early high school.

So why are we writing, illustrating, reviewing and buying books on a subject that belongs at the earliest for a child of ten years old for younger children? There are at least five recent picture books of stories about concentration camps, beautifully written and illustrated. They are not for the picture book group (3-6 or 4-8), but for children from the age of ten and up, who are well able to read full length books and may not read picture books. Authors write and illustrators draw and publishers publish stories about the Holocaust for children who are not ready to receive them to make money, and we all fall into their trap. Some of them are lovely and well done, but in my opinion, premature.

Often books of this type are used by teachers of older children when they present the Holocaust in the classroom. In that setting, they have a more practical use. Books of this type are perfect to use with children of ages 10-14 as the language used in these books is usually too mature for picture book readers but just right for slightly older children. A photograph is more static. The illustrations in these books utilize color and other tools of art to communicate danger, despair, fright, and soon—values that are not communicated in photographs, but that impact older children immediately. Straight text communicates facts. Picture story books communicate feelings as the illustrations enter their emotional portal.

The message is that when teaching the Holocaust, start with a picture story book for any age. It readies the children emotionally to learn more about this topic.

Marcia W. Posner, Ph.D., of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, is the library and program director, and author of the play Smoke and Mirrors: Delusion and Despair: The Story of Terezin, now on tour among Long Island Public Libraries as a follow-up to the best selling novel The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman.

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