The ProsenPeople

Occupational Hazards and Emotional Realities in Writing about the Holocaust

Friday, February 06, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Dean Rosen wrote about Sophie Turner-Zaretsky, one of the subjects of his new book, as well well as how he came to write his recently published book, Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I began researching and writing Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors, I thought it would be great to cross the Holocaust off that list of subjects that I hadn’t studied, and didn’t understand. What I didn’t anticipate was that the more you read about the Holocaust, the more you talk to Holocaust survivors, the more you seem to know about it, the less you can comprehend it.

I was surprised by the tenacity of the depressed feelings that studying the Holocaust left me with. When I shared my distress with friends, it turned out that this was a common occupational hazard for people who tackled the subject with any seriousness. I felt I had unwittingly joined a club whose members had struggled, and failed, to understand the most concentrated, organized, industrialized, large-scale, and international act of inhumanity in history.

When a close friend of mine, Paul—a brilliantly well-informed, ravenously curious, and very competitive man—read the galleys of my book, he set out to see for himself about the Holocaust. He’s a man accustomed to mastering new subject matter with ease. After a week of reading, he called me in frustration, already defeated by the enormity of it, the scale of the inhumanity. That the Final Solution mocks one’s efforts to understand it became, for me, no longer just a clever intellectual remark made at dinner parties, but a deeply felt emotional reality.

An emotional reality that, once I started working on the book, began to manifest itself all around me. After attending a conference of hidden child survivors and their descendants in Cleveland, I jumped on an Amtrak train back to New York (Hurricane Katrina was closing in), and was seated in the dining car next to a non-Jewish woman who told me that, when she was a child in Florida, her parents had adopted a Jewish refugee who had been one of Mengele’s experimental subjects. Then I discovered that the husband of one of the women in my book had hid in the Dutch Resistance during the war, and he has a brother who lives a few blocks from where I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. How strange to go home, where I had grown up in a state of such obliviousness to the Holocaust, to interview him. Then I heard from a high school classmate of mine, whose parents had been child survivors, and she told me about another classmate of mine, whose parents were survivors, and no one had ever said anything about it! And then, just a month ago, I was visiting my sister, walking the dog with her, and she introduced me to a man my age whose parents were on Schindler’s list. And he told me that his family was one of the rare ones where the Holocaust and the camps were talked about openly. So openly that when his parents told this man at the age of seven that they were sending him to summer camp, he assumed it was a concentration camp, that this was just something of a family tradition!

I can’t even count the number of people I’ve run into recently who turn out to be the children of survivors. There will soon come a time, however, when the Holocaust will take its silent place in the history of inhumanity, when even the children of the children will be gone, and the stories will all begin, “A long time ago, when my grandmother was a little girl” in Poland or France or Holland or Hungary….

Richard Dean Rosen has written many books, but none presented more challenges than Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. It’s a book that neither he initially wanted to write nor his subjects wanted written, but fate and the author’s own hidden agenda intervened.

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Out of Hiding

Wednesday, February 04, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Dean Rosen wrote about how he came to write his recently published book, Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The main subject of my book Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors had come very close to bowing out during the difficult process of submitting to my interviews about her largely suppressed experiences hiding in plain sight with her Jewish mother during World War II. All Sophie Turner-Zaretsky had to do was tell me “I can’t do this anymore,” and I would have had to “write off” a year or two of work. Fortunately, Sophie and the other subjects of my book gradually reconciled themselves to sharing their stories, and we all survived the book’s publication. Moreover, and happily, we survived as friends.

Sophie even agreed to appear with me at a talk and reading I gave at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. I don’t know how often it’s happened that the subject—and impetus—of a nonfiction book has joined its author at a public event, but her appearance added a very moving dimension to the typical author reading.

“It’s not easy getting up in front of an audience to talk about a book about something as unspeakable as the Holocaust,” I told the audience. “It’s even less easy when the main character in your nonfiction book is sitting in the front row, looking at you as if to say, ‘And how the hell did I end up as the main character in your book?’” Later, I invited Sophie to the stage, where she gave flesh and blood to passages I’d just read about how she had not only passed as a Catholic between the ages of 5 and 11, but actually believed she was an anti-Semitic Polish schoolgirl while her mother, also passing as a Catholic and working for a Nazi functionary, feared daily for both of their lives.

The most emotional moment came when Sophie told the audience of a hundred people how upsetting it had always been to her when others bemoaned the passivity of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, given the incredible courage and resourcefulness of people like her mother, who had singlehandedly saved their lives against all the odds.

The most surprising moment for me came when Sophie confessed to the audience something she had never confided in me: that the stress of cooperating with me on the book had prompted her to take an antidepressant for the first time in her life. She had come to understand that the value of recording the experience of hidden survivors as children, and later as adults, was worth the personal misery stirred up by the book. I will always be indebted to “good girls” Sophie, Flora Hogman, and Carla Lessing for bearing with me as I committed their sagas to posterity.

As Sophie said when I once asked her if it was okay for The New York Post to publish an excerpt from the book, “Well, I guess it’s too late to go back into hiding.”

Richard Dean Rosen has written many books, but none presented more challenges than Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. It’s a book that neither he initially wanted to write nor his subjects wanted written, but fate and the author’s own hidden agenda intervened.

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One Obstacle After Another

Monday, February 02, 2015 | Permalink

Richard Dean Rosen has written many books, but none presented more challenges than Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. It’s a book that neither he initially wanted to write nor his subjects wanted written, but fate and the author’s own hidden agenda intervened. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I give talks about my book Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivorsthe intertwined, true stories of three girls who were among the only 10 percent of European Jewish children to escape murder by the Nazis—my favorite subject is how I came to write the book. It’s a story that combines serendipity, denial, and my barely acknowledged wish to connect to the Holocaust.

Every author faces obstacles in the writing of a book, and the fact is that my first obstacle was my incredible resistance to writing it at all. To write Such Good Girls, I had to cross my own little desert of apathy. Until 2010, it had never consciously crossed my mind to write about hidden child survivors, or any aspect of the Holocaust. I was a thoroughly secularized American Jew whose grandparents had all come to this country 30 years before the first deportations and murders under the Nazis, so those dead relatives were shadowy, unknown people to me. My father used to talk constantly about the role of mazel in our lives, and surely this—that my grandparents found themselves in America—was the greatest instance of it.

The only anti-Semitism I can remember while growing up in a Chicago suburb was my Catholic neighbor calling me a “Christ killer” when I was seven. And so unaware of religious differences and conflicts was I that I had no idea what he was talking about. How far we had come from my grandfather’s abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers, which triggered his long journey to Chicago with his wife and two children in tow. Sadly, the Holocaust seemed similarly remote to me until the Hollywood movie Judgment at Nuremburg jarred mainstream America with its documentary footage of the liberation of the camps. But like a nocturnal nightmare whose effects evaporate by mid-afternoon, the Holocaust quickly receded behind the scrim of my burgeoning baseball and writing careers, the horror of it put away in a special folder marked “Let’s Not Look Too Closely At This Again.”

However, my lack of felt connection to the Holocaust nagged at me as an adult, a piece of repressed and unfinished business. It took a chance meeting with 73-year-old hidden child survivor Sophie Turner-Zaretsky at a Passover Seder in 2010, an encounter that coincided with my parents’ deaths, to finally capture my attention. Even then, I blithely resisted. Fate had given Sophie the same little Steiff stuffed bear as a child that I had, and such synchronicity called for commemoration as a children’s book! It would be more than a year before I understood the process that was already underway, whether or not I was ready for it.

Once I was reconciled to my fate—to write a serious, complex book about a handful of the luckiest children in history—it became my job to reconcile these women, now in their 70s and 80s, to their new, unwanted fate: to tell me stories that they themselves were hiding from, and didn’t want to tell. In other words, I was writing a book I didn’t initially want to write about people who didn’t want their stories told. Oy!

I had to overcome one obstacle after another, beginning with my subjects’ ambivalence and distress. On several occasions, I feared my only sources would back out. Then I had to overcome my feelings of intellectual and emotional inadequacy in the face of a subject so vast and infinitely incomprehensible. And did the world need another book about the Holocaust, even one on a largely neglected aspect?

No book I had ever written came remotely as close to challenging me. Only after publication did I read a quote by the writer Roxana Robinson that comforted me:

“A writer is like a tuning fork: We respond when we’re struck by something. The thing is to pay attention, to be ready for radical empathy. If we empty ourselves of ourselves we’ll be able to vibrate in synchrony with something deep and powerful. If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but that passes through us. If we’re lucky, it will be a note that reverberates and expands, one that other people will hear and understand.”

Check back on Wednesday to read more about Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors.

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