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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