Europa, Europa, Pol­ish Movie Poster, Designed by Mieczys­law Gorowski

I thought about imi­ta­tion and real­i­ty while writ­ing my his­tor­i­cal nov­el, The Girl Who Count­ed Num­bers. In the book, Susan, a sev­en­teen-year-old New York­er, is sent to Israel by her father to try to find what hap­pened to his broth­er dur­ing the Holo­caust. Although the sto­ry is fic­tion­al, I want­ed to make the set­tings and sit­u­a­tions as authen­tic as pos­si­ble. I spent sev­er­al years read­ing and research­ing inter­war East­ern Europe and life dur­ing the Holo­caust before I start­ed to write. Still, l felt uneasy about one thing: my por­tray­al of Susan’s uncle. As the book’s mys­tery unfolds, we learn that he sur­vived the war by pos­ing as a Nazi. I was unsure that such a thing could have actu­al­ly hap­pened and wor­ried that I might be crit­i­cized for mak­ing it up.

Some­how I missed the incred­i­ble, true sto­ry of Solomon Per­el: a Jew who posed as a Nazi in order to sur­vive the Holo­caust. Per­el didn’t sim­ply have a false name or papers; he was immersed in his false iden­ti­ty. As a young boy, Per­el moved with his fam­i­ly from Peine, Ger­many to Lodz, Poland. When the Nazis invad­ed Poland, they were forced into the ghet­to. Per­el and his broth­er fled Lodz to the Sovi­et Union where he lived in an orphan­age. In June of 1941, when Ger­many invad­ed the Sovi­et Union, he left the orphan­age but was cap­tured by the Nazis. Deter­mined to save his life, Per­el buried his iden­ti­ty papers and when asked if he was a Jew, he said that he was an eth­nic Ger­man. He became a front line Ger­man-Russ­ian trans­la­tor and then joined the Hitler Youth. He lat­er wrote in his mem­oir, Ich war Hitler­junge Salomon, that my men­tal fac­ul­ties were so befogged that no ray of real­i­ty could pen­e­trate. I con­tin­ued to feel just like one of them.” The book was lat­er trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, French, and Ger­man, and was made into a Ger­man lan­guage movie, all of which were titled Europa Europa.

Through­out his senior years in Israel, Per­el lec­tured on tol­er­ance, but there were many peo­ple who said that he nev­er ful­ly purged him­self of the Nazi iden­ti­ty he had adopt­ed.” In 1992, Per­el told The Wash­ing­ton Post that he had a tan­gle of two souls in one body.”

Some­how I missed the incred­i­ble, true sto­ry of Solomon Per­el: a Jew who posed as a Nazi in order to sur­vive the Holocaust.

I first heard of Per­el months after my book came out, when The New York Times report­ed his death at the age of nine­ty-sev­en. I was fas­ci­nat­ed to read about Perel’s sto­ry as it val­i­dat­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that a Jew could have actu­al­ly passed as a Nazi and some­how sur­vive with such a dual identity. 

The real ques­tion is — Is it impor­tant for a fic­tion­al work to have a basis in real life? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly. Writ­ers often can invent char­ac­ters who have nev­er exist­ed and whose actions are sur­pris­ing and unex­pect­ed. Sci­ence fic­tion books, for exam­ple, often are built around imag­i­nary beings. More often, though, fic­tion­al works lean on peo­ple (sin­gu­lar or plur­al) who have lived some­where, peo­ple who the nov­el­ist trans­forms into new char­ac­ters, incor­po­rat­ing bits and pieces of the old char­ac­ter and cre­at­ing new land­scapes, and new expe­ri­ences. In a his­tor­i­cal nov­el, it is espe­cial­ly impor­tant that char­ac­ters, sin­gu­lar or com­pos­ite, real or imag­ined, be believable.

Set in 1961, with the Adolf Eich­mann tri­al in the back­ground, The Girl Who Count­ed Num­bers unrav­els the many secrets that per­vad­ed life in the con­cen­tra­tion camp. Friends who were ene­mies and ene­mies who were friends. Ger­mans who did favors for Jews and Jews who did favors for Ger­mans. Life in the camps was bru­tal, but between the extremes of black and white, there was some gray. A rape that turned into a love affair, leav­ing a woman who for the rest of her life loved and hat­ed her­self. An ille­gal, for­bid­den, and pas­sion­ate love affair between two men that lasts for years. A woman who could nev­er quite resolve her iden­ti­ty. Secrets that helped peo­ple endure the suf­fer­ing of liv­ing in the camps, pain and anguish, their con­flict­ing iden­ti­ties some­how surviving.

Roslyn Bern­stein has been a sto­ry­teller all her life, some­times work­ing for a true account in the nar­row sense as a jour­nal­ist when it’s report­ing or his­to­ry, and some­times in a wider, more res­o­nant sense when com­pos­ing poet­ry, short sto­ries, or a nov­el. As a jour­nal­ist, she has report­ed in-depth cul­tur­al sto­ries for venues includ­ing Guer­ni­ca, Tablet, Arter­ri­to­ry, and Huff­in­g­ton Post. Six­ty of her online pieces were reprint­ed in an anthol­o­gy, Engag­ing Art: Essays and Inter­views From Around the Globe. While report­ing on all forms of art and archi­tec­ture, doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy has been a major sub­ject of Bern­stein’s writ­ing and teach­ing since the 1970s.She is the author of a col­lec­tion of linked fic­tion­al tales, Board­walk Sto­ries, set in a sea­side com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing the 1950s, and the co-author with Shael Shapiro of Ille­gal Liv­ing: 80 Woost­er Street and the Evo­lu­tion of SoHo, which focus­es on one build­ing to tell the sto­ry of SoHo’s trans­for­ma­tion from a man­u­fac­tur­ing dis­trict to a live-work arts com­mu­ni­ty. For most of her career, she taught jour­nal­ism and cre­ative writ­ing at Baruch Col­lege, CUNY where she was the found­ing direc­tor of The Sid­ney Har­man Writer-in-Res­i­dence Pro­gram. The Girl Who Count­ed Num­bers was inspired by the sev­en months that Roslyn Bern­stein spent in Jerusalem in 1961. She has tried to be atten­tive to his­tor­i­cal details although the sto­ry of Susan Reich, her fam­i­ly, and friends is fictional.