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.
- Interview with Hana Berger Moran and Wendy Holden on Born Survivors
- R, D. Rosen: Occupational Hazards and Emotional Realities in Writing about the Holocaust
- Vicki Oransky Wittenstein: Researching For the Good of Mankind
Affinity Konar received her MFA from Columbia and lives in Los Angeles, CA.