Helen Maryles Shankman is the author of In the Land of Armadil­los, a col­lec­tion of eight sto­ries set in Wlo­dawa, Poland dur­ing World War II. She is guest blog­ging all week as a Vis­it­ing Scribe here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

The sto­ry mate­ri­al­ized in my head a few days before Hal­loween. A gang of crea­tures, half-human, half-ani­mal, attack a par­ty of SS men exe­cut­ing a group of Jews. I imag­ined a young Jew­ish girl stum­bling over tree roots as Ger­man sol­diers herd­ed her toward a clear­ing in the Pol­ish woods. I visu­al­ized a wolf stand­ing upright, a lean, dog­like head, tip-tilt­ed gray eyes, mus­cu­lar legs encased in the trousers of a Pol­ish mil­i­tary uniform.

The sto­ry thumped home with a sense of right­ness. Yes, this is good. Yes, this works. All the usu­al signs were there; the hair rais­ing on the back of my neck, the but­ter­flies flit­ting in my stomach.

But on its heels, this: Am I triv­i­al­iz­ing the Holocaust?

My par­ents are Pol­ish Holo­caust sur­vivors. Grow­ing up, I heard the sto­ries of their sur­vival again and again. How my moth­er hid as a shep­herd girl with a Pol­ish farmer. How a Pol­ish neigh­bor boy who used to play at my father’s house dis­cov­ered his bunker and betrayed it to the Nazis. How my grand­fa­ther made sad­dles, and how the Ger­man he worked for sent a wag­on to bring Zay­die and his chil­dren to his cas­tle the day before a ter­ri­ble Aktzia con­sumed the town.

There are so many books ded­i­cat­ed to Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture that read­ers expe­ri­ence a kind of over­load. Yes, it was trag­ic, they say. Yes, mil­lions were mur­dered. They’ve read Anne Frank. They’ve read Night. They’ve read Maus. They know. They know.

That’s where the chal­lenge lay. What was dif­fer­ent about my sto­ries? How was I going to make World War II new again?

The facts of the cat­a­stro­phe — the obses­sive focus on enslave­ment and exter­mi­na­tion of a peace­ful civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, night­mar­ish death fac­to­ries, unthink­able atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by a cul­tured Euro­pean nation — are so impos­si­ble, so bizarre, so far-fetched, that they might as well be sci­ence fic­tion. I’ve been to Auschwitz and Maj­danek; I’ve walked through those ware­hous­es full of shoes and eye­glass­es and hair; I’ve descend­ed into the gas cham­ber and out again, and even I can’t grasp that it real­ly happened.

My mother’s sto­ries of the Poles and Ger­mans who risked their lives to save her fam­i­ly were just as unbe­liev­able, the men and women big­ger than life, tran­scend­ing real­i­ty like char­ac­ters in a fairy tale. An SS man who hid Jews in his cas­tle, with the pow­er to enchant his supe­ri­ors; a woman who cooked such love­ly break­fasts that they lured away the sol­diers search­ing her barn; timid Torah schol­ars and Jew­ish school boys, trans­formed by the deep and ancient Pol­ish forests into mighty resis­tance fight­ers. Through­out my child­hood, these peo­ple loomed as large as giants. If that’s not mag­ic, I don’t know what is.

What made me turn to myth and mag­ic to recount my par­ents’ sto­ries? Was it the desire to con­trol the uncon­trol­lable? The need to believe, in a time when God’s face was hid­den, that there was some guid­ing force behind the horror?

Art removes us to a safe dis­tance from actu­al hor­rors, allow­ing us to see what we already know in a new way. Fairy tales enter­tain chil­dren, but they also warn them of dan­ger. In a fable that my fic­tion­al author, Toby Rey, com­pos­es for his Ger­man pro­tec­tor in In the Land of Armadil­los,” he ends his alle­go­ry of a vil­lage com­plic­it in a secret crime with this line:

From that day for­ward, wher­ev­er the towns­peo­ple went, they were accom­pa­nied by the songs of birds. It filled their lives with beau­ti­ful music, but it also remind­ed them of what they were capa­ble of. Remem­ber, the songs warned them, and do not forget.”

Helen Maryles Shankmans sto­ries have been nom­i­nat­ed for two Push­cart Prizes. She lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band and four children.

Relat­ed Content:

Helen Maryles Shankman’s sto­ries have been nom­i­nat­ed for two Push­cart Prizes and have appeared in The Keny­on Review, Gar­goyle, Cream City Review, 2 Bridges Review, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band and four children.