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 Survivors—the 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.
50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany by Steven Pressman
Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and Their Daring Rescue of Young Jews From Nazis by Suzanne Vromen
Out of Chaos: Hidden Children Remember the Holocaust edited by Elaine Saphier Fox