Leonard Rosens most recent­ly pub­lished book is The Tenth Wit­ness, a pre­quel to All Cry Chaos, a much-praised award win­ner in both the lit­er­ary and mystery/​thriller cat­e­gories. He is blog­ging here today for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I was born in Bal­ti­more in 1954, nine years after the Shoah, one of sig­na­ture events of the 20th — or any — cen­tu­ry. That I recall, through­out my ear­ly child­hood no one in my com­mu­ni­ty spoke much about it. 

Dur­ing the Israeli Bond dri­ves of those years, the rab­bi would some­times invoke a grue­some image or two — but noth­ing approach­ing a coher­ent account of con­ti­nent-wide anti-Semi­tism or the camps. We had no dis­cus­sions at the din­ner table or in Hebrew School and cer­tain­ly none in the pub­lic school class­room. At the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter where I played bas­ket­ball, I saw men with num­bers tat­tooed on their fore­arms. I couldn’t approach these men: there was no con­text for that and cer­tain­ly no invitation. 

I was only six years old when the Eng­lish trans­la­tions of Pri­mo Levi’s If This is a Man (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) became avail­able in Amer­i­ca. Lat­er, hav­ing read them, I didn’t under­stand why they hadn’t moved my par­ents and teach­ers to a frank con­ver­sa­tion of the war. Per­haps the mem­o­ries were too near and raw; per­haps adults through their silence believed they were pro­tect­ing us. Not even the sur­vivors I knew, the par­ents of my friends, would speak. Why remem­ber bad times?” they’d say when the chil­dren asked. 

Pop­u­lar cul­ture filled the void, and not par­tic­u­lar­ly well. The Guns of Navarone (1961) pit­ted allied com­man­dos against gener­ic bad guys who hap­pened to wear Ger­man uni­forms. The Great Escape (1963) offered a most­ly benign account of a POW camp. True, Ger­man sol­diers gunned down the major­i­ty of those who attempt­ed escape, but the sto­ry was about sol­diers killing oth­er sol­diers who wouldn’t sit still and lis­ten — wouldn’t play by the rules of war. In a sense, the nev­er-say-qui­tat­ti­tude of the British and Yank pris­on­ers invit­ed the killing. There was a grim log­ic to that and a cer­tain deco­rum and cour­tesy in the camp, call it a base­line respect for the human that was nev­er shown to the pris­on­ers of labor camps or death fac­to­ries. Why didn’t the movies por­tray that? In 1965, Hogan’s Heroes gave us a com­e­dy (!) set in a POW camp, its sto­ry­lines vari­a­tions on the mis­chie­vous play that duped the ever-clum­sy Ger­man com­mand. No one, it seemed, nei­ther the enter­tain­ment indus­try nor edu­ca­tors, dared to take on the hor­ror of indus­tri­al-scale murder. 

All I had to work with in my strug­gle for under­stand­ing was the silence of adults and qua­si-enter­tain­ing mil­i­tary action/​adventure accounts of the war. What I sore­ly missed were inno­v­a­tive cur­ric­u­la like Fac­ing His­to­ry and Our­selves (found­ed in 1976) that addressed the calami­ty head on in pub­lic school set­tings. At last, by my mid-twen­ties, more his­to­ries and more sur­vivor accounts were being pub­lished and tele­vised series like Holo­caust (1978) brought real­ism to the sub­ject. By that point my war-relat­ed anx­i­eties were already estab­lished. I had filled in blanks not with infor­ma­tion but with night­mares of snarling dogs and men in jack­boots haul­ing peo­ple off into the night. 

Lit­tle won­der that these anx­i­eties sur­faced decades lat­er in my writ­ing. Many Jew­ish artists find them­selves reck­on­ing with the events in Europe sev­en­ty years ago, whether or not they lived through them. My reck­on­ing came in The Tenth Wit­ness, a nov­el set in 1978 about the lega­cy of nation­al social­ism. I fol­low a char­ac­ter who falls in love with the daugh­ter of a man who made steel for the Reich. Why? I sup­pose I want­ed to get as close to the beast as I could to study it — in a con­text I under­stood, the 70s, when there were still plen­ty of for­mer Nazis walk­ing the streets of Munich and Buenos Aires. The woman fas­ci­nat­ed me. She was inno­cent, though her father wasn’t. Still, did she need for­giv­ing for mere­ly hav­ing been born Ger­man, or born to par­ents impli­cat­ed in war crimes? What does for­give­ness look like in the con­text of the Shoah? How do the sins of par­ents weigh on chil­dren? What does a child learn from a father who used slave labor? Is that child some­how taint­ed? These ques­tions con­fused my teenage years, and only decades lat­er did I gain per­spec­tive enough to wres­tle with them. 

Doubt­less, my par­ents and teach­ers thought they were doing right by spar­ing chil­dren details of the Shoah. We take anoth­er view these days, and that’s a good thing because their silence proved a burden. 

No one count­ed on that.

Leonard Rosen lives and works in the Boston area. He has con­tributed radio com­men­taries to Boston’s NPR sta­tion, writ­ten best-sell­ing books on writ­ing, and taught writ­ing at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. Learn more about him and his work at www​.lenrosenon​line​.com.

Leonard Rosen lives and works in the Boston area. He has con­tributed radio com­men­taries to Boston’s NPR sta­tion, writ­ten best-sell­ing books on writ­ing, and taught writ­ing at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. His just pub­lished The Tenth Wit­ness (Sept. 2013) is a pre­quel to All Cry Chaos, a much-praised award win­ner in both the lit­er­ary and mystery/​thriller cat­e­gories. Both fea­ture Inter­pol agent Hen­ri Poin­caré, a pro­tag­o­nist,” wrote one crit­ic, who reads like a lit­er­ary fig­ure in a thriller.” Learn more at www​.lenrosenon​line​.com.

The Bur­den of Silence