This week I continue the conversation with my father. To read the first part of this conversation, click here.
Even though the book was based on stories from my Uncle, I knew my father had done a lot of research by reading and even travelling to eastern Europe, so I asked him to talk about the role of research in writing fiction.
Research was essential and extensive. I needed to know everything I could about the places where events unfold: Prague, Terezin, Auschwitz, the forests of Poland. Likewise with the tenor of life year by year, where the story begins in innocence on through the relentlessly accelerating horrors of Hitler’s occupation, displacement, war, and mass murder. I needed to know more about the partisans, who were of so many stripes in so many places. There was one group, for instance, the Army Ludowa, who fought the Nazis for reasons of Polish nationalism while being every bit as anti-Semitic and dangerous to Jews. I had to go to all those places and contemplate what it was like to be there at that time: to be evacuated to Terezin, to live there in fear of disease, starvation, and death; to face certain death at Auschwitz-Birkenau; but then to escape and be liberated enough to fight back. How did that feel? So you go and breathe the air and study the sky and the forest, or the streets and the barracks, and you imagine your way into the character’s mind and heart. If you are good at it, the story will ring true.
In Facing History, we focus on choices made by individuals such as whether or not to pledge allegiance to the Nazi regime or choosing to join the Hitler Youth. (Here is a link to a reading “Do you take the oath?”) Considering how they would have acted also helps students consider the choices they make in their own lives today. Thinking through moral choices helps prepare a student to stand up when a friend is being teased or to speak up when they see injustice.
In a general assessment of the Holocaust, where the Nazis set out to murder millions of people and did so in the most inhumane ways, there is not a lot of moral ambiguity to sort through. But then there were millions of individual Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, etc., each of whom wanted to see himself or herself as a good person. What would they do? What would they refuse to do? How much did it pain them or haunt them? Five Bullets glances off most of those cases, though it contains a hint or two that such struggles existed. And the incident where Karel encounters a sick young Nazi by the rail track reveals that even he, in his bitterness and moral fury, can acknowledge they did exist. So that was one challenge: balancing my sense of what it is to be human and be somewhat at the mercy of larger forces against my genuine outrage at what the Nazis did. The question of free will, or the absence of it, sits squarely at the epicenter of any discussion of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
That incident with the young Nazi has echoes of the questions raised by Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower which explores forgiveness. (Here is a link to a Facing History symposium activity using The Sunflower.) As universal themes, forgiveness, justice, and resistance are also important aspects of a Facing History unit. Facing History looks at the Holocaust in a holistic way rather than leaving the story at victimhood or leaving students feeling hopeless. Your book addresses all of these themes, but I wonder what your thoughts are. Do you believe there are universal answers to questions of what justice or forgiveness looks like or is this very specific to the individual?
The other day on the news I saw a mother whose son was murdered—terribly and for no reason—by an awful human being who had done nothing to earn forgiveness. But she stated that she forgave him, because she needed to do so to move on. Was this lip service? Could she really forgive him, once the news-people were gone? Could she really move on? Maybe. And maybe there were Jews who forgave the Nazis, or the German people, or the collaborators all over Europe. But it’s an emotional matter and the woman who lost her son is right in thinking that it would serve her well if she could genuinely forgive; it would weaken the emotional need for justice or revenge, which cripples the bearer. Forgiveness is a matter for individuals to sort out. The character in Five Bullets, Karel Bondy, does not appear capable of entertaining the notion of forgiveness. With the partisans, with the Russian Army, and afterward as a vagabond civilian, he sought a measure of justice, then tried to leave it all behind--but of course could not.
Speaking of partisans, your vivid portrayal of them fascinated me—I had no idea this would be a part of the story. I feel that the stories of partisans who took to the woods and took up arms are rarely told. Before reading Five Bullets, I didn’t have a good sense of what their experience might be like or who they might be.
The partisans fascinate. They were relatively few in numbers—relative to the numbers fighting in armies—but few meant thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, in countless locations throughout central and eastern Europe. They were vital to the war effort, both in practical terms for the damage and distraction they achieved as guerillas, and in emotional terms for the inspiration their mere existence, their courage and talent for survival provided. They also provided shelter and protection for many who could not join the fight. I like to think I would have made it to the forest; that I would have done what I could from there. But you had to be more than smart and fast and brave and resourceful; above all you had to be damned lucky to escape the clutches of the ruthless Nazi goons.
So, who knows? But the partisans were valiant men and women, and I think their stories are as interesting as any that came out of those awful times. One of the reasons some of those stories have been dramatized—the Bielski brothers, for instance—is that in many ways they parallel tales like those of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, irresistible myths where the good guys live in the forest and foray out to strike down the bad guys. Not to confuse movies or myth with reality, though. As Five Bullets professes, their lot was hardly fun. They were cold, uncomfortable, hungry, and constantly threatened with death. I am not even sure the forests of Poland in the winter of 1943 were in Technicolor.
Reflecting on the story and our interview, what surprised me most was that all of the most thrilling and (nearly) unbelievable aspects of the story—escape, rescue, resistance, and revenge—appear to be firmly based in fact. The more mundane details are what my father had to construct. This is truly an astounding story. Reading it reminded me that everyone has a story. My father felt compelled to tell this story. He wanted to give voice to his uncle’s experience. But, it is also important to my father as a Jew.
My father has never been religious, but he has a strong Jewish identity, rooted in Minsk via Brooklyn, New York. Partly due to his early experiences with gefilte fish (which was usually hidden in a potted plant or fed to a willing dog under the table) and partly due to the non-conformist streak in his personality, my sisters and I were never pushed toward faith. My father after making it through his token lines of the Torah during his Bar Mitzvah never really donned a yarmulke again. We grew up lighting candles and eating latkes for Hannukah and having a seder with cousins for Passover. Being Jewish was more about food and family. With my mother’s surname—Brown—I fly under the radar as a Jew. I almost feel guilty about that—like I’m not fighting the good fight. In some ways, I too feel compelled to wrestle with the Holocaust and I teach it each year to make sure the lessons are not lost and that the story does not go untold.
I hope to have my colleagues join me in reading this book as a way of connecting. If you get a chance to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you don't read Five Bullets, what are you currently reading that is re-inspiring you to teach about the Holocaust?
A number of Annie's thoughts on teaching the Holocaust came in response to attending a Facing History and Ourselves seminar on the Holocaust and Human Behavior. To find out more about the next Southern California seminar on the Holocaust and Human Behavior, click here.