By all accounts, my father is a brilliant writer with nine books under his belt. Despite this, I’ve somewhat avoided reading his books–finding it a little strange to discover our family revealed in print, even wrapped in the protective cloak of fiction. Despite his work’s critical acclaim, I have only read a handful of his books. When his most recent book, Five Bullets, was released, he mailed me a copy with the inscription: "Time to face a bit of history, world and family all at once." This book was not exactly fiction; it was based on my dad’s uncle's experience during the Holocaust.
From my childhood, I have vivid memories of my Great Uncle Martin and, his wife, my Aunt Flora. He was a wizened and stoic man who generously put us up in his Lincoln Center brownstone apartment when we visited New York. My strongest memory is of him getting in his oversized American car, a Cadillac or an Oldsmobile, and seeing the whole steering column come booming down to his level, enabling him to peer over the dashboard as he drove us into Manhattan from Long Island. When I was young, I had no idea that his wife and children had been murdered in Auschwitz. I had no idea that he had escaped the concentration camp and fought with partisans in the woods of Poland. It can be mind-blowing when we realize how much we don’t know.
Over the recent Winter Break, I devoured the 200 page novel. It was a fast read with accessible language. Because it was a mix of fact and fiction, I was excited to speak with my father to hear more about the book and why he wrote it. I asked him to talk about the book and—like the writer that he is—he penned me an answer. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Yes, he was a small man in a big car by the time you knew him. But much earlier, he was a powerful presence and to me a fascinating figure, because like you I was always taken with history. The War and the Holocaust were not very far back in the rear view mirror when I was a kid and here was this man who had been in the middle of it all. I would never have written the book if not for him. It was the only such story I have ever felt entitled to tell. I would not presume to so closely examine the life of a survivor on the basis of no more than my interest, my imagination, and research. One could write such a book, obviously, and I would never argue against any work of pure imagination, but personally I would not have felt the calling. Whereas Martin’s deep reluctance toward telling it himself, combined with the basic elements that I managed to worm out of him over the years, made it not only possible for me to take it on; it made it imperative. No one else was going to do the job.
As teachers, we know that the Holocaust is a powerful topic for our students and there is a rich body of literature already out there ranging from Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (Facing History has a great study guide for Night.) to the children’s novel The Book Thief that was made into a movie recently . I asked my father what he was hoping to add to this body of literature and what he would you say to a critic who argued that the Holocaust has already "been done".
There are at least two answers to the question of what I would hope to add. The first is simply one more story, one man’s story—because to a critic who says the Holocaust has been “done”, I would say, with the Shoah Project, that it hasn’t been done until every actor has told his or her story. My conviction is that every story is worth having, and this was the story which happened to be entrusted to me.
The second answer is that while Five Bullets was rigorously researched and adheres religiously to historical fact, it is not a history, or a memoir, it is a novel. And though some might say that makes it less worthwhile, or less real, as an addition to the literature of the Holocaust, I would argue the opposite, that fiction can often do as much or more to define, distill, and deepen the experiences being addressed. To my way of thinking, fiction can be reality heightened. Hopefully, this novel achieves a measure of success at doing that, bringing home not just important information but also the complex emotions, the back-stories and the human aftermaths.
Working with Facing History, I have heard many survivors speak and tell their stories, but for most, there was a reluctance to talk about what happened. Several years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with a survivor in her mid-eighties who was a young teen during the Holocaust. She revealed to me that she said nothing for over forty years and she never even told her son. Her son only discovered her past when she was asked to speak publicly and share her stories with school-children. She told me she didn't want him to feel bad for her and she didn’t want to burden him. Generally though, the act of telling the story seems cathartic for survivors that do speak. I was curious to learn how open Uncle Martin was to talking about his past.
The reluctance you cite is and has been very real, and goes a way toward explaining why this book had to be fiction. It’s also true that fiction is what I write. But if I were to simply pass along everything my uncle told me in so many words about his experiences, the book would have been a 10-page article, or maybe 20. This man could easily have gone through life without speaking one syllable about the nightmare he lived through and the losses he suffered. The first information I wrenched from him came when I was 8 or so and bugged him to explain the numbers tattooed on his arm.
Then there were bits and pieces—I was a persistent cross-examiner. But it wasn’t until the day I graduated from college that he told me the story of his “retreat” after the war to the village I call Borva in the novel. And it was decades later before he yielded up the gripping event that gives the book its title. I learned as much as I learned only because my desire to know it was as mighty as his desire to withhold it.
Sadly there was no catharsis for him, no pathway to it. When he related to me the incident of the five bullets, his teeth were gritted as fiercely as if it had happened five minutes ago rather than 50 years. For me, writing the book was somewhat cathartic, though of course the burden I carried was nothing against the burden he carried. Simply put, the Holocaust was foremost among those historical events that engaged me, enraged me.
This idea of being enraged by history intrigues me because it shows such a personal connection to the past to which, as a History teacher, I am somewhat numbed. To my father, who was born in 1944, the Holocaust happened in his lifetime and it affected his loved ones. 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.
Read the rest of Annie's interview with her father next week. In the meantime,