I just concluded reading Night by 1986 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. I read it in preparation of May’s ‘Seeds of the Word’ monthly book club discussion at the Redemptorist Renewal Center at Picture Rocks, Arizona. Having written a ‘Holocaust’ novel, The Hamsa several years ago, some readers are curious that I have never read Mr. Wiesel’s powerful account of his years in the Nazi concentration camp system. The fact is – until this afternoon – I have not. My interest in the Holocaust began one rainy afternoon at the Berkshire County Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I loved the library and frequented it daily between school and basketball practice. On this particular afternoon, I came across Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I will never forget that day or that book.
As I prepare for May’s discussion, I have reviewed several reading guides. One question in particular stays with me. I do not intend to discuss it at the meeting, but I have to answer it here. The Hill and Wang Teacher’s Guide asks
“Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?”
In 2007, I first saw the photo commonly referred to as “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” It still haunts me. I continue to stare at the expression of the ‘victim.’ His face exudes faith and confidence … he is not afraid. When I look at the expression of the executioner, I see doubt and guilt … his eyes are filled with fear. Shortly after viewing that picture, I discovered the “Report by Witold Pilecki” who volunteered to go into Auschwitz and who successfully escaped three years later. The photo and the report evolved into The Hamsa, which incidentally is about neither. Back to the question: “Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?” When I first began writing The Hamsa, I lived in a small town in the heart of Missouri wine country, Defiance, Missouri about 50 miles west of downtown St. Louis. St. Louis is blessed with an excellent Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC). As I researched my manuscript, I made an appointment with the director and visited the museum. Included in its exhibition – at least in 2008 – is a large image of “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” My conversation with the director ended rather abruptly. When I explained to him what I was doing, he emphatically stated, “There is no room whatsoever for the Holocaust in historical fiction.” As his case in point, he referred to the recently released film “Defiance” starring Daniel Craig that recounted the activity of the Bielski brothers who saved over 1,200 Jews by hiding them in the forests of Poland. “That film is not accurate,” he adamantly stressed and repeated, “There is no place for the Holocaust in historical fiction.” I listened patiently and respectfully. His statement rang in my ears for the 40-minute drive back to my home in Defiance. I made a point of seeing the film “Defiance.” It was a good film. More importantly, it occurred to me that if only 2 million people saw the film [the actual box office is reported at $56 million], then 2 million more people have some idea of what the Jewish communities in Poland faced during WWII. Thanks to the Bielski partisans, there were 1,200 fewer people in Hitler’s concentration camps. With that thought in mind, I committed myself to The Hamsa. Do I exercise ‘artistic license?’ Absolutely. One reviewer, Paul Knott referred to a technique I implied throughout the narrative
“If there is any ‘trick’ to the narrative, it might be Bronek’s meeting such historical figures as Franklin Roosevelt, Sonia Henie, and Heinrich Himmler, a la Forest Gump, but these meetings are plausible and serve the story line.”
The final 80 pages of The Hamsa are specific to the protagonist’s — Bronislaw Czech (Bronek) — experience at Auschwitz. I was committed to historical accuracy, and I stand firm that those pages accurately reflect what happened in that hell on earth. I am not a Holocaust survivor and do not pretend to know what it was like. Elie Wiesel did survive, and I hope that what I have written in The Hamsa does justice to those like his friends and father who did not survive. I believe that those thousands who have read The Hamsa have a better understanding of the era and errors of the times.
2 thoughts on ““Night” and “The Hamsa””
Gene, absolutely there is a place for historical fiction. Who knows all the events that led to those specific situations? I can only imagine who knew when the lingering odor of burnt flesh from Dachau drifted into our noses — in 1982. People didn’t stand up for what was right. The results were horrific, and continue to be a scar on humanity. I applaud you wholeheartedly for your efforts. Fiction does make us imagine the possibilities.
Thanks for the support, Greg. I have often maintained that historical fiction is a painless way to learn history.