It’s a good question and one that literary critics and Holocaust historians and educators have been grappling with since 1945. Now in 2018, the question remains as important as ever, and new novels about the Nazi concentration camps under Adolph Hitler’s rule always bring forther the same question.
I asked a few people who have studied the issues involved how they felt about all this and what their answers might be, especially in regard to the recent controversial and much-talked about publication of the Australian bestseller “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris.
A veteran editor and publisher in Manhattan, in his 70s, told me: “While I understand some readers’ and literary critics’ and book reviewers’ annoyance with the truthfulness of the book, which says out loud on the cover that it based on ‘a true story’ when it surely wasn’t, it is important to note that the novel really is not a Holocaust hoax, not even a Holocaust literary hoax. I would say that the book is the result poorly-done research more than it is a hoax. For example, Clifford Irving’s autobiography of the wealthy American eccentric Howard Hughes was a hoax. Phillip Dick’s book, The Man in the Castle,’ about the Nazis and Japan winning World War II was a case of the author using literary license — and creating an alternate reality. At worse, Morris’ story has a number of historical inaccuracies which means that her editor Angela Meyer at Echo Press in Melbourne should have done more fact-checking, but didn’t. I know I would have.”
I replied to the New York editor: “I do appreciate your good feedback, as always. And you are right. Hoax is wrong word to use. I used it in my press releases and tweets on purpose like a smoke bomb. Later, the professional journalists and literary critics will swoop in and will write insightful reports. I’m just the advance party. Then I disappear again, back to my day job. Nobody has to know my name or who I am. I work best quietly in the shadows.”
The editor replied to me to end our conversation: “Danny, I know why you do this, and I know this is not the first time, either. You did it in 2008 and you helped get a real Holocaust hoam memoir cancelled before publication. You did that and you are doing what you are doing now because you don’t like to see mistakes in novels or movies that deal with the Holocaust. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. More power to you.”
An American writer who herself has written a novele set during the Holocaust said she was following the controversy over Morris’ novel.
“What most stands out to me is that the author of the novel, Heather Morris, admits that she had not read any books about the Holocaust before she met Lali and his son, Gary, and that she just knew about it through movies,” she said. “And I noticed the November 8 article in the New noted that the book’s editor Angela Meyer said the novel was fiction so as a result she and her marketing team didn’t feel the need to do a large amount of detailed fact-checking. So as an author of a Holocaust novel myself, I lay the blame on Heather’s editor and publisher. My own editor caught a lot of errors in the first few drafts of my novel, such as color of Nazi uniforms that I got wrong in my first draft. Without a good editor, I’d be embarrassed, too.”
She added that in her opinion, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” should be not be part of the canon of Holocaust novels, noting: “I do think that there is now a new movement to capitalize on Holocaust stories. The success of ‘The Book Thief,’ ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ and ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ prompted the publishing trend.
She added: “I was at a Holocaust-themed panel at a book fair earlier this year. I went first, and got choked up in the middle of my talk but managed to finish. A young writer next to me said he was a Christian and wanted to write his story about a German spy who tried to kill Hitler as an exploration of how Germans who were Christians but active members of the Nazi Party could do what they did during the Hitler period in which six million Jews were killed. He was expressing a genuine feeling, I felt.”
Another book editor who is Jewish and whose own parents came to Ameica after the war after being in a displaced persons camo, told me: “I grew up with many people who had tattooed numbers imprinted on their arms. While my parents were lucky enough to escape into Russia after the fall of Poland, many of the friends they made, as part of the circle of refugees living in the Bronx in New York, did not. As it turned out, my wife’s mother, had the concentration camp numbers on her arm. While she may have been considered one of the lucky ones to be liberated, the experience left her a very different person — having two major nervous breakdowns — seeing Nazis marching down the streets in the Bronx in Manhattan as an adult later in her life. As a ressult of the nervous breakdowns, at age 13, my wife had to take care of her brother, her father, and the house. Not an easy way to grow up.”
“The numbers on the arms of Holocaust survivors in America seemed to always be a symbol of shame for those who had them,” he told me. “As a young child I remember my mother telling me not to look at those people’s numbers.”
I made contact with a non-Jewish reporter in Australia about the brouhaha over this book, and he told me some very interesting things.
“Yeah, the convtroversy over this book is certainly intriguing,” he said. “At best, some incorrect recollections or plain inventions by Lali were rendered without checking (the wrong number on Gita’s arm was a big miss, for example). On the other hand, at the book launch at the Sydney Jewish Museum with Heather, 95-year-old Holocaust survivor Lotte Weiss and others, Heather made it very plain that she was marketing the book as a novel rather than as a memoir because of the conceit of putting thoughts into characters’ heads.”
“I think it’s a bit harsh for anyone having a go at Heather Morris for not being Jewish. Anyone can write a novel or film script about the Holocaust and many non-Jewish authors have. And Anthony Beevor has written many compelling histories of World War II — Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin — without being a German or a Russian,” he said by email.
”Did Lali and Gita meet in Auschwitz, did they fall in love, did they manage some kind of romance — even if it was only clinging to each other — in such an awful place? Did he tattoo her arm and was it love at first sight? Did they lose each other and then find each other in post-war Europe afterwards? We shall see,” he said, adding: ”But let the chips fall where they may. As one reviewer said, the story in this novel has the quality of ‘a dark fairytale.’ Perhaps that is what it is.”
“By the way, at the book launch in Sydney, Lotte Weiss confirmed that she was tattooed by Lali in Auschwitz when she was an inmate there herself as a young Jewish woman and that she was particularly close to Gita, Lali’s girlfriend and lover in the concentration camp,” he said.
I replied to my reporter friend in Australia, a well-known journalist there: “As for Heather Morris not being Jewish, I didn’t mean for that to sound like an accusation. Tom Keneally isn’t Jewish and he wrote “Schindlers List” which was powerful storytelling. I was just saying she is a non-Jewish writer as a description. I admire what she has tried to do with the book, with much promotional book tour gusto worldwide. She is a natural at PR.”
I added: “Before I started writing my press releases and opeds about the book in September 2018 I tried to contact Heather via her Facebook page. I know she read my messages because Facebook marked tjhem as ‘seen by Heather Morris.; But she never replied to me or answered me even though I identified myself as a journalist.”
I added: “I also contacted her editor Angela Meyer in September at the same time at her Twitter feed and she replied to her Twitter pals in Australia that I was an anti-semite! Me? I wrote her back and said I was a Jewish guy from Boston, a veteran reporter in his 70s, and hardly an antisemite. She apologized to me and said sorry, Then sge told me and her Australain Twitter possse publicly on Twitter that she said would have no more contact with me and then she blocked me. That’s no way to treat a person with some honest and sincere questions about the novel she edited. Even the UK publisher refused to reply to my emails and tweets, not even the media relations PR person. So, given the way they were treating me, I began to smell something fishy. What was there to hide? So I began digging deeper and alerted the new York Times bureau and asked them ask one of their reporters to look into all this. They did. The New York Times article appeared on Novemer 8 and Caroline Overington did a follow-up for the Murdoch newspaper The Australian.”
There will be be many more newspaper articles about all this.
So do novels about the Holocaust have to be vetted, fact-checked and well-edited? The answer is yes, a hundred times yes. This whole thing should be a learning curve for everyone involved including Morris and Meyer.