Recently, I stumbled upon a trilogy of YA (young adult) books which used the Magen David as a graphic in the titles. The series is about the adventures of Liesel and Dan, whose mother puts them on a Kindertransport, and they wind up in England. These are just a few of the books available from a very prolific, “USA Today best-selling” writer, but the only ones centered on the Shoah.
I was taken aback. Are these mass-marketed historical fiction books profiting from the Holocaust?! Isn’t this a kind of rebranding or repackaging meant to sell cute books about a horrible and very real tragedy of epic proportions? And – what is this writer’s connection to the Holocaust? In other words, I found myself making Big Fat Judgments about just who should be able to tell these stories – and how.
This is not a new conversation in the world of Jewish books. Several years ago, when I was working at a story analyst in Hollywood, I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was being considered for a film adaptation. I gave it a thumb’s down. (The film went on to be produced, which shows you how little influence story analysts actually have.) To me, though, the story glossed over the horrors of Auschwitz and was unrealistic. The situation depicted would never have possibly occurred.
There was, of course, the Heather Morris dust-up, during which Morris’s book, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” was roundly condemned by the Sokolov family (the book is based on the testimonies of Lale Sokolov) and The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum for its alleged inaccuracies and “whitewashing” of Auschwitz. (I didn’t finish the book; it read like a romance novel, which seemed incongruous and made me queasy.)
Yet because I am a new author in the world of Jewish books, I am keenly aware of the razor’s edge between the ambition of reaching a “wide audience” and repackaging history to make it more palatable. Indeed, you could say that I “repackaged” or “reframed” the narrative of a Holocaust survivor in The True Adventures of Gidon Lev.
Gidon Lev spent four years of his life in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin. He lost 26 family members in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Buchenwald. There is no fiction in Gidon’s story. The facts speak for themselves – including the fact that Gidon has very many unpaid parking tickets, went zip-lining on his 85th birthday, vandalized a political billboard, and has a girlfriend 29 years younger than himself. (That’s me!)
The True Adventures is like a Trojan horse, entertaining and quirky on the face of it, but packed with history, context, and yes, some laughter too. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and all that. But definitely yes, I used my skills as a writer to frame Gidon’s story in a way that would be – god help me – entertaining.
For example, I as very intentional about the subtitle for The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist. The subtitle describes Gidon Lev accurately and honors his wishes to not over-emphasize the Holocaust as the defining event in his life. I agreed with him, and after all, it was his life story, so who was I to argue? But I’ll be honest. I knew that leading with the word “Holocaust” would likely turn readers off. I also knew that including the word would get some readers interested. I wrote the book hoping for a “wide” audience because I think that Gidon’s story matters. But what is this “packaging” I was doing, this “marketing”?
I wasn’t that surprised when I pitched my book to dozens of literary agents in New York and was usually met with one of two replies, both variations on the same tune: “the Holocaust is too depressing,” or “there are already too many books about the Holocaust.” I get it – literary agents are in the sales business. The Holocaust is sad and horrifying. Obstacle number one for these stories. I decided to publish independently.
Maybe historical fiction is the answer if the question is “wide audience.” The characters can have cute, easier to pronounce names, be better looking, and less complicated, and if the ending is still sad, a writer can make it seem to have meant something in the scheme of things. Nonfiction writers are not so lucky. There is not a lot of “white-washing” possible in the truth.
There are fewer than 200,000 Holocaust survivors left living in the world today. Sadly, that’s not taking into account the toll that the Coronavirus will take. Of those remaining, how many can tell their stories? How many want to talk about it? Or have the resources, health, and drive to turn their story into a book?
It won’t be long until there isn’t a single survivor left. And then who will write the stories? Who will be the guardian of the historical authenticity of this terrible legacy? Perhaps historical fiction has a role to play, as perhaps the last, best chance to pass on the horrible truths and lessons of the Holocaust to the next generation – and the one after that.
As I think these things over, I take a deep breath and realize that I’m definitely jealous of the super-successful USA Today best-selling writer with the trilogy. I try to take a step back. Maybe it’s good she’s written books that might serve as an entrée for readers who would more often steer away from the topic. It is possible that her books (and those of many others) will ignite curiosity, trigger empathy, and perhaps even be an impetus for change in an era desperately in need of remembering the past.
Yet I’m still troubled. I think of Chief Sitting Bull, and the Wild, Wild West Shows he humiliatingly took part in, late in his life. Genocide made into entertainment, racism for show. Maybe I am overreacting. I can tell you for sure that I am changed, after having written The True Adventures of Gidon Lev. More sensitive to this question, more invested in the answer.