Phyllis Zimbler Miller
Writer of Nonfiction Holocaust Material to End Antisemitism

How Accurate Should Jewish Historical Fiction Be?

I recently attended via Zoom a very engaging presentation entitled “The Power of Holocaust Literature: What Should I Read? What Should My Grandchildren Read?” by Dr. Miriam Klein Kassenoff, the director of the Holocaust Teacher Institute at the University of Miami.

Dr. Kassenoff recommended both nonfiction and fiction Holocaust books, and I agree with her that Holocaust historical fiction can be valuable reading in addition to reading nonfiction Holocaust books.

Yet I also believe that novelists have a duty to NOT invent plot points that can unnecessarily damage the reputation of a real person.

In the April 24, 2019, Kveller article by Emily Burack – “Why Is Holocaust Fiction Still So Popular?” — she states that Julie Orringer, in her 2019 Holocaust novel THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO based on the real-life savior Varian Fry, invents a lover for Varian Fry.

Burack writes (boldface mine):

By fictionalizing details (like Varian Fry’s lover that Orringer invents in The Flight Portfolio), it allows the reader to be in the moment with the characters. It allows them to understand the Holocaust not as something that happened long ago, but as something that happened to real people.

I admit that I do not see how inventing a lover “allows the reader to be in the moment with the characters.” And I feel strongly that inventing a lover for Fry is just wrong, especially after I recently read a nonfiction book about Varian Fry by Rosemary Sullivan – “VILLA AIR-BEL: WORLD WAR II, ESCAPE, AND A HOUSE IN MARSEILLE.”

Fry was married and he often wrote to his wife back in the U.S. He was an amazing savior of Jews and others trapped in Vichy France. Why smear this man’s reputation with an invented lover, especially when readers of historical fiction may easily assume this is true?

I especially question this decision by Orringer to give Fry a lover after reading this paragraph in Burack’s article:

Orringer said she wanted to tell Varian Fry’s story in The Flight Portfolio because “I want [readers] to know about how much difference a single person can make. I think that in the face of our country’s current official xenophobia, it’s easy for us to feel really disempowered. And I think a story like Varian Fry’s reminds us that despite our limitations, we can make a difference individually, and the difference we make can change hundreds or thousands of other lives.”

Non-Holocaust Jewish historical fiction:

After reading Alina Adams’ March 3, 2021, Kveller article “25 Years Before ‘Bridgerton,’ I Wrote the First Jewish Regency Romance,” I read her Regency romance* novel THE FICTITIOUS MARQUIS. Adams depicts a presumably Orthodox rabbi in London performing a marriage ceremony between a Jew and a non-Jew, a highly unlikely occurrence. There would have been other ways to express this particular plot point rather than mistakenly depicting an important Jewish ritual.

And other works of fiction:

Read my Times of Israel post “What to Do About Past Antisemitism Brought Forward to the Present?” for a discussion of re-issued books with antisemitic tropes left in the books and new plays using very Jewish names for unsavory fictional characters.

And here’s a form for reporting antisemitic tropes you find in books and plays.

*From Wikipedia: Regency romances are a subgenre of romance novels set during the period of the British Regency (1811–1820) or early 19th century.

About the Author
Phyllis Zimbler Miller is a Los-Angeles based writer who is the co-author of the Jewish holiday book SEASONS FOR CELEBRATION, the founder of the nonfiction Holocaust theater project and the co-host of the NEVER AGAIN IS NOW podcast about antisemitism --
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