The Holocaust as it is written

The Holocaust as it is written

For the JC, August 20 2021

Go into any bookshop, or cast an eye online, and there they will be — the scores of titles, fiction and non-fiction, all gathered together under one subject line — stories of the Holocaust.

There are up-coming films too, on TV and in cinemas, such as the defiantly gory The Champion of Auschwitz, The Guard of Auschwitz, or TV documentaries such as early August’s Big Sonia, and the forthcoming feature film Plan A. But most of all there is an overwhelming number of books, many following in the unexpected publishing success of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Published in 2018, this novelised version of a true story by Australian author Heather Morris was the biggest selling fiction book in 2019, selling more than three million copies world wide.

In its wake, came a range of books, some new, others re-issued and re-named.

The Twins of Auschwitz, The Librarian of Auschwitz, The Saboteur of Auschwitz, The Violinist of Auschwitz, The Sisters of Auschwitz, The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz, The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz, Auschwitz Lullaby, Escape from the Ghetto, The Volunteer. The covers often feature barbed wire, the entrance to Auschwitz, or railway lines.

In the next few weeks we have, among others, Lily’s Promise: How I survived Auschwitz and found the will to live, by London resident Lily Ebert and her great-grandson Dov Forman; The Dressmakers of Auschwitz by Lucy Adlington — a factual follow up to her Young Adult novel The Red Ribbon, telling the story of Jewish women who survived by designing and making clothes for elite Nazi women. There’s the non-fiction Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love, in which Rebecca Frankel tells the story of the Rabinowitz family who hid in the Bialowieza Forest. And in October Heather Morris unveils Three Sisters — “A breath-taking new novel in the Tattooist of Auschwitz story,” as publishers Bonnier describe it.

Many of these books are the result of years of painstaking research and win well-deserved awards. But how to sort the wheat from the chaff? The rise shows no signs of diminishing but it is almost impossible for the general, often uninformed, reader, to know what is accurate and what has been exaggerated to make a dramatic point.

Jonny Geller, chief executive of the Curtis Brown Group, is arguably Britain’s leading literary agent and has a unique view from the top of the slush pile as to trends in publishing. He says: “It’s definitely true that there is an upsurge of titles that have Auschwitz in the title or on the cover — and it is puzzling.

“But I think it is to do with the success of The Tattooist. Publishers follow trends. For years you couldn’t sell a Holocaust memoir or anything to do with Auschwitz, even in non-fiction. Suddenly publishers started to buy in that area. The thing about The Tattooist is that it allowed commercial fiction to enter that world.

“Now, I think — and this is the danger — it’s become a mini-genre, and you then get the whole ethical and moral problem, the use of the Holocaust as a plot device for novelists to exploit. But you can’t have it both ways. For years nobody wanted to talk about it, and now I would say there’s probably too many”.

As a Jewish literary agent, Geller says, he has been somewhat reticent to enter this arena, but he is about to represent journalist, author and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland with a new non-fiction book about Rudolf Vrba, who escaped Auschwitz. “That was a decision to go into this area. There are ways to do this. On one hand, there is now an opportunity for people to write memoirs and tell their stories; but it is difficult to know what there is of quality to read”. Where Geller is unhappy, is if there is a book in which the Holocaust has been used as a plot device and is inaccurate in its depiction. “You can’t afford to make mistakes in this area”.

He adds: “There is a big responsibility [to get things right], but the trouble is that publishers now see a market. But as long as you publish with integrity, I’m comfortable”.

Claudia Rubenstein is director of Jewish Book Week, which takes place annually in February and March. When she is planning the festival, she says, “the most common word in the titles of books that land on my desk is ‘Auschwitz’”.

Why do people read these books, and why is there such a huge appetite for them beyond the Jewish audience, which could not sustain such a market on its own?

Rubenstein has several theories. “Some will read them to acquire knowledge, as the curious reader would collect information on any historical period. But this doesn’t account for why these books are such huge sellers. Perhaps it’s this — we have a fascination with evil, and if we accept that Auschwitz has become the universal symbol of evil, we can at least partially understand why people read them”.

She adds: “But this begs the question of whether or not an author writing their historical novel set in Auschwitz has a greater responsibility to their readers, almost a sacred trust, to ensure their facts are watertight; when we commercialise and fictionalise the Shoah, there’s a danger that we demean it”.

Some of what she sees is good, Rubinstein says, “but some is unbelievably bad, and makes my hackles rise.” Undoubtedly, she says, “some of the material is prurient”.

Another part of the genre is “survivor testimony”, which she thinks sells “because people are interested to know what happened in the worst place on earth”. She’s seen much more of this recently, almost certainly because of the current age of survivors and their aim to get their testimony out before they die.

Caroline Sanderson, associate editor of The Bookseller, agrees. “Perhaps what’s driving it is the diminishing numbers of survivors who are left. They have to be able to tell their stories. Actually, it always astonishes me just how many stories are still coming out, 70 plus years onwards, and there are still all these extraordinary stories that we haven’t heard. I suppose that goes with the whole scale of the Holocaust”.

There is, believes Sanderson, “a perennial fascination with stories of resilience and survival against the odds”. She makes a distinction between the approaches of fiction and non-fiction writers. She praises books such as Philippe Sands’ 2016 East West Street: On the Origins of Genocideand Crimes Against Humanity, which looks at the lives of two Jewish lawyers, one of whom, Raphael Lemkin, actually coined the word “genocide”. For Sanderson, “that was an amazing, thought-provoking and revelatory way to write about events which have been written about many times before”.

Marc Cave is the chief executive of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum near Nottingham, Beth Shalom, and has trenchant views on what this upsurge in Holocaust-related fiction does to actual Holocaust education, such as that provided by the centre.

He says: “Publishing houses, presumably, are jumping on the same bandwagon after the success of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Generally, I think, that’s bad, because they are reinforcing the same narrow range of examples as to what the Holocaust was”. Cave believes there is a tendency among younger people to “fetishise” the Holocaust, “which is not great for Holocaust memory and accurate learning”. He gives as an example “on Tik-Tok, during lockdown, a huge amount of American kids, acting out the roles of Holocaust victims in heaven. It all went viral, and it was unbelievably naive, narcissistic young people —really quite cringe-making. I don’t think it was intended to be disrespectful, but when they really have no idea of what the Holocaust was, then it immediately trivialises it”.

His primary concern as to the effect of the vast amount of Holocaust fiction is what he calls “Holocaust distortion, as opposed to denial. There will always be the cranks, the deluded. But Holocaust distortion is a real problem, subverting or recontextualising what the facts are, making the facts to be much less rich in detail or nuanced than they are”.
Cave reserves much of his anger for “Holocaust distortion” with those who repeatedly draw Nazi comparisons with present day Israel.

“If you think, no matter how extremely Corbynite you are, that Gaza is worse than what the Nazis did, you have no idea what the Holocaust was, and you are demeaning it and insulting the memory of the perished”.

He is particularly irate about “the most notorious book and film of all, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas”, which he calls “Holocaust distortion. That is pretending about things, and it is awful”. Irish novelist John Boyne’s ‘fable’ for children pre-dated The Tattooist of Auschwitz by more than a decade. Published in 2006, it has sold more than 7 million copies worldwide, and been made into a film and a ballet. It has been widely criticised for its historical inaccuracies, and for making the child of a Nazi commander who strays into a concentration camp, and then the gas chambers, the emotional focus of the story.

Cave is contemptuous of the rise in fiction about Auschwitz, saying “it diminishes our accurate memory of the Holocaust. Although Auschwitz-Birkenau was the biggest, there were five other death camps; there were camps outside Poland and Germany, and the Holocaust happened in 22 European states. It wasn’t just a few evil geniuses in Hugo Boss-designed swanky military uniform. It was tens of millions of ordinary citizens who helped to make the Holocaust happen, and that is the biggest downside of focusing all this fiction on Auschwitz, and Auschwitz alone.”

And he is concerned about the “massive misconceptions” and “unrealistic expectations” of visitors to the Beth Shalom centre, who have been fed “Disneyfication” of the Holocaust and are then confronted with all too grim realities.

Holocaust fiction is not going away any time soon, it is evident; but perhaps publishers should be encouraged not merely to churn out “lookalike” books, but to focus on the genuine, true and fascinating stories of genocide. Plainly, there are still many of these which remain untold.

  • 20 August, 2021