Tuesday, April 19 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. The period of World War II has always interested me. I didn’t experience it, but I can read nonfiction works by and about people who did, or I can read novels that introduce me to new situations, people and emotions, all helping me understand, even a little, what it must have been like.
In the last year, I read a handful of books set during the Holocaust. I shared them with friends who enjoy good writing; these friends shared the titles with other friends. Now I’d like to offer three of them to you.
About the author Irene Nemirovosky, a New York Times reviewer said, “She wrote what may be the first work of fiction about what we now call World War II. She also wrote, for all to read at last, some of the greatest, most humane and incisive fiction that conflict has produced.”
This is a book that almost wasn’t published. Irene Nemirovsky was a Ukrainian Jew who had lived in France since 1919. She was arrested on July 13, 1942 by French policemen enforcing German race laws. Her crime was being a “stateless person of Jewish descent.” She was taken to Auschwitz where she died. Her husband Michael Epstein worked for her release from prison, but was shortly sent to Auschwitz where he died, too. Their daughter Denise was hidden and survived, along with a manuscript that she did not so much as read until the late 1990s.
Published in 2007, Suite Francaise features two novellas along with biographical information, including some correspondence by Michael Epstein as he sought information on his wife's whereabouts. It also includes Nemirovsky's plans for two other novellas which never were written.
What is chilling about this book is that so much of what Nemirovsky wrote must have been from first-hand observation. “Storm in June” recounts the experiences of a few people fleeing Paris as the Germans invade. She captures a full range of human responses — how, really, might you and your neighbors react to such circumstances? Sometimes it's not pretty. “Dolce” tells about the uneasy adjustments taking place in a small village under German control.
Knowing what happened to the author and her husband makes them all the more compelling.
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel
The fairy tale of a brother and sister lost in the forest is re-told with Poland as the backdrop. It’s near the end of the War. A Jewish brother and sister, renamed Hansel and Gretel by their parents, are hastily dropped off in a dense forest as their parents are being chased by the Nazis. The children wander around and happen upon the hut of an old woman (“the witch” she is called by the villagers). Magda takes them in, but is she a good witch, or a bad witch? I won’t divulge any more because I hope you’ll read it for yourself. As with all fairy tales, this story contains moments of beauty and horror.
The Book Thief
Australian Markus Zusak has written a highly imaginative story about a little girl growing up in Germany during the war. The book’s title refers to a nickname given to Liesel by her foster father. Though illiterate at the beginning of the story, Liesel is fascinated with books and her father teaches her to read. Liesel finds comfort in her books and gives comfort to the townspeople as she reads to them in a bomb shelter. She also gives comfort to Max, a young Jewish man her foster parents are protecting, with whom she forms a deep friendship. Zusak’s vivid writing shows the best and worst of humans, but this book really is heartwarming. It’s a sweet portrait of a little girl who keeps moving forward as everything around her falls apart.