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YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel

Messages from Holocaust Books

What Message do Holocaust Books and Memorials Send?

The number of books and memorials dedicated to the Holocaust now reach into the thousands with hundreds more to come. What lessons do we as take away from these tangible testaments to the brutal events of the past? Do they serve to fuel hate against the collective perpetrators of evil, or as warnings to never give in to hatred? Do they fill us with despair, or with hope for the future of humanity? 

A review of four novels and a memoir may help to tease out the answer.   
Children and Fire, Ursula Hegi’s compelling novel, makes it clear that ordinary Germans were both complicit in, and themselves victims of the Nazi regime. It is the touching story of Thekla, a young teacher with a loving heart and a guilty conscience, during 1930s Germany, and her remorseless struggle to guide the boys under her care while the Nazi propaganda machine keeps forcing her to compromise her moral integrity. At a deeper level, Hegi uses Thekla to ask complex questions about personal courage that all of us must confront in times of deep crises.
 
Reading Erik Larson’s In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, sent shivers of recognition down my spine. It has been observed that for evil to win all that needs happen is for good men to do nothing. That was what the United States government did, at least officially, for much of the lead-up to World War II. Too often they ignored opportunities to speak out and try to stop the atrocities that were engulfing Germany until it was too late. Too many times our own response to a crisis is to do nothing.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusack shows a side of the war that most of us don't often consider: the life of poor Liesel, a German girl growing up in the vicious environment of the German Reich. Liesel lives with foster parents, a normal German family, that does not hate Jews and is trying to scrape by in a country at war. One of the striking things about this novel is that the narrator is Death. Who would think that a story narrated by Death, told in the time of Nazi Germany, would offer so much hope, bravery, and courage? 

When I came across a review of The Hare with the Amber Eyes: a Hidden inheritance, by Edmund de Waal, it struck me how similar the book’s premise is to my historical novel, The Nine Inheritors: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Family and Their Ancient Torah Scroll. Although de Waal’s book is non fiction, both books weave together a family’s personal history with their priceless inheritance; both trace the journey of the family and its inheritance against the backdrop of tumultuous and brutal historical events; both travel across time and continents; both ask questions about identity, about who we are and the stories we tell our children; and both tell the story of Jewish family, with roots in Eastern Europe. When De Waal inherits a collection of netsuke, exquisite Japanese miniature carvings, he becomes fascinated their journey through generations of the remarkable Ephrussi family. The Ephrussi were a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking dynasty centered in Odessa, Vienna, Paris, and London, and were peers of the Rothchild family. The netsuke were acquired by Charles Ephrussi, scion of the Jewish banking family, from a dealer in Paris, in the 1870s— a relative of de Waal’s great grandfather. In March 1938, the Ephrussi home was invaded by men in swastika armbands. Only the netsuke miraculously survive from the once vast Ephrussi collections of paintings, and antiques. As in The Nine Inheritors, the threads of history are inextricably woven into the story, tracing the rise of the antisemitism which led to the Holocaust. Such stories grow every day more vital with the passing of time.

To answer the question posed at the beginning, do these books serve to fuel hate against the collective perpetrators of evil, or as warning to never give in to hatred? In balance Do they fill us with despair, or with hope for the future of humanity?  I believe that well-written, well-researched books about the Holocaust provide real insight into how ordinary people—like ourselves, our family, our friends and neighbors can easily be caught in a vicious web of deceit and destruction—if we are not vigilant. These stories become more important with the passing of time, because they goad us, inspire us, to have the courage and integrity to speak out before it is to late. 

Send Comments to Claire Datnow: cldatnow@me.com