It has been said many times: Auschwitz defies any and all attempts to write about it. Even firsthand witnesses have admitted to this breakdown of language. “I cannot tell you how I felt. It is impossible to put into words how I felt.” This, from Moshe Offer, a survivor of Auschwitz, whose entire family, including his twin brother, did not survive.
Of course, there have been countless memoirs by Auschwitz survivors, not to mention vast libraries of videotaped testimonies. Fictional Holocaust narratives appear almost daily, it seems. But right now, we are poised on a particular threshold of history, this period in which those who lived through the Holocaust and therefore know the inside of hell — now they are dying.
So how can the true stories be retained beyond the voices of those who witnessed and endured the nightmare? Now that grandchildren of survivors are (necessarily) taking on the stories of their grandparents, the memories and silences, how do we practice fidelity to what can and cannot be described? Furthermore, what is the role of “artistic license”?
As for the notoriously sadistic doctor Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death at Auschwitz and his infamous “twin experiments”: What happens when an author dares to climb inside the cage of the brutalized children, the terrorized and nearly destroyed minds of the victims, this suffering that eludes words?
One danger lies in the exploitation of horror, the artifice involved in a novelist’s straining toward language, attempting to prove its vividness in the face of extremity. The result, in the case of “Mischling,” by Affinity Konar, is a failure of honesty, a failure (dare I say) of humility. Instead, we see the writer pointing toward herself: Look at me depict inhumanity with metaphors I’ve invented, with imagery I’ve struggled to wring from a reality out of reach.
Trouble begins with overwrought sentences on Page 1:
“We were made, once. My twin, Pearl, and me. Or, to be precise, Pearl was formed and I split from her. She embossed herself on the womb; I copied her signature. For eight months we were afloat in amniotic snowfall, two rosy mittens resting on the lining of our mother. I couldn’t imagine anything grander than the womb we shared, but after the scaffolds of our brains were ivoried and our spleens were complete, Pearl wanted to see the world beyond us. And so, with newborn pluck, she spat herself out of our mother.”
Although there are plenty of lucid images throughout the novel, there are too many others that approach near-meaninglessness:
“But when I looked into my sister’s thoughts these days, I found them much altered. Where that peaceable island had once been there was new, unmapped territory, a realm where the chromosome held court and cells divided in reverie and the prospect of mutation was comfort, rescue, and the means to vengeance.”
Later, we are given this:
“And so her kindness and generosity were cons, double-dealers; they skulked about, disguised as flaws — and then, suddenly, when you weren’t looking, her tricks trespassed and broke inside you so that they could steal from you, bit by bit, until you hosted an emptiness in which your real goodness could thrive. In this way, she saved you.”
To her credit, Konar has acknowledged that she felt daunted by her subject: “Who am I to contribute to this conversation?” she said while interviewed at BookExpo America this year. “I absorbed the sort of warning that this story is best left to people who have the experience to tell it. But there is always going to be something to learn from it. I feel like the pain from it is so endless that the stories should be endless, too.”
And so, the author researched as well as imagined a pair of twin girls, age 12, arriving at Auschwitz and immediately being “selected” by Mengele to become part of his “zoo.” The novel’s chapters alternate between these twins, Pearl and Stasha, following their surreal journey through physical as well as psychological torture, sometimes shared but more often distinctly divergent.
Konar has also admitted: “There were so many real experiments I chose not to include in the book because they almost felt like a violation. If survivors themselves won’t speak of these things, I won’t either.”
But what shall we make of her using a line from this devastating poem by Holocaust survivor Dan Pagis? Here is the poem, titled “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-car,” in its entirety:
here in this carload I am eve with abel my son if you see my other son cain son of man tell him that I
Konar “borrows” this final line for a scene in which a “Zoo” survivor writes down what he heard a captive twin say, what may have been her final words. He writes with “the stub of a pencil.”
“Tell my sister that I”
Artifice, of course, is what novels are made of, and gifted novelists can provide a lens for seeing into what otherwise might not be seen. Writers research and writers borrow. Inscrutability is not the answer to the preservation of Holocaust history, nor is silence. It’s clear that lyricism can be elemental to the survivor’s vocabulary.
Consider Zdena Berger, a concentration camp survivor whose exquisite autobiographical novel “Tell Me Another Morning” should be mandatory reading for everyone. Berger interweaves beauty with horror; her work is emotionally searing yet devoid of vanity. You could say that’s how any one of us might hope to stay alive, how any of us might hope to write.
Elizabeth Rosner is the author of three novels, most recently “Electric City.” Email: