Part I of II: Recommended Reads from Dr. Frank Felsenstein

In part one of this recommended reads post, Dr. Frank Felsenstein reviews books he considered for two holocaust-themed courses he taught, discussing which titles proved to be the most enriching and inspiring, and which titles might have missed the mark.

Remembering the Holocaust

During the spring semester of 2014, I taught two classes – ENG 402/2 and HONORS 390B – on the theme of “Remembering the Holocaust.” This was probably the fifth or sixth time that I have taught this class, and, because of the nature of the subject matter and the emotional impact, it is a class that I would only elect to teach at most every two years or, shall we say, eighteen month at the shortest.

Krystyna Chiger’s The Girl in the Green Sweater

Several texts appeared on my syllabus for the first time this spring, and the last one we read and discussed in class, Krystyna Chiger’s The Girl in the Green Sweater, a memoir published as recently as 2011, greatly appealed to the students in both groups. Chiger is the last living survivor of a small group of Jews, including her parents and younger brother, who hid from the Nazis for over a year in the sewers of Lvov (Lemberg), now part of Ukraine. Their survival was made possible by the courage of a gentile sewer worker, Pan [Mr.] Leopold Socha, who smuggled food and other necessities to them. Pan Socha had been a petty thief, and, on paper, would not have seemed the kind of person who would be willing to challenge the authorities by saving the lives of Jews. Had he been caught – and several times he nearly was – the punishment would have been instant death.

Agnieska Holland’s, In Darkness

The Polish film maker, Agnieska Holland, made a remarkable film, called In Darkness (2011), which tells the same remarkable story. Curiously, she did not know that Krystyna was still alive when she made the film, and the two met shortly after. A copy of the film, which has as additional material the wonderful moment of meeting between the two women, is in Bracken, and it’s well worth watching. It may also draw you to the book.

Ronald H. Balson’s Once We Were Brothers 

I began by announcing that I would write about some of the books that I’ve recently read outside the classroom. Two of them – both fictive — are Holocaust related, and were possible candidates for inclusion in the class. I’m so glad I opted for neither. The first of these, Ronald H. Balson’s Once We Were Brothers (2013) strikes me as a clunker. An elderly Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, living in Chicago sees on television an honored philanthropist from the same city, and recognizes him as an adopted gentile brother, who had turned against his family after the Nazis conquered Poland, bringing about their destruction. The plot turns on convincing the authorities that the “brother” was, in fact, a brutal collaborator with the Nazis, but it is told almost exclusively as the narration of the elderly survivor, which is interrupted by cups of tea with his female lawyer and her male admirer. Too often it reads as a history lesson desperately endeavoring to see itself as a potential movie script. A worthy book but not a great one!

Anna Funder’s All That I Am

The second Holocaust related book that I completed reading but was thankful that I did not choose as a course text is Anna Funder’s All That I Am (2011), a novel that received praise – according to the dust jacket — from Ann Patchett, a writer whose work I greatly admire. Funder is the author of Stasiland, but (as with Balson) this is her first full-length novel. It tells the story of a group of left-wing and Communist thinkers and writers who are hounded from Germany with the advent of the Third Reich. Many of them are killed by Gestapo agents. As a piece of history, it tells a story that is often less than familiar, with the main narrators – Ernst Toller and Ruth Becker Wesemann – created from real people. In an afterword, Funder acknowledges that “the plot of the novel, the relationships between the characters and their interior lives are all invented,” but claims simultaneously that “many of the events depicted actually happened.” The problem for the reader is that it remains difficult through most of the novel to distinguish between fiction and fact. Equally, the two narratorial voices jump too easily between past (actually various pasts!) and present, which is very confusing. Patchett describes it as “a moving and ambitious novel,” and I would not argue against that, except with the proviso that I was rarely engaged in reading it, and had to push myself to finish the work.

David King’s Death in the City of Light

However, a Holocaust related, non fiction book that I found totally compelling, though also quite chilling, is David King’s Death in the City of Light (2012), which tells the story of Dr. Marcel Petiot, a brutal serial killer, who, posing as a member of the French resistance, took money from Jewish escapees with the promise that he would smuggle them out of Paris to freedom. He told them that he needed to put them under a temporary narcotic so that they would remain silent while he concealed them in the trunk of his car for the purpose of escape, but he dosed them with cyanide, sometimes also torturing his victims prior to killing them. The grisly remains of many of those he murdered were found in his consulting rooms, often decapitated and with their bodies half burned. After the war, he was put on trial, but claimed he was working against the Nazis, and those corpses were the remains of enemy agents that he had killed. A long trial led to his conviction and hanging as a traitor and Nazi collaborator. For me, his story was particularly gruesome as one of his first victims, Rachel Wolff, was my great aunt, a sister of my paternal grandmother. This is an important book to read if only as a terrifying demonstration of man’s inhumanity to man. It reminds us that the likes of Leopold Socha were the exception under the Nazi regime within which evil men and women so often had free reign.

Reading/Viewing list

Balson, Ronald H.. Once We Were Brothers. : Thorndike Press, 2013. Print.

Chiger, Krystyna, and Daniel Paisner. The girl in the green sweater: a life in Holocaust’s shadow. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008. Print.

Funder, Anna. Stasiland. London: Granta, 2003. Print.

Funder, Anna. All that I am: a novel. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.

In darkness. Dir. Agnieszka Holland. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2012. Film.

King, David. Death in the city of light: the serial killer of Nazi-occupied Paris. New York: Crown, 2011. Print.

Stay tuned for more recommendations from Dr. Felsenstein. 

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