By Symi Rom-Rymer
January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by Soviet troops. In 2005, 60 years after the liberation, the United Nations General Assembly designated that date International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As many have said before, the Holocaust is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone recreate in such a way so that others might understand. Nevertheless, every year a new crop of novelists, memoirists, and academics pour their emotions, research and analysis into works that aim to shed new light on the well-worn subject.
In commemoration of this day, I have compiled a short list of recent books about the Holocaust that I have found particularly compelling. These works, both fiction and nonfiction, successfully face the daunting task of retelling or challenging our views on the history that seems so familiar and yet, for most of us, so alien. This is not meant to be a comprehensive catalog, but rather the spark for a longer list and deeper discussion. I encourage each of you to add your own thoughts and suggestions of additional books in the comments section.
Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945, by Gunnar S. Paulsson
In Secret City, Gunnar Paulsson, former Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, takes his readers into a subject beset by myths and often left unexplored by most historians: The underground life of Jewish Poles in Warsaw during the war. Using diaries, memoirs, records of Jewish and Polish organizations that helped fugitives, and testimonies, he demonstrates how 28,000 Polish Jews, out of roughly 380,000, were able to escape the ghetto and hide in Warsaw itself with the help of converted Jewish and Polish families. In contrast to traditional assumptions, he argues that many more Poles helped rather than hindered Jews to escape and how many Jews with even just one Polish friend had an avenue for escape. According to his calculations, more than 11,000 Jews survived the war in Warsaw. Written academically, Secret City is not a quick read. But its careful use of sources, statistics, and strong narrative voice makes a compelling argument for this new understanding of the Jewish experience in wartime Warsaw.
The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer
Named one of the New York Times’ best 100 books of 2010, Julie Orringer’s epic novel sweeps readers into her world and refuses to let go. Andras Lévi, a brilliant architectural student whose departure for architecture school in Paris in the late 1930s unleashes the plot. Unlike most Holocaust novel protagonists, Lévi is neither from Western Europe nor from an East European shtetl. He is an educated, cosmopolitan Hungarian Jew who, like many of his era, sought a better life for himself elsewhere in Europe. Orringer refreshingly breaks with convention further by choosing Hungary as Lévi’s point of origin. The story of Hungary’s Jews is a less familiar one to the American and Western European public (see our post Jewish Ghosts of Budapest) and by placing the novel in Hungary, she avoids the traditional Holocaust progression: home, ghetto, concentration camp. While no less cataclysmic, readers are offered an opportunity to revisit the era through Lévi, through a more unusual lens. The Invisible Bridge may be 600 pages long and ultimately tragic but Orringer populates her story with such vivid personalities and so evocatively recreates the atmosphere of interwar and wartime Paris and Budapest that the characters haunt you long after the book is closed.
The Pages In Between, by Erin Einhorn
“I was always loved,” was Erin Einhorn’s mother’s standard response about her experience during the Holocaust. Left in the care of a Polish couple as a baby, she grew up never knowing stability and peace. Whisked away to the United States after the war by a father she barely knew, she clung to her rose-tinted vision of her childhood through most of her life. Einhorn’s narrative tries to break through that vision and discover what really happened to her mother, and to her mother’s protectors, during the war. In an attempt to reconnect with the family who saved her mother from the Holocaust, Einhorn travels to Poland only to find the situation much more complicated than she anticipated. She gets sucked into to a protracted legal battle over the ownership of the apartment building where the elderly son of the family who saved her mother still lives. But this is not only a memoir about retracing the steps of a Holocaust survivor. This is also about how each generation tries to make sense of its family’s Holocaust legacy on their own terms. While Einhorn confronts the anti-Semitic attitudes she was brought up to expect, she also discovers, and becomes friends with, young Poles who are deeply interested in Judaism and Jewish culture. One of them even ends up converting to Judaism. Einhorn is respectful of her mother’s experiences, but at the same time she insists on confronting the country, and its personally difficult legacy, from her own perspective. For many American Jews, Poland and Polish attitudes towards Jews remain frozen in time. This engaging and thought-provoking memoir brings us up to date and shows just how multi-layered the story truly is.