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Choices in the Holocaust

Today we are discussing if anything positive or hopeful can survive in the midst of such supreme hatred and evil. It's an interesting topic for me, especially in the light of how my Holocaust writing began. So let me start at the beginning with Lisa's War and tell you how I came to write on this topic at all.

The first four books I ever wrote were science fiction. They were about a young girl who traveled to different futures and soon discovered that her actions in the present reverberated far into the future. The theme of all these books was that one person can make a difference. While l I was still working on this series, my husband got a job running a Jewish theater in Montreal and his office was in the Jewish community center. When an exhibit arrived at the center about the Holocaust he began to tell me about the experiences of his father during World War Two. My husband is Danish and his father was 12 years old when the Germans invaded Denmark. Olaf, my father in law, immediately started working for the resistance, as did his father. I won't go into all those stories now although they are amazing and fascinating and terrifying, but I quickly decided that I would like to write his story. At the same time a friend gave us a book called Rescue in Denmark. This was the remarkable story of how the people of Denmark saved their Jewish population from the Nazis.

I, of course, being Jewish, had been taught about the Holocaust from an early age. In fact, and I will speak more about this later, I am sure that is why I didn't believe in God. How could God allow such horrors to happen? The Holocaust became a topic to be avoided at all cost because it was too upsetting to contemplate. And yet, I had never been taught the story of what had happened in Denmark. Unlike most of the populations of the other European countries, the Danish people risked their lives and managed to save almost their entire Jewish population. When I read this book I was stunned. I could not believe that although I had been to Hebrew school and taught about the Holocaust, no one had ever mentioned this important chapter. I realized that if I were ignorant of the story so would most young people be ignorant of it as well. I knew I had to tell the story. I wrote Lisa's War as a way to say to young people everywhere, it did not have to happen the way it did, it was not inevitable, there were people who were good and who valued the good above everything. So my first foray into World War Two writing was to write about the positive and the brave and the good. Still, when I finished those books I had no intention of writing anything more about World War Two or the Holocaust.

It was then I was asked to write Daniel's Story for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. It's a strange thing because although I had been avoiding the topic my entire life, I did not hesitate to say yes when I received the invitation to write this book. Soon I was deep into the research. I cried every day. I became so depressed that I came to believe that the world did not deserve to exist. The evil and barbarity were so overwhelming it was hard to comprehend that people, not monsters, were carrying it out. It was when I was at my lowest point I suddenly came to a startling realization. It occurred to me that I was being no better than the Nazis —declaring that humanity did not deserve to carry on, just as the Nazis declared that certain parts of humanity, did not deserve to exist.

For those of you that have read Daniel's Story you will see my revelation expressed by Erica when she talks to Daniel and Rosa. She scolds Daniel for declaring the human race should be wiped out in a flood. She asks who he is to make such a statement and reminds him that we have no choice in the matter. We are alive, we are on this earth, and the only choice we have is whether to make the world a better place or not. We can choose love or we can choose fear and hatred. And in the dire situation that they found themselves in often the only choice people had was whether they would live in love or in fear and whether they would die keeping love in their hearts or whether they would die full of hatred and bitterness. They could not choose whether to live or die but they could choose what was in their heart. No one could take that away from them.

I would not call this hope as stated by the question for this panel. I don't think that word fits with the Holocaust. They did not hope to be saved, they did not hope that the Nazis would suddenly become good. But many understood that their fundamental choice between love and hate was theirs and theirs alone. This is the message that I wanted to express in this book. In one way or another it is the message I always tell. We're constantly choosing and we must be conscious of our choices. So often young people are unaware that they're making choices or that they're capable of making choices. I want to make them aware that choice is everything.

Funnily enough rather than propelling me into the void of hopelessness writing Daniel's Story and confronting the very horrors that I had been trying to avoid for so long gave me back my faith. I realized that we have been put on this earth and that it is up to us to make the world a place of love and understanding.

My latest book on the Holocaust, In My Enemy's House, poses a more complex and difficult question. Here I try to explore the nature of the evil and the hatred, which sprang from Nazi Germany. By developing characters who are Nazis, I look inside them and to my surprise find that they are human too, that they are full of good qualities. The family that Marisa stays with has no qualms about the wholesale murder of Jews, and yet they love each other dearly and learn to love Marisa. Of course, they do not know she is Jewish and she knows that if they did know, they would kill her with no more thought than putting down a rabid dog. And yet despite this, she becomes fond of them.

When I was doing interviews for this book one woman told me a story similar to this. She had lived with a Nazi family, they had been very kind to her, and when the war was over she could not bear to tell that she was Jewish because she didn't want to hurt their feelings. This is a puzzling story and one that is hard to understand. And in a way my book is an investigation of her story. I imagined such a situation and how my character might react.

Somewhere inside Marisa she was able to connect to what was still good in the Nazis to what some might call the soul. In a dream her Papa says to her, "…we are all part of God. Even those Nazis you are living with. Doesn't each of them have a spark of the divine? Doesn't each of them have a soul? That is what you must see when you see them, not the rest. Don't be confused. It's simple."

Earlier Marisa reminds herself of Shmuel's words, "Keep love in your heart Marisa not hate." But Marisa does not know how she can love those that would willingly kill her if they knew the truth. And yet, they do love her. She remembers a line from Ezekiel: I will take away the stony heart and I will give you a heart of flesh. Originally the title for this book had been The Stony Heart. In a way that is the symbol for me of this book — Marisa's ability to choose love in the end over hatred.

When I go to schools and talk about my books I have found In My Enemy's House to be the book that has generated the most spirited discussions with the students. I read them the passage where Marisa meets the children of the Nazi officer for the first time and watches as they play a board game called Jews Out. One of the children describes what happened to the Jews of their village. I then lead them in a discussion of how racism develops and what kind of prejudice they have to deal with daily, from wearing the right clothes and having the right looks to the color of one's skin. We talk about a society based on the premise that we are in constant competition to be the best, or better than others - whether it's our football team that's better than theirs, or we are considered better because of grades, or looks…after all, wasn't Hitler's entire rationale that some people were intrinsically better than others? And don't we encourage that way of thinking in so many facets if our lives? That doesn't mean that some people don't have special talents, but it does mean that just because of that they are no better than other people. The problem of bullying is of course a direct off shoot of this kind of power game. The students understand right away that this book is not only about a war 50 years ago, it is also about today.

Historical fiction is not relevant if it tells us nothing about today. We need to tell these stories, not only to give the dead a voice that has been silenced, but to illuminate our lives so that our world becomes a better place.

This speech was delivered to the International Reading Association.

Why are People So Afraid?

Why are people so fearful when dealing with children's literature? My three books, The Primrose Path, about a rabbi who is a charismatic leader who abuses his power, Sworn Enemies, about conscription of Jews in Tzarist Russia, and Daniel's Story, about a young Jewish boy's experience of the Holocaust, all have one thing in common. At various times and places teachers and parents were reluctant to let their children read them.

The largest, most compelling factor in adults' fear is their children's supposed innocence. Twelve thousand Ontario children voted Daniel's Story their favorite book and awarded it the Silver Birch Award. At the award ceremony the adults expressed how pleased they were, but more so, how shocked they were. There seemed to be a genuine chasm between what adults thought children would like and what they did like. One parent approached me and told me that she read Daniel's Story and found it so moving and true and yet she desperately wanted to keep it from her eleven-year-old child. He was too innocent. He shouldn't know about these things. Maybe when he's older.

I mentioned this to my then fourteen-year-old son, Sam. His response? There's no way to "work up to" the Holocaust. I can't put it better. Not only is there no easy way to tell this story, adults should not be afraid of children hearing it. Why not?

Well, first, because children already know evil. They are not innocent. They don't live in a perfect world. They deal with bullies, violence, lies and often violence at home or school all the time. If everyone pretends their lives don't include these things, children are left to deal with it all alone.

Secondly, ignorance is not bliss. If children don't learn what racism and hatred can produce, aren't they doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

What do the letters I get from children say? Thank you for telling me about what happened in the war. It made me sad. We all have to be sure it never happens again. I didn't know. Thank you for telling me.

Sworn Enemies was banned by a Jewish school trustee in Ontario because she felt it portrayed minorities in a bad light. Fortunately her decision was overturned and the same week the Association of Jewish Librarians gave the book the Sydney Taylor Award for the best book of the year. In fact, Zev is a pretty awful guy. So does that mean that it is unacceptable to portray Jews in a negative way?

The answer is "yes," according to some who respond with horror to The Primrose Path. My own nephew argued with me that people reading it would naturally assume that all rabbis are pedophiles. I can understand the panic. Jews have been persecuted; we are paranoid for good reason; six million killed is not a fantasy. The question is, should that silence us? It seems to me that an author's first job is to be honest. If we Jews are to be a light unto nations we must not shy away from our own darkness. If I had made the rabbi a priest, as so many people suggested, what would that have said? It would have said to every Jewish child who has been abused, "No, it didn't happen to you, Jews don't abuse their children (beat their wives, or drink, or gamble), so don't talk about it, don't tell."

The proponents of not upsetting children ought to consider this: Wouldn't they be far more upset if children became unwitting victims of abuse because no one had ever discussed the issues with them, because they are kept in ignorance and therefore are easy prey?

Fear about my books is not confined to their effect on children. At a Winnipeg synagogue, the Sisterhood took it upon themselves to cancel my invitation to speak to the interfaith luncheon. Apparently they had decided that The Primrose Path too closely paralleled a case in Winnipeg, and that if I spoke the synagogue would be sued by the person (rabbi) everyone assumes the book is about. Everyone living in Winnipeg, that is. In Montreal a woman assured me that she knew the book was really about the choirmaster in Kingston who was accused and convicted of molesting children. In Toronto it was obvious that the book was about a teacher in the Jewish school system who had been accused then fired, but never charged. In Edmonton…well, you get the idea. Which makes me feel I've done my job well, because everyone can see someone or some case they know in the book.

Although The Primrose Path received excellent reviews and children loved it when given the chance to read it, no U.S. publisher would touch it, afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism. And in Canada you would be hard pressed to find it in any Jewish day school. The good news—it is available in almost all public school libraries.

As a Jew, I would hate to see our discourse narrowed by fear. I am trying to expand the discourse. For those who want to leave children out of it, they will have to do so without me. 

This essay was printed  in the US magazine, Lilith. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Prairie Fire.

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Copyright Carol Matas. All rights reserved.



Copyright 2016 Carol Matas. All rights reserved.