SPEAKS ABOUT IMPORTANT ISSUES
FOR CHILDREN, TEENS AND YOUNG ADULTS
Choices in the
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
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
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.