It’s very early Friday morning, too early to read that this situation is back again. Here is an excellent post by bibliogato on a new book about a Jewish woman, a Nazi doctor, and romance.
I’ll just leave you the link and three quotes from Elie Wiesel.
“My greatest disappointment is that I believe that those of us who went through the war and tried to write about it, about their experience, became messengers. We have given the message, and nothing changed.”
“In the concentration camps, we discovered this whole universe where everyone had his place. The killer came to kill, and the victims came to die.”
“It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.”
I have struggled with this since I read this review on SBTB and this post on Jezebel. I posted a brief comment on BL about it but it didn’t feel like enough. Today I read another article about this book, this time a Newsweek article that featured the author explaining her motivation for writing this horror. And then I went looking for what others had to say and I found this by bibligato, K Locke.
I think she expresses it simply and eloquently.
You might not be aware but a few weeks ago, a book called For Such a Time by Kate Breslin was up for a RITA from the Romance Writers of America. It’s an Emmy or an Oscar of romance writing. The book was published in 2014 and I had personally never heard of it prior to reading the Smart Bitches review of it. That is what I’ve linked to as I’d rather not link to its Amazon or Goodreads profiles.
In short, the book is a retelling of the Book of Esther (a Jewish story about a strong Jewish woman, who saves her people, and keeps her faith, and is not a romance) in which a Nazi camp commander saves a Jewish woman from Dachau and takes her to Theresienstadt in then-Czechoslovakia. There, they fall in love, and through a magically appearing Bible, find Jesus, and save Jews. At the end, the woman converts to Christianity because that’s her redemption arc.
There are multiple factors at play here. First, the author, Kate Breslin, co-opted the horrific, unimaginable tragedy that happened within living memory to other people to promote her own agenda (evangelical/inspirational Christianity). Second, her agent, her publisher, and multiple RWA judges, not to mention the HUNDREDS of reviews on retail sies and Goodreads, did not think this was problematic. Third, the way we, across religions, have begun to approach the Holocaust is problematic and dangerous.
I could tell you about the microaggressions I experience as a Jewish woman regarding the Holocaust. I can tell you that people told me so often that I was “lucky” to have blonde hair blue eyed (like the heroine of Breslin’s book) because I “would have probably survived the Holocaust.” I began to adopt it as my own line, a way of deflecting the comment before it came. I can tell you that people have told me to “stop playing the Holocaust card.” And I can tell you that while I wish the Jewish national identity did not have to cling so tightly to its tragedies, it is a privilege the rest of you experience that you do not.
Over at Smart Bitches, the review is absolutely on point. Here, Rose Lerner goes through the problematic five star reviews of the book. Here, Smart Bitches’ Sarah Wendell wrote a brave and important open letter.
And I, KK Hendin, India Valentin, Dahlia Adler and others have been on Twitter. I’m adding my long form response here in hopes that Breslin, her publisher, RWA, the judges, and the readers and reviewers consider Jewish voices that they co-opted, stole from, offended, undermined and erased through the publication and award of this book.
In the book, the commander is the head of Theresienstadt. For those who don’t know, Theresienstadt was the ‘model camp’ used to show the Red Cross that things weren’t “so bad”. In reality, 140,000 people were interned there and just over 17,000 people survived it and the deportations to Auschwitz. The commander of that camp made people stand out in freezing temperatures until they literally dropped dead. He killed thousands of children. He oversaw the deportations to Auschwitz where a small percentage survived. He watched tens of thousands of people die of disease and starvation in his ‘model camp’. And Breslin, her publishers, her readers, and RWA judges found that person worthy of redemption. Not only worthy of, but exceptional. Romantic.
If that’s your definition of a romantic hero…I have no words for you. I didn’t realize that genocide turned so many people on, but there you go.
Part of this is the glorification of forgiveness and the idea that every person is redeemable. There was a good conversation I had on Twitter about this and I understand these are religious and fundamental differences between people. I don’t think mass genocide is a forgivable thing. Kate Breslin, her publishers, her readers, and RWA does.
Part of this is evangelical Christianity’s relationship with Jewish people (not with Judaism, let’s be clear) and Israel. Let’s be clear: we are people. We are not anyone’s tickets into heaven. We are not your Chosen people.
Part of this is that anti-Semitism in America wears many masks, and one of them is silence. It is as violent as the others. Silence is not neutrality. Silence allows, if not fosters, oppression, aggression, and erasure. If you are silent on this book, please take a moment to examine why you are silent.
In Kate Breslin’s book, there is an unequal power dynamic. There is no consent. What you are celebrating is rape, and it happened to many women during the Holocaust. He has all the power. She has none of it. Her life is in danger. She cannot consent in this case. That is rape. What happened is rape and rape is not romantic. And it’s certainly not inspirational.
What happened here is that Kate Breslin stole a tragedy that wasn’t hers to promote her own personal agenda. And in doing so, she contributed to the erasure of both victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Her book is anti-Semitic, violent, and dangerous. It glorifies and redeems a Nazi, while removing all of the Jewish woman’s agency and forcing her to convert to Christianity in order for her arc to be considered redemption. It is, in fact, exactly what has been done to the Jewish people throughout history. For longer than Christianity has been a religion, Jews across the world have been forced to convert or to hide their Judaism to save their lives. That is violence. That is erasure. Kate Breslin’s book is violence and erasure.
And as a Jewish woman who writes romance, I feel betrayed. Betrayed by my fellow romance readers. Betrayed by the people who published this. Betrayed by the judges who allowed it to get past the first round much less onto the ballot. Betrayed by the organization whose silence was support. Betrayed by everyone who has remained silent on this, who hasn’t called it out.
It is not easy to be Jewish in America. Many think it is because of stereotypes, but when push comes to shove, especially online, we turn toward our own and huddle close. It’s a collective memory safety measure. We have only ever been safest in communities made entirely of Jews. There are places in America where I am safer to say I am queer than I am Jewish. I talk more about queerness than Jewishness because of the backlash I’ve received for my Judaism. When discussions of diversity and racism come up, we are excluded.
But, as Justina Ireland and I were saying on Twitter yesterday, the Venn Diagram of racists and anti-Semites is a circle.
The discussion last night on Twitter was draining and exhausting. It is hard to shout about this for weeks. I admire Sarah so much for that open letter and my fellow Jewish writers and readers who were speaking up. I’m grateful for our allies who signal boosted.
I asked during the discussion when non-Jewish people learned about the Holocaust as I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know about it.
The responses were illuminating. Most people learned in late elementary school, some as late as high school and into college. Some learned in units during history or social science classes. But most learned because they read books like Devil’s Arithmetic, Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars in English/Language Arts classes. I worry that by teaching nonfiction right next to fiction, we’re subconsciously distancing the Holocaust from real life. From ‘truth’. That it’s being filed away in minds as fiction.
I know that the Holocaust is hard to wrap our heads around. 6 million Jews, and roughly 5-6 million other victims, including Roma, disabled people, gay people, political prisoners, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. That’s more people than any of us have ever seen standing in one place. That’s more people than live in New York City. That’s an incomprehensible number of lives and stories that went up in smoke. And there are more victims than we will ever know: there are mass graves and bodies all over the forests of Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, France. Not everyone made it to camps. I know this is hard to comprehend and I know that books and movies are increasingly our only access point for information about the Holocaust as survivors pass away.
But it’s alarming to me the number of people who learned late in life. Or who considered late elementary school to be early. For Jews, the Holocaust is something we carry with us everywhere. It is always with us. It informs our identity, our way of moving through the world, our holidays, our grandparents’ experiences, how we interact with food and triggers. My father won’t buy German cars. I won’t drink Fanta. There are ways the Holocaust lingers because it fundamentally changed Jewish identity, even in the wake of previous genocides and ethnic cleansings.
I am the granddaughter of a camp liberator. I am the great-granddaughter of pogrom survivors. I have stood on the edge of Babi Yar and wondered if the dirt beneath my feet was made from the bones of my relatives who died there.
The Holocaust is more than a single story. It is more than a book read in a classroom or Schnidler’s List. It is millions and millions and millions of stories extinguished. That we will never know. That’s what the Holocaust is. Not was, but is. History is present tense for some things.
Writing about the Holocaust is not something to do lightly.
As a white American, I wouldn’t touch a romance involving an African-American slave because there is no way—none—that I could handle that properly. Because you can research so many things, but you can’t research collective memory and the way that affects you personally. You can’t. I can’t access that certain empathy, that certain feeling, that way of being and feeling in a world that isn’t your own that I would need to in order to tell that story.
Just because you have the idea of a story doesn’t mean that you should, or have the right to, write it.
And if you decide to write about the Holocaust, and you are not Jewish, I recommend going to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Go slowly. Listen. Watch. Read. And when you get to the shoes, stand there until you realize that’s a fraction, maybe a 1/1000th, of the volume, from one camp. Just one camp.
When you write about another group’s tragedy, your goal should be First, do no harm. Kate Breslin, Bethany House publishers, her agent, the readers, the judges, and in allowing this to be nominated, Romance Writers of America, failed that critical first step.
Please, for the generations that come next who will have no survivors to speak to them, no survivors who saw evil walking around in leather boots and not in the pages of their books as romantic hero, do not do what Breslin and her people did. Do no harm.