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Books Why I stopped reading – and came back to – books about the Second World War

My parents had survived the Holocaust. Anne Frank, like my grandparents and most of the rest of my family, had not. Perhaps for that reason, needing to know about my own history, I began, after finishing Anne's diary, to read anything I could get my hands on about 'the War.'

Ken Steacy/The Globe and Mail

The thrill of the invitation, after a lifetime of reading novels, to finally join a book club was immediately tempered by the announcement of the inaugural selection. The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

I was out.

Heather Morris’s novel, based on a true story about a Jewish prisoner forced to tattoo Auschwitz arrivals – one of whom he falls in love with – is a huge international bestseller. Can a gazillion readers be wrong? Maybe not, but I couldn’t do Holocaust literature anymore.

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I write this as a former Holocaust-lit obsessive, a habit that began, unsurprisingly, with The Diary of a Young Girl. But reading Anne Frank’s diary was different for me than it was for the other kids. It was impossible not to put myself in Anne’s shoes. Because my parents had survived the Holocaust. And Anne, like my grandparents and most of the rest of my family, had not. Perhaps for that reason, needing to know about my own history, I began, after Anne, to read anything I could get my hands on about “the War,” the shorthand used in our house. This was not difficult, as our bookshelves were lined with cheery offerings such as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, The Longest Day about D-Day, and Mila 18, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. (My dad was in a war book-of-the-month club.) I continued the family tradition of Holocaust obsession well into adulthood, devouring memoirs, novels and the odd reference book.

My obsession came to an abrupt halt in 2010, thanks to a magnificent book – Ontario author Alison Pick’s Far to Go. The characters in this novel, a Jewish family in pre-Second World War Czechoslovakia, were drawn so vividly they felt absolutely real. And the sentences were so perfect, I would stop and read them out loud. It won awards and made the Man Booker Prize longlist. But reading this novel – about a persecuted and traumatized little boy – as the mother of a then-two-year old boy myself, was excruciating. In my imagination, my son was now in those tragic shoes. I stopped reading these books altogether. I couldn’t take the details of the intensifying persecution - the humiliation, the starvation, the separation, the murders – knowing that my family had suffered this way and that my child would suffer this way, too, if it happened today.

Guilt being one of my specialties, however, I felt rotten. We say “never again” and I take that responsibility seriously. Never again should this happen – to anyone, to any group. And part of “never again” is keeping the memory of these horrors alive. A recent poll found that 22 per cent of young Canadians had not heard of the Holocaust or were unsure what it was. Supporting books about the Holocaust is one way to accomplish the never again.

And then, there is the matter of my job, which involves reading and writing about books. And this is how I came back to reading about the Second World War.

Rhea Tregebov, then a professor at the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program, told me about a debut novel coming out by a former student, Natalie Morrill. The Ghost Keeper was about the Holocaust, so I was wary, but she told me it was very good. I forced myself to read it because I thought it should be reviewed. It was very good, and I was fine.

Also last year, I was asked to host the Western Canada Jewish Book Awards. The winner for non-fiction was Irena’s Children: A True Story of Courage by Tilar J. Mazzeo. It is about Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who saved some 2,500 children from certain death in the Warsaw Ghetto. The bravery of this woman was astonishing, and despite the harrowing details, I felt as I read it the creep of a feeling other than horror: some hope for humanity, and the thrilling empowerment that comes from exposure to the acts of courageous women. Sendler has been called the female Oskar Schindler, but I had never heard of her. And I wouldn’t have, were it not for this book.

So when a crop of new commercial historical fiction books set during or around the Second World War, featuring strong female protagonists, landed on my desk this year, I decided I could read them. For my job, yes, but also because books about this topic deserve to be read. Along with The Tattooist of Auschwitz, some of these titles now dominate the bestseller lists.

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The Gown by Toronto-based author Jennifer Robson (Goodnight from London) isn’t exactly about the war, but illuminates the difficulties of life in postwar London. There are three main characters: Ann and Miriam, who in 1947 work at the shop that is commissioned to make Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown; and Heather, a journalist in Toronto in 2016 who becomes interested in the gown after her grandmother dies. Miriam is a French Jew who lived through the Holocaust, but those horrors are tangential in this book, not dealt with in any depth (a relief for me; other readers might have a different take). These women aren’t war heroes, but their grit and agency, often in difficult circumstances, suggests heroism nonetheless, especially for Miriam.

The Huntress, by U.S. author Kate Quinn (The Alice Network) goes there more than the others, and by “there,” I mean the horrendous acts that people experienced and committed during the Second World War. Because of that, this book proved more difficult for me. But it was also the one I enjoyed (“enjoyed”) the most. The novel features three huntresses. Nina is one of Russia’s famed female bomber pilots – dubbed the Night Witches – bravely flying night missions in outdated planes. Nina’s hunt for Nazis turns into a pursuit for one specific Nazi, to avenge a murder that is personal for her. Jordan, meanwhile, is a teenager in postwar Boston, whose widowed father owns an antique store. Jordan is a talented and ambitious photographer. She is also suspicious of her father’s new Austrian girlfriend. That girlfriend, Anneliese, is also a huntress. Not exactly great literature – this is commercial fiction after all – but The Huntress is an engrossing and satisfying page-turner.

The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff (The Orphan’s Tale) is similarly structured, with alternating chapters for the different characters. The book is about the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which sent British women into France to work as spies ahead of D-Day. Marie, with her impeccable French, is tapped as a potential spy, put through gruelling training and then sent to France. Eleanor is the SOE assistant-turned-operation-mastermind (inspired by the real-life Vera Atkins), responsible for Marie and the other agents. And Grace, who helps Second World War refugees in postwar New York, tries to piece it all together after she finds an abandoned suitcase. Any discomfort I might have felt with difficult details in the book was eclipsed by distraction. Because some of the characters’ actions were simply preposterous, beginning with Grace finding a suitcase under a bench at Grand Central Station, opening it up (why?) and stealing a pile of photographs she finds inside. Later, Marie makes a decision when things go wrong in France that is cringe-worthily ridiculous, and the writing around it insipid. My eyes hurt from rolling. (For a non-fiction take, Sisters and Spies by U.K. author Susan Ottaway is the true story of SOE agents and sisters, Jacqueline and Eileen Nearne.)

Doublespeak, the forthcoming novel by Canadian author Alisa Smith (The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Eating Local), is the follow-up to Speakeasy, in which Lena Stillman is a codebreaker for the Canadian government on the west coast during the Second World War. Doublespeak begins in remote Alaska, but moves to Asia as Lena attempts a rescue mission. I had no trouble getting through this book. But perhaps because I hadn’t read Speakeasy, I found Doublespeak less intriguing than some of the others.

After this experiment, which I would call successful, I picked up memoirs I have wanted to read for some time, but didn’t feel I could face. Max Eisen is an Auschwitz survivor, like my mother. They were there, in fact, at the same time, I discovered when I finally felt ready to read By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz. The book is a CBC Canada Reads selection this year.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Eisen was 15 when he was sent to the camp. It is hard to think of a word that adequately describes the pain of this book; agonizing doesn’t cut it. In one scene, a crying baby is found by an SS guard under a blanket in a pile of belongings left by people who were sent to the gas chambers. The guard grabbed the baby by the ankles and smashed its head against a truck. The crying stopped. I had a lot of trouble reading these details, and found myself having to skim at points. Now I was in my mother’s shoes, and it wasn’t hypothetical. She was there. She experienced these things, witnessed them.

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That’s why even though I was glad Eisen’s book is a Canada Reads finalist, the theme – choose one book that moves you – and format make me uncomfortable. It rankles to see the book have to compete with memoirs about the horrors of the Syrian civil war—the very moving Homes by refugee Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung— and a novel about deadly violence and racism in Scarborough—David Chariandy’s excellent Brother—in a fun, promotional “battle.” Given the subject matter, a lighthearted contest where celebrity defenders make their case, with one book surviving to emerge victorious, feels inappropriate. Canadians should be reading all these books. It will be interesting to see how the panelists handle what has to be a minefield of a debate.

But back to my project. Finally, maybe against my better judgment, I returned to The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Well, it turns out a gazillion people can be wrong. I was immediately turned off when in the first paragraph of the first chapter, the eponymous protagonist Lale Sokolov, thinks to himself, “Always dress to impress.” The use of this idiom in 1942 by a Slovakian Jew in a cattle car on his way to Auschwitz - not to mention the jaunty tone - was jarring. Historians, it turns out, have pointed out a slew of inaccuracies in the novel, from train routes to the smuggling of penicillin into the camp. The Auschwitz Memorial calls it “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document.”

Still, an impression is better than ignorance. I encourage everyone to pick up any book about this catastrophe. It happened less than 80 years ago. Also, consider what is happening now. Today, as people seem to forget those horrors, or discount or minimize them, we have white supremacists spouting odious nonsense and emboldening other racists to commit horrific acts, shooting up mosques from Quebec City to Christchurch, and targeting synagogues too.

In Canada, there has been a spike in hate crimes. In the U.K., there are accusations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. I read the other day that a Norwegian rapper who swore about Jews during a city-sponsored multiculturalism event in Oslo will not be charged with hate crimes; prosecutors said his on-stage comment could be interpreted as a criticism of Israel. In New York, a poster featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was defaced this month with a Swastika and messages that included “Die, Jew Bitch.”

Never again? I’m going to keep reading.

Perhaps the best outcome of this exercise was that it got me thinking about the heroics of real women during the Second World War. Such as Freddie Oversteegen, who, along with two other Dutch women, blew up bridges, smuggled Jewish children out of concentration camps and killed Nazis – seducing them in bars, luring them to nearby woods and shooting them. Just 14 when she joined the resistance, she died in The Netherlands last year. Her story is told in Kathryn J. Atwood’s book Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

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I’ve decided that the next book on my list will be a new non-fiction book by Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler, which tells the story of a previously unsung hero of the French Resistance.

My son turns 11 this year, about the age I was when I read Anne Frank’s diary. There is a picture of her in his classroom, along with other female heroes. After going through this exercise, I wondered if it is time for him to read this book. I asked him what he knew about Anne Frank. She was in hiding, he told me. She wrote a diary. She was taken away before she could finish it. He did not mention the one thing I was afraid to hear him say: that she was Jewish, just like him, and died because of it.

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