by Annie Brown
By all accounts, my father is a brilliant writer with nine books under his belt. Despite this, I’ve somewhat avoided reading his books–finding it a little strange to discover our family revealed in print, even wrapped in the protective cloak of fiction. Despite his work’s critical acclaim, I have only read a handful of his books. When his most recent book, Five Bullets, was released, he mailed me a copy with the inscription: “Time to face a bit of history, world and family all at once.” This book was not exactly fiction; it was based on my dad’s uncle’s experience during the Holocaust.
From my childhood, I have vivid memories of my Great Uncle Martin and, his wife, my Aunt Flora. He was a wizened and stoic man who generously put us up in his Lincoln Center brownstone apartment when we visited New York. My strongest memory is of him getting in his oversized American car, a Cadillac or an Oldsmobile, and seeing the whole steering column come booming down to his level, enabling him to peer over the dashboard as he drove us into Manhattan from Long Island. When I was young, I had no idea that his wife and children had been murdered in Auschwitz. I had no idea that he had escaped the concentration camp and fought with partisans in the woods of Poland. It can be mind-blowing when we realize how much we don’t know.
Over the recent Winter Break, I devoured the 200 page novel. It was a fast read with accessible language. Because it was a mix of fact and fiction, I was excited to speak with my father to hear more about the book and why he wrote it. I asked him to talk about the book and—like the writer that he is—he penned me an answer. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
"Yes, he was a small man in a big car by the time you knew him. But much earlier, he was a powerful presence and to me a fascinating figure, because like you I was always taken with history. The War and the Holocaust were not very far back in the rear view mirror when I was a kid and here was this man who had been in the middle of it all. I would never have written the book if not for him. It was the only such story I have ever felt entitled to tell. I would not presume to so closely examine the life of a survivor on the basis of no more than my interest, my imagination, and research. One could write such a book, obviously, and I would never argue against any work of pure imagination, but personally I would not have felt the calling. Whereas Martin’s deep reluctance toward telling it himself, combined with the basic elements that I managed to worm out of him over the years, made it not only possible for me to take it on; it made it imperative. No one else was going to do the job."
As teachers, we know that the Holocaust is a powerful topic for our students and there is a rich body of literature already out there ranging from Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (Facing History has a great study guide for Night) to the children’s novel The Book Thief that was made into a movie recently . I asked my father what he was hoping to add to this body of literature and what he would you say to a critic who argued that the Holocaust has already “been done”.
"There are at least two answers to the question of what I would hope to add. The first is simply one more story, one man’s story—because to a critic who says the Holocaust has been “done”, I would say, with the Shoah Project, that it hasn’t been done until every actor has told his or her story. My conviction is that every story is worth having, and this was the story which happened to be entrusted to me.
The second answer is that while Five Bullets was rigorously researched and adheres religiously to historical fact, it is not a history, or a memoir, it is a novel. And though some might say that makes it less worthwhile, or less real, as an addition to the literature of the Holocaust, I would argue the opposite, that fiction can often do as much or more to define, distill, and deepen the experiences being addressed. To my way of thinking, fiction can be reality heightened. Hopefully, this novel achieves a measure of success at doing that, bringing home not just important information but also the complex emotions, the back-stories and the human aftermaths."
Working with Facing History, I have heard many survivors speak and tell their stories, but for most, there was a reluctance to talk about what happened. Several years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with a survivor in her mid-eighties who was a young teen during the Holocaust. She revealed to me that she said nothing for over forty years and she never even told her son. Her son only discovered her past when she was asked to speak publicly and share her stories with school-children. She told me she didn’t want him to feel bad for her and she didn’t want to burden him. Generally though, the act of telling the story seems cathartic for survivors that do speak. I was curious to learn how open Uncle Martin was to talking about his past.
"The reluctance you cite is and has been very real, and goes a way toward explaining why this book had to be fiction. It’s also true that fiction is what I write. But if I were to simply pass along everything my uncle told me in so many words about his experiences, the book would have been a 10-page article, or maybe 20. This man could easily have gone through life without speaking one syllable about the nightmare he lived through and the losses he suffered. The first information I wrenched from him came when I was 8 or so and bugged him to explain the numbers tattooed on his arm.
Then there were bits and pieces—I was a persistent cross-examiner. But it wasn’t until the day I graduated from college that he told me the story of his “retreat” after the war to the village I call Borva in the novel. And it was decades later before he yielded up the gripping event that gives the book its title. I learned as much as I learned only because my desire to know it was as mighty as his desire to withhold it.
Sadly there was no catharsis for him, no pathway to it. When he related to me the incident of the five bullets, his teeth were gritted as fiercely as if it had happened five minutes ago rather than 50 years. For me, writing the book was somewhat cathartic, though of course the burden I carried was nothing against the burden he carried. Simply put, the Holocaust was foremost among those historical events that engaged me, enraged me."
This idea of being enraged by history intrigues me because it shows such a personal connection to the past to which, as a History teacher, I am somewhat numbed. To my father, who was born in 1944, the Holocaust happened in his lifetime and it affected his loved ones. Even though the book was based on stories from my Uncle, I knew my father had done a lot of research by reading and even travelling to eastern Europe, so I asked him to talk about the role of research in writing fiction.
Even though the book was based on stories from my Uncle, I knew my father had done a lot of research by reading and even travelling to eastern Europe, so I asked him to talk about the role of research in writing fiction.
Research was essential and extensive. I needed to know everything I could about the places where events unfold: Prague, Terezin, Auschwitz, the forests of Poland. Likewise with the tenor of life year by year, where the story begins in innocence on through the relentlessly accelerating horrors of Hitler’s occupation, displacement, war, and mass murder. I needed to know more about the partisans, who were of so many stripes in so many places. There was one group, for instance, the Army Krajowa, who fought the Nazis for reasons of Polish nationalism while being every bit as anti-Semitic and dangerous to Jews. I had to go to all those places and contemplate what it was like to be there at that time: to be evacuated to Terezin, to live there in fear of disease, starvation, and death; to face certain death at Auschwitz-Birkenau; but then to escape and be liberated enough to fight back. How did that feel? So you go and breathe the air and study the sky and the forest, or the streets and the barracks, and you imagine your way into the character’s mind and heart. If you are good at it, the story will ring true.
In Facing History, we focus on choices made by individuals such as whether or not to pledge allegiance to the Nazi regime or choosing to join the Hitler Youth. (Facing History reading: “Do you take the oath?”) Considering how they would have acted also helps students consider the choices they make in their own lives today. Thinking through moral choices helps prepare a student to stand up when a friend is being teased or to speak up when they see injustice.
In a general assessment of the Holocaust, where the Nazis set out to murder millions of people and did so in the most inhumane ways, there is not a lot of moral ambiguity to sort through. But then there were millions of individual Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, etc., each of whom wanted to see himself or herself as a good person. What would they do? What would they refuse to do? How much did it pain them or haunt them? Five Bullets glances off most of those cases, though it contains a hint or two that such struggles existed. And the incident where Karel encounters a sick young Nazi by the rail track reveals that even he, in his bitterness and moral fury, can acknowledge they did exist. So that was one challenge: balancing my sense of what it is to be human and be somewhat at the mercy of larger forces against my genuine outrage at what the Nazis did. The question of free will, or the absence of it, sits squarely at the epicenter of any discussion of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
That incident with the young Nazi has echoes of the questions raised by Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower which explores forgiveness. (Facing History symposium activity using : The Sunflower). As universal themes, forgiveness, justice, and resistance are also important aspects of a Facing History unit. Facing History looks at the Holocaust in a holistic way rather than leaving the story at victimhood or leaving students feeling hopeless. Your book addresses all of these themes, but I wonder what your thoughts are. Do you believe there are universal answers to questions of what justice or forgiveness looks like or is this very specific to the individual?
The other day on the news I saw a mother whose son was murdered—terribly and for no reason—by an awful human being who had done nothing to earn forgiveness. But she stated that she forgave him, because she needed to do so to move on. Was this lip service? Could she really forgive him, once the news-people were gone? Could she really move on? Maybe. And maybe there were Jews who forgave the Nazis, or the German people, or the collaborators all over Europe. But it’s an emotional matter and the woman who lost her son is right in thinking that it would serve her well if she could genuinely forgive; it would weaken the emotional need for justice or revenge, which cripples the bearer. Forgiveness is a matter for individuals to sort out. The character in Five Bullets, Karel Bondy, does not appear capable of entertaining the notion of forgiveness. With the partisans, with the Russian Army, and afterward as a vagabond civilian, he sought a measure of justice, then tried to leave it all behind–but of course could not.
Speaking of partisans, your vivid portrayal of them fascinated me—I had no idea this would be a part of the story. I feel that the stories of partisans who took to the woods and took up arms are rarely told. Before reading Five Bullets, I didn’t have a good sense of what their experience might be like or who they might be.
The partisans fascinate. They were relatively few in numbers—relative to the numbers fighting in armies—but few meant thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, in countless locations throughout central and eastern Europe. They were vital to the war effort, both in practical terms for the damage and distraction they achieved as guerillas, and in emotional terms for the inspiration their mere existence, their courage and talent for survival provided. They also provided shelter and protection for many who could not join the fight. I like to think I would have made it to the forest; that I would have done what I could from there. But you had to be more than smart and fast and brave and resourceful; above all you had to be damned lucky to escape the clutches of the ruthless Nazi goons.
So, who knows? But the partisans were valiant men and women, and I think their stories are as interesting as any that came out of those awful times. One of the reasons some of those stories have been dramatized—the Bielski brothers, for instance—is that in many ways they parallel tales like those of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, irresistible myths where the good guys live in the forest and foray out to strike down the bad guys. Not to confuse movies or myth with reality, though. As Five Bullets professes, their lot was hardly fun. They were cold, uncomfortable, hungry, and constantly threatened with death. I am not even sure the forests of Poland in the winter of 1943 were in Technicolor.
Reflecting on the story and our interview, what surprised me most was that all of the most thrilling and (nearly) unbelievable aspects of the story—escape, rescue, resistance, and revenge—appear to be firmly based in fact. The more mundane details are what my father had to construct. This is truly an astounding story. Reading it reminded me that everyone has a story. My father felt compelled to tell this story. He wanted to give voice to his uncle’s experience. But, it is also important to my father as a Jew.
My father has never been religious, but he has a strong Jewish identity, rooted in Minsk via Brooklyn, New York. Partly due to his early experiences with gefilte fish (which was usually hidden in a potted plant or fed to a willing dog under the table) and partly due to the non-conformist streak in his personality, my sisters and I were never pushed toward faith. My father after making it through his token lines of the Torah during his Bar Mitzvah never really donned a yarmulke again. We grew up lighting candles and eating latkes for Hannukah and having a seder with cousins for Passover. Being Jewish was more about food and family. With my mother’s surname—Brown—I fly under the radar as a Jew. I almost feel guilty about that—like I’m not fighting the good fight. In some ways, I too feel compelled to wrestle with the Holocaust and I teach it each year to make sure the lessons are not lost and that the story does not go untold.
Annie Brown works as a high school humanities teacher, coach for new teachers and curriculum developer. Annie is a current member of the Los Angeles Facing History Teacher Leadership Team and writes frequently on topics in education.