To write fiction about the Holocaust is to take a particular kind of risk. The notion that art itself was indelibly altered by the concentration camp is axiomatic at this point, and traceable to the famous statement attributed to Theodor Adorno — that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” That statement has often been interpreted as an admonition against instrumentalizing the camp for creative or commercial gain. (A more nuanced reading reveals that Adorno wasn’t actually suggesting a prohibition on aesthetic expression, but that’s a different essay.)
Some took the notion that art and Auschwitz were mutually exclusive even further. Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most visible and controversial of the camp’s survivors, wrote in his memoir Night, “Everything came to an end — man, history, literature, religion, God.” Later, he wrote that “a novel about Auschwitz is not a novel, or else it is not about Auschwitz.”
Holocaust art raises problems not only of representation, but of reception. As Ruth Franklin shows in her 2011 book A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, Holocaust writing has long been treated as inviolable, somehow apart from or beyond criticism. One reason is that the books that first emerged in the aftermath of the war were survivor memoirs, which came to be regarded as holy texts, revelations of a world that was, to most, quite literally unimaginable. There arose around Holocaust writing an obsession with its truth value. (Which made fraudulent claims to victimhood like that of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a probably Swiss man who wrote a fake wartime memoir, all the more fascinating and juicy.)
Deriding even a hackneyed work of Holocaust literature or cinema feels somehow vulgar because all such representation has come to seem like part of a larger preservation effort, the important collective memory project that will ensure that we #neverforget and therefore won’t doom ourselves to repeat history. This is the success, some would argue, of the “Holocaust industry.” (“The Holocaust,” as Norman Finkelstein writes, “is the ideological representation of the Nazi holocaust,” which grants “victim status” to Jews, a powerful ethnic group.)
But, as Franklin deftly argues, we don’t do ourselves any favors by approaching Holocaust texts gingerly. Reticence to critique this literature qua literature is not the gesture of respect some believe it to be. It may in fact constitute a kind of condescension. More importantly, cordoning off segments of history as sacrosanct or beyond aesthetic representation is anathema to art-making. Franklin makes a powerful argument that we should welcome representations of the Holocaust, and bring to them our unrestrained critical faculties. We might also remember that often, in her words, “the act of imagination is an act of empathy.”
Mischling is a novel that walks rather bravely into this fraught territory — both the history of the Holocaust and that of its representation. And it is, above all, an act of empathy. This second novel by Affinity Konar tells the story of twin girls, Stasha and Pearl, who, along with their mother and grandfather (Mama and Zayde), are taken from Lodz, their Polish hometown, to Auschwitz. (Their father, a doctor, is thought to have already perished at the hands of the Gestapo.) There, the girls are separated from their guardians and placed in “the Zoo,” a section of the camp overseen by Dr. Josef Mengele, the German physician known as the Angel of Death. Mengele had a notorious preoccupation with demonstrating the biological inferiority of Jews. At Auschwitz, he researched infectious disease and genetic abnormalities, and was especially interested in twins and dwarfs. In the opening pages, Stasha and Pearl are taken to barracks filled with sets of zwillinge (twins). As the book progresses, many become twinless, and are haunted by the ghostly absence of their other halves.
The novel is dogged by doubleness. The word mischling itself encompasses a duality: it means “half-blood” and was the way the Nazis referred to half-Jewish, half-Aryan people. (We’re never certain whether that’s what Stasha and Pearl are. We just know they’re blond and that when asked early on if they’re mixed, their mother has the presence of mind to shake her head yes.) The girls imagine themselves to be one, and long before arriving at the camp have divided the existential responsibilities of a single life: “She takes the funny, the future, the bad. I take the good, the past, the sad.” When Mengele begins administering strange injections to Stasha, she becomes mischling again: “The needle made me a mischling . . . One part was loss and despair. Such darkness should make life impossible, I know. But my other part? It was wild hope.”
The girls’ status as twins — and maybe as blonds — is the ultimate blessing in the camp, it turns out. “You are the grand pianos of this place,” an albino friend tells them, “the mink coats, the caviar. The rest of us — just kazoos, canvas, tinned beans.” But twinhood also brings a crippling vulnerability. Even “in my fetal pinkness, I faced this truth,” Stasha says on the first page of the book. “Without her, I would become a split and unworthy thing, a human incapable of love.” Pain permeates the girls’ maneuverings, not just of the conditions of the camp, but of their sisterly bond as well. The unique symbiosis of sisterhood is rendered in raw terms here, to heart-wrenching effect. When the girls are eventually separated, the world of the novel goes dark. As Stasha says, “Without her, I was just a madman’s experiment.”
The children of the Zoo are frequently prodded or looked after by prisoners Mengele has deputized to help him with his work. The deeply conflicted roles of these hyphenated characters (prisoner-doctors, prisoner-guards) is one of the most interesting facets of the book. One such character, known as Twins’ Father, may be based on Miklós Nyiszli, a Hungarian-Jewish doctor who was forced by Mengele to perform hundreds of autopsies and operations in a room attached to Crematorium II. Nyiszli, who survived the war, chillingly remarked that in Auschwitz, “Twins die at the same time . . . Where in normal life is there the case, bordering on a miracle, that twins die at the same place at the same time?”
It’s a testament to Konar’s considerable talent that her characters retain their vividness, considering that many of them seem straight out of Holocaust central casting. There is the brutish, loutish, sadist guard, who drinks heavily and snaps a neck like a wishbone. There are the prisoners made vaguely animal by the deprivation they endure. There is the spunky friend who’s good at stealing and viciously protective of our protagonists. And Zayde and Mama are all worry and woolen coats. One can practically hear the strains of distant accordions. Zayde, a biologist who makes tearful toasts (“To unbearable beauty!” “To a morning swim!”), invents a game called “Classification of Living Things” to entertain the girls as they are carted camp-ward in a cramped cattle car. Mama draws a poppy on the wall of the car, a tiny sign of that “wild hope” that will have significance throughout the novel.
Paradoxically, Mischling’s reliance on a familiarly shabby, twinkly-eyed Eastern Europeanness, is both its strength and its weakness. It’s weak because it’s vague, a cliché. And yet this sentimentality lends the novel some welcome knowability, a vocabulary to cling to inside the harrowing world of the camp. This terrain seems scarcely survivable — for the characters and the reader — but for the knowledge of this fierce familial love.
What really saves Mischling is Konar’s astonishing lyricism. Against Adorno’s statement, here there is poetry in everything. The writing is challenging, sometimes odd or meandering, often breathtaking. A female guard’s hair is “bleached to meringue,” a bear’s pelt is “full of grace and menace,” a black piano stands “like a beetle with one cocked wing.” Night has a “velvet sway.” During the liberation of the camp, tanks lay “overturned on their backs like great tortoises,” parachutists in the sky look like “the spores of a dandelion.” It’s a child’s world, but in hell.
Konar also succeeds in transmitting keenly the gaping sadness and loneliness of the parentless children of Auschwitz. Certain adults in the story never fully materialize, but it feels like that may be precisely the point. Though they’re surveilled and brutalized at every turn, the children of the camp are, morally, and in every other important way, ungoverned.
That wildness and “wild hope” team up in second half of the book, which chronicles life after the liberation of the camp and reads like a dark adventure story. It’s still harrowing and full of horror, but the promise of a more self-determined life for the few surviving characters feels for the reader the way it should: like a hard-won reward.
Mischling is a psychologically heavy novel to tote around. As with all literature that plumbs the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man, it produces a kind of (laughably micro) survivor’s guilt. Reading Mischling in the airport on a layover, I experience a dozen shameful juxtapositions, clashes of the catastrophic and the banal: I read a scene in which the all-prisoner women’s orchestra, greyed and shorn, “downcast of eye and drawn of lip,” is forced to perform. Then I close the book and buy a pack of gum. I read about the swift, cruel murder of one of Stasha’s closest friends. And then my phone vibrates: a Bitmoji from my mother. Even my word processing program as I write this review continues defiantly to suggest that I mean to type “Mingle,” not Mengele. A computer shouldn’t recognize Mengele? I think. It’s a question asked by an aggrieved inner voice, in a very Jewish intonation and my bubbe’s heavy Brooklynese.
The book also peddles a kind of disconcerting prettiness. Mischling is propelled, like so many tales from the camps, by hundreds of heartbreaking details of everyday survival rendered in sepia tone. The dark enormity of the catastrophic moment is countered everywhere by the precious — and preciously guarded — accoutrements of daily life. Those things — combs, spoons, turnips, knitting needles — form another economy and exist in a cherished, miniature register. Potatoes are hidden in faded skirts, notes smuggled in the toes of mismatched tap shoes. Stasha spends a portion of the novel curled inside a sauerkraut barrel.
There is a perverse glamour in the small arsenal of material objects one carries in the camps, an assortment conditioned by necessity and ingenuity. These are the same sorts of things fetishized in some disaster or poverty porn. Even more perversely, they are also now the coveted “rustic” objets of hipsterdom, of Etsy, of Pinterest. Throughout a novel meant to howl with longing and deprivation, I couldn’t help but note the preponderance of oversize sweaters and pastel floral dresses, wheelbarrows and fermented foods. Things hand-crafted, now distressed, battered, threadbare. Is this not also the face of a certain bespoke luxury in 2016?
This is but a sampling of the array of uncomfortable confrontations—with the grotesque, the absurd, the unimaginable—that reading this book forces. As it should. After all, the Holocaust is receding as history. Yet the kinds of hatreds that fueled it remain everywhere in evidence.
Though it may be overly reliant on well-worn tropes — one can imagine Oprah pouncing on it readily — Mischling is a very powerful novel. Gripping and grim in equal measure, and beautifully, sometimes exquisitely, written. And Mischling doesn’t just offer the same old Hollywood Holocaust. That story tends to go like this: the horror and trauma wrought by the Nazis almost killed the human spirit, but little shards of color and creativity, life and hope, remained, and those tell a truer tale about people. Konar is much too smart for that. Mischling seeks not to proffer false hope, or soaring language, but to show characters under siege who accumulate, as Auschwitz survivors had to, small, uncertain victories. There is no logic, no larger point to the slaughter of innocents the reader witnesses in her book. Rather, Konar seems to know instinctively that the survival of some individuals, against this backdrop of humiliation, degradation, violence and death, happened mostly by chance.
Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. She is a features editor at Full Stop. Find her online at @black_metallic.