Grounded in my Jewish heritage, choosing to write about the Holocaust was never the question. It was how to approach it. I wanted to create something more meaningful than the recitation of facts and figures. Those brutalized by of one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity were more than nameless, faceless numbers. They deserved to be experienced as human beings. Breathing life into fictional characters to enact their stories, the voices of real people who had experienced historic events in actual places became the narrative. Stepping outside the role of WRITING history to relating its stories, my task shifted to RE-writing history.
Personalizing such stories required assuming the persona of my central character. I became a literary time traveler, assuming the mantel of history as experienced by one who had lived it. Living with an 81-year-old male alter ego who spoke Yiddish was a daunting (and sometimes confusing) process! Establishing a fictional world deeply embedded in one that had actually existed required intensive research into Jewish life in Poland from the 1920’s through 1945.
During the earliest steps of the journey 14 years ago, I had no idea as to the size of the task before me. Pre-Internet research required spending countless hours in libraries pouring over records, maps and microfiche. The process of bringing history to life required attending lectures, plays and films, reading memoirs, or interviewing those who had lived it. However, once the Internet “opened its doors,” I was able to sit within the virtual stacks of today’s Alexandrian Library and my book progressed.
Immersing myself in the period, environment and culture of those times, I finally surfaced with what would become the foundation for Golanski’s Treasures, a novel about a Polish Holocaust Survivor’s pilgrimage to Poland to reconnect with his past. While the book addresses how the Jews of Europe were killed, its larger goal was presenting how they had lived. I was determined to fill the void created by Hitler’s “Final Solution” with stories of a once rich and vibrant culture.
Yet, stationary research was insufficient by itself. The spark behind writing the book was actually the result of my travels to Poland to follow my own family’s roots, and I visited Sokoly, the small town (shtetl) where my paternal grandfather was born. With a population of 3,500, it was a fairly modest farming community. There, I interviewed an old farmer and his wife in a quest to find out what happened to Sokoly’s Jews. With the help of my driver as translator, my trusty tape recorder and camera, I was able to capture the essence of what had occurred.
That was in 1989. Years later, researching Sokoly (through www.JewishGen.org), I learned it was a respected center of Jewish art, scholarship and culture for 200 years. A highly educated community of doctors, rabbis, scholars, and artists, Sokoly Survivors have recorded thousands of pages of personal testimony about their lives. Through their recollections about work, family life, leisure time, the surrounding countryside, and religious observances – my character’s family sprang to life.
As it was not simply a WRITING of history, but rather, a RE-writing of history (e.g. the poetic license of a novelist bending circumstances and setting to his or her will), the story always came first. Maintaining accurate descriptions of times, places and events lived by characters drawn from real figures was paramount in joining my character and his family’s story to history.
While still in the process of revising my manuscript, history has continued to unfold. The anti-Semitism that Hitler had fostered fell into disfavor following WWII when the people of the world joined the cry, “Never Again!” Yet, our world continues to darken . . . .
I am not so naive as to believe that humanity has moved beyond hatred, and know that the ground beneath Jewish feet has been historically unsettled. Yet, even I was unprepared for the explosive resurgence of blatant, violent anti-Semitism in today’s Europe – and beyond. Over the past few months I have been forced to revise my manuscript to incorporate the bitter realities of current events. I knew when I began that I was endeavoring to re-write history by knitting it together beneath the umbrella of a fictional character and his family. I never suspected, however, that history would repeat itself . . . re-writing ITSELF by inserting the past into the present.
I thought only novelists did that!