I read this book back in May, and I have had to get some distance from it before I could write about it. It was very affecting, upsetting, and disturbing, as one might expect a book with such subject matter to be.
The book follows the life story of Haya Tedeschi, whose son was taken from her by German soldiers in WW2, 62 years prior. The story opens with her waiting to be reunited with her son, who she hasn’t seen in all that time, and searching through a basket full of memories–photos, letters, news clippings–while waiting. Through these memories, we get the life story of Haya, leading up to the theft of her son and the holocaust, and beyond.
The story is told in a documentary style that reminded me a lot of W.G. Sebald’s books. As characters are introduced, each one is given a footnote with a brief history of their life–where and when they were born, what they did, where and when they died. This happens so often that whenever I saw a new name I would get a little shot of intrigue, ‘ooh, who is this?’ I’d think.
As the story gets more grim, and things take darker and more terrible turns, there are still the footnotes, telling me the life stories of everyone I come across.
Until, that is, I reached the middle of the book, and slammed into a fine-print wall of names. A list of 9000 Jews who were killed in one specific concentration camp. The effect was astonishing.
Up until that point, every name contained a story. I had been conditioned very carefully by the author to think ‘oh, who is this?’ whenever I saw a new name. Now, I’m overloaded with names and my mind is thinking for each one “Who is this? What did they do? Who are they?” And there are so many, dozens of pages of names. All erased, with no story left to tell. I’ve never been more affected by a list of names in my life.
The effect is even more powerful because, leading up to this list of names, I had become deadened to the sheer volume of murder that took place. Numbers such as 100,000 dead here or 200,000 dead there had become common. So to see the sheer scope and seemingly unending length of a list of ‘just’ 9000 names allowed me to, for a moment, understand just how much life was truly lost, how many stories had truly been erased.
But this book was not done with me yet.
After I’d barely managed to keep from bursting into tears at a list of names, the following section contained another list: a list of nazis, and their life stories–which of course, were perfectly preserved, since so many of them lived a full happy life.
Each nazi would have his childhood described, his joining of the nazi party, the atrocities they committed (some made me physically ill to the point where I had to stop reading for a while) and finally their sentencing. Most of them were aquitted, some received three or six years, often released early.
The contrast of the nazis life after the horrors of the holocaust was so boggling. It was like everyone wanted to pretend it was just a dream, a terrible nightmare. So many nazis just lived on like nothing had happened.
I will never forget certain images this book put in my head. I won’t try to describe them here, but I will never look at or think about this horrible moment in history the same way again. This book has made it real to me, instead of just a list of numbers and facts. It is now and forever real, unbearably real.