JOINT DISCUSSION: For Such a Time by Kate Breslin
ALL THE TRIGGER WARNINGS
Janine: I asked Sunita, who read this book in its entirety, to join me for this discussion. As one whose relatives died in Auschwitz, I could only bring myself to read 35% of Breslin’s novel, the first 145 pages. So there are questions I can’t answer, like whether the heroine remains Jewish or converts to Christianity, whether the hero gets a HEA, or whether his “redemption” comes across as genuine. I’m hoping Sunita will weigh in on these and other topics.
Sunita: I managed to get through the whole book, but it was hard. When I decided to read it I went in with the conscious intention to accept the premise, as awful as it seemed. There may be a way to tell this story, but that will have to remain an open question for me, because this book is definitely not it. I found it more difficult to read as I went on, and the last quarter of the book, where the action takes off, was the most disturbing.
Janine: Thanks for making it all the way there. I honestly can’t think of a way to do justice to the harrowing experience of the concentration camps in a romance novel. Perhaps some things should not be attempted, and that’s one of them. As for making such a romance a Christian inspirational and casting a Jewish survivor of Dachau and a Nazi concentration camp Kommandant as the central couple… I am hard put to come up with strong enough language to underscore what a horrible premise this is.
On the cover and the cover copy:
Janine: Setting aside all the issues I have with the author’s choices for a moment, I want to start by talking about how the publisher, Bethany House, handled the marketing of this book. The back cover blurb is so distressing that I’m very conflicted about reproducing it, but here it is:
Powerful Retelling of the Story of Esther
In 1944, blonde and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin feels abandoned by God when she is saved from a firing squad only to be handed over to a new enemy. Pressed into service by SS-Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the transit camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, she is able to hide behind the false identity of Stella Muller. However, in order to survive and maintain her cover as Aric’s secretary, she is forced to stand by as her own people are sent to Auschwitz.
Suspecting her employer is a man of hidden depths and sympathies, Stella cautiously appeals to him on behalf of those in the camp. Aric’s compassion gives her hope, and she finds herself battling a growing attraction for this man she knows she should despise as an enemy.
Stella pours herself into her efforts to keep even some of the camp’s prisoners safe, but she risks the revelation of her true identity with every attempt. When her bravery brings her to the point of the ultimate sacrifice, she has only her faith to lean upon. Perhaps God has placed her there for such a time as this, but how can she save her people when she is unable to save herself?
First let me say that the word “Jewess” is not an acceptable way to refer to a Jewish woman. It’s offensive and hurtful.
Then there’s the use of the yellow Jewish star. This was a part of the Jewish experience in much of Europe during the 1940s. Like many other Jewish people, my teenaged grandparents were forced to pin such stars to their coats. These were meant to mark them as Jews and eventually isolate them from the rest of the population of Belgium, where they lived at the time.
Finally there’s the use of a photograph of Jews at Auschwitz, many of them likely going to their deaths, to market a romance featuring a Nazi concentration camp Kommandant as its hero.
I have to ask myself, what was this publisher thinking?
Sunita: The cover is deeply unsettling, because at first glance it looked like an ordinary trade paperback cover to me, one that signals historical, often romantic, fiction aimed at women. But then you look more closely and you realize what the yellow represents, and who the people in the photograph must be. I have to say I grew to dread seeing the book in my Kindle library and on my ereader.
Janine: I breathed a sigh of relief after I returned the book to Amazon, citing “offensive content” as the reason. In the space of three days, the sight of it on my reader had become almost unbearable.
On clearing up misconceptions about the book:
Janine: Before reading the first third of this book, I read that the heroine is taken for a gentile because of her blond hair and blue eyes. That is not the case. The heroine has false papers declaring her to be “Stella Muller” (her real name is Hadassah Benjamin), a gentile German.
Unfortunately for her, when one of the Gestapo attempts to press her for sexual favors and she refuses, her identity papers are stamped to say she is Jewish. Aric, the male protagonist of the novel, discovers this when her name is dropped from a train manifest, and seeing something in her that calls to him, gives her a position as his secretary.
Sunita: I keep seeing that repeated, that it’s Stella’s appearance that makes Aric think she’s not Jewish. But there is a scene very early in the book where she explicitly tells him she’s not Jewish and he believes her, apparently because he has a low opinion of the Gestapo (this is an early attempt to make him seem different from other Nazi officers).
On the language:
Janine: The language struck me as well-crafted and almost inviting. That did not make the book any more palatable to me, if anything it was disturbing in itself. Also, “Jew Killer” is used in Hadassah/Stella’s thoughts in reference to Aric early on, and each time it appears on the page was flinch-inducing.
Sunita: I didn’t like the writing nearly as much as you did, or as other reviewers did (including some reviewers who disliked the book intensely). I described it to a fellow reader as “bog-standard mediocre historical romance style.” It’s got a ton of unnecessary description, hackneyed and clichéd phrases, and it’s very unsubtle. We did not need things like Jew Killer and zoineh repeated so many times, let alone so much exposition about the awfulness. There are also some odd word choices, e.g., in the same paragraph Stella’s features are described as both “delicate” and “raw-boned.” And her eyes are first compared to blue water in Aric’s home place, but then they are described (twice) as “blue … like Austria.” That just read so strangely to me.
Janine: Great points.
On the heroine and on her Jewish identity:
Janine: I didn’t read far enough to say whether the heroine converts to Christianity, but from what I did read, she did not appear to be heading that way. However, there were some ways in which Stella’s Jewish identity didn’t read as authentic.
For example, though she is devout, she enjoys a scented bar of soap without giving thought to whether the soap is kosher. She finds a painting depicting a monastery comforting. She thinks of her Christian friend Marta, one who “many times […] had tried in her earnest, gentle way to convert Hadassah to Christ”:
Perhaps that was why they were best friends, she thought with a wistful sigh. Marta’s efforts hadn’t borne fruit, but Hadassah was always touched by the genuine concern for her soul.
Really? When Hadassah was raised by a rabbi? It seems much more likely that she would find such attempts to convert her away from her faith, if not offensive and hurtful than at the very least mightily irritating.
Sunita: This is a point of contention, even among people who have read the book (people who haven’t almost always describe her as having converted). It’s always unwise to speculate on author intentions, but the way spiritual words and phrases are deployed feels less like a signal of conversion than a clumsy attempt to describe Jewish spirituality. Stella/Hadassah almost always reads from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible which is in her room (and that she takes with her later), until the very end of the book. When she thinks of Jesus, it’s via her thoughts of her good friend Marta, who was Christian. But the phrases feel very 21st-century Christian to me; not just her thoughts but those of other Jewish characters. So I can see why readers think that there is subtle conversion going on.
As a non-Christian who’s had her share of conversion attempts (well-meaning and otherwise), and who has attended Christian services throughout her life, nothing that happened in the book suggested to me that Stella ended the book as a Christian. But I fully agree that she was not depicted authentically as Jewish.
Janine: Hadassah also describes herself as “Mischling, half Jewish.” Wikipedia tells me that “Mischling” is a German word meaning “crossbreed.” It seems like it could be a derogatory term, but setting that aside, I don’t think it that likely that a woman brought up by a rabbi (her uncle Morty) would consider herself “half Jewish.”
That’s because in Judaism, anyone born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, unless and until that person converts to another religion. Just as anyone born to a gentile mother is gentile, unless and until that person converts to Judaism. Because Judaism is a matrilineal religion, the father’s religious or ethnic background doesn’t enter into it. So one is either considered Jewish, or not.
In addition to being portrayed without authenticity, Hadassah/Stella’s Jewish identity is constantly used by the author to torment her. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more tortured heroine, either.
Sunita: From my outsider (non-Jewish, non-Christian) perspective, I swung between feeling that Stella was put through the wringer and thinking she was not believable as a professional woman who grew up in Germany in the 1930s and was then incarcerated at Dachau. In the latter half of the book she gains greater agency, but that part is no more believable to me than the earlier parts.
Janine: Stella begins the book as prisoner recently taken from Dachau. In Dachau, her hair is shaved, a number is given her and tattooed on her arm (According to the US Holocaust Museum, only prisoners at Auschwitz were tattooed), and she is starved. Then the little girl she loves and cares for as her own is shot by a firing squad while trying to protect her. After this experience she is forced to work for a Nazi.
Sunita: This is one of the departures from fact and history that really annoyed me, and it’s symptomatic of the over-written melodrama in the book. Stella doesn’t need a tattoo to be sympathetic. She’s emaciated, her head is shaved, and she’s terrified, but that’s not enough, let’s give her a tattoo. Not only that, the text returns to the tattoo several times through the book. Why? A young Jewish woman who is at the mercy of Nazi captors isn’t sympathetic enough?
Janine: Apparently not in the eyes of the author. For me the bit about Aric being taken with the love for the little girl that he sees in Stella’s face just as the child is shot by the firing squad was even more infuriating. There were so many displays of adults trying to protect children during the Holocaust. To portray this common heroism as something exceptional enough to move a Nazi officer to mercy is to erase the brutal reality most parents and children faced in the concentration camps.
When Stella comes to work for Aric, he insists that she eat everything on her plate – and this includes pork. I don’t know if someone who doesn’t come from a background of knowing people who keep kosher or halal can understand how icky and horrifying this is to a devout person.
Stella later has to participate in a dinner party for Nazi officers. Jewish prisoners are present as musicians, and she has to witness her own people mistaking her for the Kommandant’s whore.
Sunita: This is, I believe, the only time we are given any indication that there are musicians at Theresienstadt. In fact, Theresienstadt was a singular type of camp/ghetto, because it was a “show-camp” to which elderly and more affluent Austrian and German Jews had been lured with the promise that it was a type of retirement facility. In retrospect this seems incredible, of course, but there were many musicians, artists, and other professionals there. You get no sense of this from any part of this novel.
Janine: Yes, the prisoners at Theresienstadt are portrayed in a distressingly one-dimensional way.
To get back to the dinner party, during that event, Joseph, a Jewish boy Stella has befriended in the household and whom she feels responsible for, is almost caught sneaking food to the prisoners. To divert the Nazis’ attention, Stella is forced to kiss Nazi Captain Hermann, the sadistic Nazi officer who abuses prisoners and who cut off Joseph’s ear.
Later, at Theresienstadt, Aric tricks her into kissing him, again, in front of Jewish prisoners. Stella also has to wear a Nazi armband around them. She constantly thinks about how her people think she is betraying them. Of course, Stella’s budding feelings of helpless, sometimes even repugnant, but nonetheless ever-present attraction to Aric are a constant torment to her too.
Sunita: Throughout the first two-thirds of the book the reader is whip-sawed between scenes of (chaste) longing between Aric and Stella, horrific circumstances within the ghetto, and the monstrous villainy of almost all the other Nazis (besides Aric and his aide-de-camp). It’s very uncomfortable, in part because they are so discordant, but also because the switches between romance and reality are not well managed.
Janine: All of the events I’ve recounted reading were horrifying to read, but for me nothing in the section I read was worse than the moment when Stella is asked by Captain Hermann to type up a list of two thousand prisoners to be shipped from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. She manages to omit a hundred and sixty names from this list but she agonizes over the name on the top, which she cannot omit.
Mina Keleman’s card still lay on top. Stella bit her lip. The first card of each stack might hold some significance. While she couldn’t be sure, it was more of a gamble than she could afford to take. Captain Hermann—or anyone else with half a mind—might notice its removal.
Forgive me. She typed Mina’s name, each touch of the key like a knife in the other woman’s back. Marta might liken this to the story of Jesus, how He’d given up His life to save the whole world.
(Stella’s thought of Christ at this time seems utterly inappropriate. How is Mina’s death at all the same, when Mina isn’t choosing or consenting to die to save anyone? Or is it Stella who is making the ultimate sacrifice in typing Mina’s name? Why throw in a Christian metaphor into a scene in which a Jewish woman is forced to type another Jewish woman’s death warrant?)
I couldn’t help but feel that it was the author forcing Stella to undergo these horrors.
Sunita: The inclusion of Jesus through Marta was incredibly clumsily done, and you’ve said perfectly why it’s so infuriating and hurtful.
On Stella’s uncle Morty:
Janine: Stella’s uncle Morty is portrayed in a stereotypical yet saintly way. His visions hint that Stella will deliver her people. His saintliness is doubly problematic since Morty is a member of the Judenrat and is the one who chooses which names go on the deportation lists. Such people were viewed by some of the other Jews as collaborators and are controversial figures for the roles they played.
Sunita: The Uncle Morty character made me really, really angry. From the way the plot is developed as well as from the names given to his other older friends, I conclude that Morty is a composite of two of the first Jewish Elders at Theresienstadt. The first, Jakob Edelstein, was deported to Auschwitz because he was suspected of falsifying the inmate registries and helping people to escape. He was shot at Auschwitz after being forced to witness the murder of his wife and son. The second Elder, Paul Eppstein, was shot at Theresienstadt in September 1944, perhaps because he had overheard SS soldiers saying that the transport trains to Auschwitz were sending people to their deaths, not to resettlement in “the east.” The third elder, Benjamin Murmelstein, survived his incarceration but was widely hated and despised by his fellow survivors because he was seen as overly eager to comply with Nazi demands.
Morty is depicted as a kindly uncle who also happens to be a rabbi. He never sounds like a rabbi, and he seems to have no other responsibilities other than making up the transport lists. Of course this is a terrible job, but the Elders at Theresienstadt had many important responsibilities and basically ran the society that developed in the camp/ghetto. They had been leaders in their communities before they arrived. This depiction erases all that and makes Morty a one-dimensional old man whose greatest accomplishment was military bravery for Germany in World War I.
Janine: In my opinion, in the world of the novel (the portion I managed to read), Morty’s greatest accomplishment is being a vessel for a vision from God—a vision that Hadassah/Stella will be the salvation of the prisoners. Because nothing else about him is as relevant, Morty seems as empty as a vessel — a vehicle, rather than a character.
On the “hero” and his position as head of Theresienstadt:
Janine: Aric Schmidt is a fictional character. He is said to have taken command of Theresienstadt five weeks before Stella goes to work for him in mid-February of 1944. Thus the timing of his tenure there coincides with the last month of real life Lagerkommandant Anton Burger’s tenure there and later, with that of Kommandant Karl Rahm.
Both men were known for their cruelty: Burger ordered about 40,000 prisoners to stand in freezing water for a census, causing 300 or so to die of hypothermia, while Rahm chose to beat prisoners himself and oversee torture sessions.
Sunita: Yes, fictional Aric is inserted into the factual historical record. He’s described as replacing Rahm. I found this disconcerting because it was hard for me to keep the real Rahm separate from the fictional Aric. As the book progressed and the historical and fictional storylines diverged even more, I found it easier.
Janine: Aric is portrayed differently from the reality of Burger and Rahm. In the section I read, we’re not told much about his Nazi party or professional background before taking command of Theresienstadt, just that he fought in the army and was awarded the Knight’s Cross for his valor. I hope you can tell me whether more of his background is filled in to explain why he was given command of the camp.
During the aforementioned dinner party scene he expresses contempt for the SS, of which he is a part. I found it hard to believe that anyone who made such seditious statements (they are even labeled sedition by his guests) would have remained in command long, since these were turbulent times. More than that, I found it creepy and icky that a Nazi head of a concentration camp would be portrayed in such a sympathetic light.
Sunita: The text tells us that Aric was wounded at Stalingrad. He had been a major in the Army for a decade, but he was invalided out, unable to return because his wounds were too serious. He was personally selected by Himmler to become Kommandant of the camp. I think we are supposed to be impressed by this. The text is very careful to assert that he did not do anything horrible, but I’m not sure how you serve ten years in the German army (including the early years of World War II and the Russian campaign) and avoid it.
I didn’t have as much of a problem with Aric’s comments about the SS, in part because he was depicted as an outsider until very recently, and things were not going well for Germany on several fronts by early 1944. So I could imagine discontent being voiced.
However, I did have trouble with the cartoonish villainy of the Nazi officers. All of them have rapist tendencies, and if that isn’t enough, they send back their food and have bad table manners. The general who appears later in the story is mentally referred to by Hadassah as “General Sausage,” and I couldn’t help but think of General Burkhalter in Hogan’s Heroes. That’s not good characterization in a supposedly serious novel.
Janine: Aric is also portrayed as kind to the disabled, including the one-eared boy Joseph and his mute cook Helen. He even has a slight limp himself. Let’s remember that the Nazis believed in the master race and that they sterilized and killed many people with disabilities, often for no other reason than that they were disabled.
Sunita: This is part of the good-Nazi/good-German portrayal, where he is thoughtful to and solicitous of exactly the people the Nazis are bent on exterminating. #notallNazis, basically.
Janine: The good-Nazi portrayal was perhaps the most painful aspect of the book. Breslin swings between giving Aric phone calls with Adolf Eichmann and trying to make him palatable, but for me those attempts only made his character horrifying.
Being a romance hero, Aric is also powerful, attractive to Stella, and a good dancer. And, as he tells Stella when she confronts him about the deportation to Auschwitz lists she has just finished typing, he has no beef with Jews:
“I feel no hatred toward your Jews, Stella. In fact, I feel nothing at all since they have little value to me. If it were my choice, I’d let them go free. They’re nothing but a nuisance with which our Fuhrer has hobbled the war effort. Good fighting men and countless resources are wasted dealing with the entire Jew issue. And it would be reasonable to say I treat them better than most in my position.
“But you must understand something else.” He flashed a look meant to frighten her. “I am a solider no longer fit for soldiering. Relegated to a pathetic flock of prisoners with what amounts to street thugs for guards. Until this war is over, I must perform my duty despite the lack of means at my disposal…or how distasteful it might seem. It’s that or risk my own death.”
Aric’s position that the Jews “have little value to me” is the very definition of unexamined privilege and power. To him, the “Jew issue,” is a nuisance and a waste of resources, rather than a horror. He asks Stella to try to understand that he can’t risk his own death, never mind that he’s sending two thousand innocent people to die.
And how does Stella respond?
Whatever reasons had brought him to be in this place, in this time, he had no more choice in the matter of conscience than she did. And, it seemed, less hope of any deliverance.
No, no, no. She is a woman with a number tattooed on her arm and papers stamped “Jewish.” He is the Kommandant of a concentration camp, who won’t even allow her to leave. It stuns me that the author went there, comparing them this way and putting such a thought in Stella’s head. This was the point where I quit reading, because I just couldn’t take anymore.
Sunita: Janine, I am in awe that you made it this far. I found it difficult enough reading, and for you to read so far into the book is so courageous.
Janine: I felt a responsibility to finish so I could express an informed opinion, but had to stop because reading it was so traumatizing.
On the Romance, Believability and Consent
Janine: Not only is the romance unbelievable, it’s incredibly off-putting. It’s impossible for me to believe that a Jewish woman in Stella’s position could come to have feelings of attraction and understanding for a Nazi Kommandant of a concentration camp.
It’s also not a consensual relationship because Stella is unable to leave Aric’s employ. She is his prisoner, so no matter how gentle, compassionate and caring he is portrayed as being to her, she’s not free to choose to leave as she wants to do. She has to stay in his company and endure her feelings of attraction, as she endures other horrors.
Sunita: I agree it’s not a consensual relationship at its core and therefore the rest is irrelevant. She cannot freely consent, full stop. That said, I want to point out that there is no sex (on or off-page) in the book, so rape is not part of this. It doesn’t make the coercion better, obviously, but I have seen their interactions described as “rape,” and that is not accurate.
Janine: True. For me personally, an unwanted kiss from a Nazi Kommandant would be far worse than an unwanted kiss from a total stranger I knew nothing about. Both would be horrible, but there are different degrees of horror. So my revulsion was not mitigated by the absence of sex. Every time Aric said he didn’t want to force Stella, I wanted to throw my ebook reader across the room. He forced her to endure experiences she found distressing from the very beginning.
Sunita: There are two real-life accounts of Jewish women who apparently fell in love with and lived with Nazi officers. One is the subject of a documentary, The Jewess and the Captain (which was shown at at least one Jewish Film Festival and has been shown on a Jewish TV channel). The other is described in a nonfiction book by Edith Beer called The Nazi Officer’s Wife. I haven’t read or seen either, so I can’t speak to parallels between their stories and this fictional account, but they do exist.
Janine: I too haven’t read or viewed either. Whatever the truth of these two cases, it is also true that many Jewish women were raped by Nazis during this time period, and sometimes forced to serve as their mistresses.
On the Story of Esther
Janine: Esther is a part of the Hebrew Bible, a Jewish story of deliverance. While there are certainly some parallels between Haman’s attempt to execute all the Jews of Persia and other persecutions of Jewish people, including the Holocaust, in Esther Jewish lives are saved. In the Nazi Holocaust, millions of Jewish lives – and those of many Roma, gay people, people with disabilities, and dissidents – were extinguished.
To use this particular story to tell a romance between a Jewish Holocaust survivor and the Nazi Commandant of a concentration camp is… well, it’s beyond words.
Sunita: The story of Esther is not one that I’m very familiar with, and even less with the differences between the Hebrew Bible’s and the Christian Bible’s versions. I have read that this story has become very popular among evangelical Christians, and so that may explain why it appealed both to the author and to readers. But that’s just speculation on my part.
On the Rest of the Novel
Sunita: Since I managed to finish the book, I wanted to say a bit about the rest of the novel. I began the book doing my best to give it a fair read, accepting the possibility of the premise going in. I wasn’t drawn in by the writing, but I gave the book the benefit of the doubt for quite a while. I was fortunate to be invited to participate in a group reading and discussion of the book, and the other readers helped me understand some of the Christian language. As the story went on, even I could see how inauthentic the depiction of Stella/Hadassah’s and the other Jewish characters’ spiritual thoughts were. The word salvation occurs so many times, and there are references to heaven and hell that don’t seem right. I understand that Hadassah is supposed to be Esther, but having her called “the one” just jarred and felt disturbing.
But where the book really lost me was when Aric decides to help the prisoners,
[ALL THE SPOILERS]
by hijacking an Auschwitz transport train that is scheduled to leave Theresienstadt the day before the Red Cross Delegation is going to show up. This delegate visit is a real-life event, moved up in the novel for time-compression reasons. Theresienstadt has to be turned into a model facility to assure the Red Cross and other delegates that prisoners are being properly treated. The way this is dealt with in the story is ridiculous; the Evil Nazis are beating up the inmates even though they need to show them as being healthy and well cared for. Then it gets worse. Aric, Hadassah, Uncle Morty and others fill up the transport quota and figure out a plan to divert the train from Poland to Lvov. Meanwhile, the rest of the camp residents, who are the oldest and most infirm, greet the Red Cross delegation (who are consistently and incorrectly described in the book as “the Swiss”). The delegation is furious and the Nazi plan fails.
In fact, the Nazis were successful at creating a fiction of a healthy environment. It took months of preparation, so none of the events in the book could have happened in the way they do. The delegation spent six hours in the ghetto, heard some of the music and performance for which Theresienstadt was well known, and left, filing a positive report. The story we read in the pages of this book erases that shame and suggests the delegation saw beyond the fiction. They didn’t, and it is something that should never be papered over, least of all for reasons of storytelling convenience. It’s one thing to alter facts to create a more real-feeling “truth.” It’s another to write a lie to get your main characters to an HEA.
[REMEMBER, ALL THE SPOILERS]
Aric, Hadassah, and their merry band successfully load up the Auschwitz-bound train and divert it all the way to the Ukrainian border, from where they will walk the “few kilometers” to Lvov. The Evilest Nazi (Hermann who is the novel’s analogy to Haman) manages to get on the train and there is … wait for it … a top-of-the-train fight scene with Aric, Hermann, and Hadassah. I am not kidding. The train doesn’t make it quite to its hoped-for destination because they reach a section where the tracks are destroyed, but many of the escaping Jews survive (there is both a train crash and a gunfight with pursuing Nazis, who have been tipped off about the stolen train).
Do I have to spell out why this is so horrifically awful? Theresienstadt was not a designated death camp, but it was a major transit camp to Auschwitz starting in 1942 (and before that it was a transit camp to other eastern destinations, including the death camp Treblinka). There were dozens of transport trains carrying tens of thousands of Jews. None of them were hijacked by the Good Guys. To rewrite this reality is abominable in a novel which claims to respect the memory of the Holocaust. With that knowledge in my mind, the “happy ending” was almost unendurable to read. Yes, Hadassah and Aric are together at the end. Morty is still alive, as is Joseph, one of the children Hadassah befriended at Theresienstadt. Aric expects to be brought to account for his role in the war, which was about the only bit of reality I could find at that point.
Janine: Thank you so much for finishing the book, Sunita. It’s good to be informed about how it ends, though I’m feeling queasy just reading your summary. As a child my grandfather lived in Józefów, Poland, less than five hours from Lvov. Józefów was rife with Anti-Semitism and that caused him and his family to leave. From what I understand Lvov too was far from a safe haven for Jews during the war. Most of its Jewish population did not survive.
I first came across this book in the SBTB review, and then again when the discussion took off again after Sarah’s letter to RWA. I realize that some of the things originally mentioned as problematic were not completely accurate representations of what happens in the book (e.g., Hadassah’s conversion). But this discussion, and other recent comments, really do show how many things are wrong with this book, from the smaller details to the larger issues of appropriation. Thank you, Janine and Sunita, for articulating these so well, and for working your way through this book (even 35% is more than I could have managed). The one positive effect this book has had is the thoughtful discussions that have been taken place in the romance community, and I hope that this will have positive long-term effects. And on a more personal note, while I have no interest in the book itself, I did end up doing a fair bit of reading on both the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem websites, which are incredible resources with a vast amount of important documents and personal accounts.
I wrote in a comment on SBTB that I do feel there can be a place for inspirationals set around the time of WWII. But they cannot and should not appropriate Jewish suffering to do so, or write “Jewish” characters who aren’t remotely Jewish in how they think and interact with the world. There are people of (Christian) faith who served in the allied forces, who joined the resistance, and others who helped Jews and other persecuted people. There was never any reason to write and publish this particular story, and I’m not sure if I’m more saddened, disappointed or offended that nobody realized it to begin with.
Thank you Janine and Sunita for these well thought-out comments.
And thank you Sarah for your open letter to RWA.
I think that I (and many others) may have happily (and innocently) carried on reading without being aware of this book; but thanks to you, the whole thing is extremely thought provoking.
The only annoying thing (to me) is that the book was put forward for RWA recognition without anyone being aware (or am I being naive?) of possible repercussions.
When I first heard of this book, my first thought was “Stockholm Syndrome.” Nothing I’ve read since has convinced me this isn’t a factor in creating a romance between these two.
The only problematic thing mentioned here I can kind of think of a reasonable explanation for is her Bible. Since she was disguised as a non-Jew, that would make a certain amount of sense as part the disguise. (I have no idea how it’s portrayed in the book.)
@Lostshadows: the bible belonged to Aric’s mother. It didn’t (initially) belong to Hadassah/Stella. She finds it in Aric’s quarters.
I just wanted to thank you guys once again for performing this public service – seriously.
“To use this particular story to tell a romance between a Jewish Holocaust survivor and the Nazi Commandant of a concentration camp is… well, it’s beyond words.”
“I wrote in a comment on SBTB that I do feel there can be a place for inspirationals set around the time of WWII. But they cannot and should not appropriate Jewish suffering to do so, or write “Jewish” characters who aren’t remotely Jewish in how they think and interact with the world.”
Now imagine if this book had become a blockbuster like say, The Help. Dear God. I wound up creating a non-fiction website just to point out the issues in that book, since I grew up during the the time the novel references (https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com)
I second Sirius’ comment about this review being a public service. Thank you all.
Thank you so much for this conversation. A note on Esther: I agree that the book of Esther has become popular in recent years among some evangelical Christians. My theory is that it has something to do with the 2006 movie, One Night with the King, a romanticized retelling of Esther’s story. The movie has similar heavy handed Christian language inserted into a Jewish narrative. As someone with a biblical studies background, i am really confused by this use of Esther. The Book of Esther doesn’t not lend itself well to this. In the oldest manuscripts, the ones in Hebrew and Christian canon, there is no mention of God. It is not a spiritual book. Later manuscripts inserted more God language but those versions of Esther wouldn’t be in any Bible most lay people would own. It is saddening to see the narrative of a woman who saved her people to be continually twisted to suit the needs of others, especially in this horrific way.
Thank you again for this conversation.
I have a lot of feelings around this terrible book all involving rage and despondency.
I am a Jew who ‘doesn’t look Jewish’. Did you know people who have NEVER GUESSED I am Jewish? Because I look like a regular person and everything, I guess. Not like my Mom.
When I was a young girl, I was given a book called ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly’ filled with poems and art by murdered Jewish children from Terezin/Theresienstadt. I honestly do not have words for the horror I feel at someone trying to soften the image of the Kommandant of a notorious concentration camp where NINETY PERCENT of the people who passed through died there or in Auschwitz.
I reread the review and wanted to add a small comment – strictly factual – no Lvov was not safe for Jews during Second World War. Hey at least they did not go to Kiev. Wonder if author ever heard of Babiy Yar.. Gah.
@CrouchingAuthorHiddenJew: l I don’t “look” Jewish too whatever the heck that means from those who are making those comments – probably my light complexion. :(
@CrouchingAuthorHiddenJew: There’s another story of a famous work of art produced by a child in that camp – the drawing “Earth seen from the Moon” by Petr Ginz became well known when Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took a copy with him on the final, ill-fated Columbia mission. Ginz, who was also a writer, was transported to Auschwitz and murdered at the age of 16.
Thank you both for taking the time to write such and important and valuable addition to this discussion. I’m glad you did it, because I’m out of words. I’ve tried to explain to family and friends how the romance reading community got to this point and words are failing me. They cannot imagine that anyone, under any circumstances, would find this an appropriate story for publication by a major house.
Janine, I feel your pain. And I mean that literally. Anyone grew up knowing how many of her relatives were gassed, and shot, and burned in our time, not in some mythical or Biblical past feels your pain. I have friends, still alive, with tattooed arms. I have relatives who are the children of survivors. When they are gone, who will believe that all of this happened? It’s up to us to continue saying, “It’s real. It happened. The pain is still with us today, and we can never forget.”
Thank you again.
@Carole-Ann: If it’d finalled in any category besides Inspirational, I’d be asking myself the same question. (I can’t find the exact rules, but if I’m remembering correctly, finalling in “Best First Book” means it was a top scorer in its category.)
It wasn’t the RWA that decided this book was a finalist; it was the folks judging the Inspirational category for the Ritas — and that’s pretty much a self-selecting group. You see, when you sign up to judge either the Ritas or Golden Heart, you list your preferred categories, but you can be assigned to anything, unless it’s one of the two categories you opt out of. Guess what one of the categories most folks opt out of is? (The irony being is that I think the opt-out was put in so the inspirational folks who’d be offended by it wouldn’t have to read that shameful sex stuff as the erotic romances began showing up.)
So, the people who are judging the books are folks who are most likely to be pre-disposed to respond to the narrative described above. It clearly got lucky in its panel and received scores high enough to final. And here’s the flip side of why I’m uncomfortable about the idea of folks saying RWA should have disallowed it at that point: there was a time when a coterie in RWA — headed by the inspirational folks — tried to keep the folks writing erotic romance out of the organization and out of the Ritas. I think some folks reading here remember those wars.
But I have to thank Janine and Sunita for this post — you lay out the problems very clearly, as well as addressing some of the misconceptions I’ve seen floating around. I can also see why this book would appeal to a certain segment; those care more about the message than the history and the history appears close enough on the surface that they can happily ignore it in favor of feeling righteous about seeing a Nazi redeemed (because, after all, they might say, doesn’t that show how powerful God’s love and mercy is?) and even if Hadassah/Stella isn’t converted by the end of the book, they can see a conversion looming and that would make them all a pitter-patter.
In short, it seems more like the tracts I was forced to read from time to time growing up than an actual romance. The message is the primary thing, not what the people are doing.
So many awful details . If this book only had one or two off these problematic details I might have understood how this book got published-maybe. However as it is I just do not understand how it ever got publish. So much wrong here and yet didn’t it raise a warning flag with anyone?
As someone who grew up in Lviv, I am really confused by this choice of “safe haven”. It wasn’t any better there than anywhere. And which time in 1944, anyway? It was taken by the Soviet Army in July 1944, and for a while before that, would be close to the front line and hardly a plausible choice.
BTW, another detail, it’s either Lviv, the correct modern spelling, or Lwow, old Polish spelling. Or even possibly Lemberg, as it would be on German maps. But it was only ever Lvov on Soviet maps, and these don’t seem a proper choice for the historical setting in the book.
I did check this out after the SBTB review, on Scribd. It was horrifying beyond description. I stopped at the part where the hero and heroine were making out in public while “inspecting” the camp, and while the starving, dying Jewish prisoners looked listlessly on. I think my brain literally just shut itself off at that point, and I could not go any further.
I am amazed that Sunita got to the end. Dedication, seriously. Great/disturbing commentary. It’s really good that someone was able to tackle this story and outline clearly how problematic it is.
@MD: Yes, confusion is one of the several things I was feeling while reading this discussion :(.
@Carole-Ann:Here are a couple links about the actual RITA process. Carolyn Jewel (a directer at large for RWA) explained the process in a comment – http://wendythesuperlibrarian.blogspot.com/2015/08/look-within-yourself-little-miss-crabby.html?showComment=1438994914560#c6029221033659319008
And Alexis Hall has a post about the RITA judging process and his experience as a judge – http://www.quicunquevult.com/laws-sausages-the-ritas – his last paragraph is excellent.
I’m so grateful for this post – thank you Sunita and Janine (especially Janine) for talking about this. I agree with Sirius – it is a public service.
Thank you for this important discussion. I’m happy to be part of a romance community that can and does face difficult and uncomfortable issues like the ones raised by this book. I completely agree with everyone that this book and its subject matter are not only distasteful but hurtful as well, and I’m grateful that you have thoroughly and eloquently represented the concerns this book raises, from cover to content. I do want to say that I’m happy to read a balanced and in-depth discussion written by people who actually read the book, whether in part or in whole. Many people created a social media steamroller effect in blasting the book and its author when it was clear they hadn’t actually read the book, and I found that took away from the real value and merit of the dialogue. All the people who instantly jumped onto Amazon to give the book 1-star reviews without having read it also took away from the discussion. This shouldn’t be about enacting petty revenge or garnering social media attention by railing against a book you haven’t read but instead about fostering change in the romance community.
I have no words for how horrified I am.
I want to say how grateful I am to Sunita, Robin and Jane. Sunita for managing to read the entire novel and for contributing her thoughts and her knowledge of the time period to this discussion. I could not have managed to read further, and I don’t know think I could have been as coherent if I was alone in this endeavor. Robin read the book too and that was also very helpful. She was also the first person to let me know that some of the things being said about the book publicly were in error. And Jane was very supportive of me when I was trying to decide whether to undertake reading the book for a DA post, and told me to weigh the effect reading it might have on me and not what was good for the blog.
@CrouchingAuthorHiddenJew: I too saw children’s drawings from a concentration camp when I was a child. I don’t recall if it was at school or on television (I lived in Israel until I was eleven, almost twelve). There was a lot of exposure to the Holocaust there, esp. on Holocaust Memorial Day, but not only then. They may have been from the children of Theresienstadt for all I know.
@Darlene Marshall: At my elementary school there was a teacher with numbers tattooed on her arm. She had written a memoir and I read it as a child. As a teenager she had been in Auschwitz with her mother. She and her mother were forced to go on the death march there. She survived the march but her mother did not.
She’s not the only concentration camp survivor whose personal story I know. A couple came to my schools (one to my elementary school in Israel; another to my high school class in Rochester, NY) to speak to the students. And there were many testimonies on TV and radio in Israel.
Of my own relatives, those who survived the war never reached the camps, and all the relatives who did reach the concentration camps died there. So I can only imagine what they lived though in those camps before they were murdered.
Many of the people who survived the war have incredible stories, because odds of surviving were so slim. However none of the stories I’ve heard are like the one in For Such a Time. The erasure of what really happened, the inauthentic portrayal of Judaism, and the sugarcoated Nazi Kommandant make this novel painful and distressing.
Thanks, everyone, and especially thanks to Janine for undertaking as much of this as she did.
On the Lvov/Lviv/Lwow issue, it was definitely spelled Lvov in the novel every time. I tried repeatedly to figure out the exact journey the train was supposed to be on and failed, so that’s why my wording is sort of squishy. They clearly are supposed to have crossed the border into Ukraine from Poland and then the train derails (into “Ukrainian mud”) a few kilometers from Lvov and there is a firefight at the train and people run into the surrounding forest. This happens in March 1944. The surviving refugees dowind up in a hospital in Lvov and are in that city at the end of the book, in June 1944. None of it makes sense to me, since Lvov/Lviv is another 200 miles beyond their original destination of Auschwitz.
On the “self-selection” of inspirational romance authors into RITA judging. This wording has always seemed odd to me, since you can opt OUT of categories but you don’t opt IN. There would have been between 101 and 125 books in the Inspirational Category this round (given the 4% finaling threshold and the 4-book minimum rule).
So those authors would have automatically been excluded. [ETA: Or maybe not. Please see Maya Banks’s comment below.]
How many judges are Inspirational Romance oriented (as opposed to simply being willing to be a judge for that category) depends on how many judges there are (I think this round everyone read 5 books, but in other years people have read more) and how many people volunteer to judge expecting they’ll be assigned inspies (which depends on the assignment process, which we don’t know). And the latter presumably depends on how many people opt out. We know what the rules are, but we don’t know the process, or at least I don’t and it doesn’t seem as if they’re laid out clearly anywhere. Carolyn’s post explains some of it, but there are still things I don’t get (which may just be my ignorance).
Okay – I’m hopeful that if I post this explanation of the likely popularity of this book here maybe, just maybe, people will take that into consideration when thinking about why/how the book was published in the first place despite the horrifying appropriation of history in it.
One caveat, I grew up in a very heavily Evangelical Christian family – the target market for books of this type – and that’s where I draw these conclusions from. Additionally, every female in my family save for myself and my daughter adores this book and praises it to the skies.
Anyway, what a lot of the general reading public don’t seem to realize is that Christian Inspirational fiction is all but required to fit a certain model. The biggest points are that at least one main character is Christian or “in the process of exploring or converting to Christianity.” It is typically expected that by the end of the narrative, the questioning character will have already converted or is obviously on the path to conversion. The second big point is that while controversial topics are dealt with (by controversial it is generally meant to be rape, adultery, or abortion), they are not the focus of the narrative; however, recovering from such things with the “love of Christ” can be a focus. And finally, as you might expect the standard of a HEA or at a very minimum a setup for one is expected.
Evangelical Christians, like my relatives, see this book more though the eyes of “the love of a good woman and Christ redeemed Aric” rather than see all the troublesome history. Most of the people in that community, at least the one my relatives personally belong to, when they think of the Holocaust at all actually consider it to be something that the Jewish population brought upon themselves and/or was God’s punishment of the Jews so the idea that Hadassah/Stella is being exposed to Christianity and is now “questioning” is great. Remember, much of this community still believes in the so-called “Blood Guilt” of the Jews which began centuries ago, dies down for a while, then returns and was one of the things that Hitler used as he developed some of his policies.
So, FOR THE AUDIENCE IT WAS INTENDED FOR, this book is (in the words of my stepmother) “one of the best books about the Holocaust ever!” Of course, this is the same community that helped turn that awful dreck of a thirteen or so volume series, Left Behind, into a best selling phenomenon. Personally, I thought the only decently developed character in that whole series was the Antichrist which also puts me on the outs with the Evangelical Christian community.
I honestly think that those of us outside that community – and it can at times be a somewhat insular one – will never fully understand why the book is/was so popular within it. We look at books a lot differently than the target market for Christian Inspirational fiction, romance or not, does – we see the bigger picture of the narrative and the problems within the narrative; they often only see things through the narrow scope of their religious viewpoint.
@M: Thank you for explaining that. This bit was very hard to read:
By “Blood Guilt” are these Evangelical Christians referring to the Judas’ betrayal of Christ (I’ve never understood why other Jews should be held to blame for this) or does it refer to something else, like Blood Libel?
I want to add that not all Evangelical Christians are behind this book or feel that way. For example Emily Jane Hubb has written this letter in protest of it to Bethany House.
@Janine: You’re welcome. And I know that’s very hard for anyone outside that small subset of Christians.
The branch of Evangelicals my relatives belong to, which I admit has become much more fundamentalist over the years, actually believe in both but the “Blood Guilt” of the betrayal of Christ by the Jews is much more heinous to them and why some of them actively try to convert anyone Jewish they meet. Part of their philosophy and belief system is that when the 144,000 (I think that’s the right number, it’s been a few years since I personally got the rant about it from my father) are converted to Christianity then we’re one step closer to Christianity. Apparently, you can ask for forgiveness for murder and/or be dealt with by secular authority – or so they say.
Honestly, I never understood it at all and even less when I studied history in depth in my college years, especially during my detailed studies of the Nazi era. I’ve ended up estranged from my family – my father says I’m “doomed to hell” – because I won’t support their belief system or teach it to my daughter.
When it comes to logic, it often seems to escape the Evangelical Christian community, at least the more fundamentalist portions of it. Much seems to depend on the branch/religious philosophy of the group.
And I’d not seen that open letter before in my admittedly few Google searches on this book, so thank you for pointing it out to me.
Oops, that should read “one step closer to the Second Coming.”
I wept with rage when I read your post this morning! To quote you Janine: “I can’t even….
Thank you for taking that stance. I’m sure I speak for others too when I say that I’m glad you chose to raise your daughter differently. I’m sure it couldn’t have been easy to break away.
@M: Thank you for your comment. It’s hard to read but I’d rather know than not know, and you lay it out clearly.
I’m wondering if these ideas are rooted partly in the extent to which certain denominations emphasize a literal reading of the Bible, i.e., is there a connection between treating the Bible as a factual source and the belief in the idea of blood-guilt?
@Sunita: The idea of the “blood guilt” of the Jewish people comes from a single verse in a single Gospel, Matthew 27:25 http://biblehub.com/matthew/27-25.htm (almost certainly a later interpolation specifically intended to distinguish the new “Christian” religion from the Jewish people, now suspect and despised from the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 – 136)
As for the popularity of this book among the targeted audience… I am not a big fan of Inspirational Romance, but a huge number of the public I serve adores them, so I try to keep up in order to serve them better. Unfortunately, the major message of much of this subgenre (obligatory #NotAllChristianFiction) is twofold: the first is that You (the reader) are a Nice Good Person, not at all like the Bad Nazis, who are easily identifiable by being gross and bad-mannered and rapey as opposed to the Secretly Good Nazi who can dance and kiss well and doesn’t have anything *personally* against the people he’s responsible for sending to their deaths; and secondly, the *real* persecuted victims in this world aren’t those dying in camps, whether they be in historical Germany or present day Syria or Somalia, but people like You, dear reader — Nice Good Christians (or almost-ready-but-not-quite-there-Christians) who say the right things about God and Jesus and THAT’S why the mean bad Nazi-types want to kill them (or force them to buy health insurance, which is just the same, really)
@Janine: It was hard, but I got luckily when I met my husband who 1 – supported me and often gave my relatives the stink-eye before we married and 2 – I moved over 1000 miles away from them when I married. Now I only have to deal with them via email and Facebook which makes it a lot easier to ignore their philosophy sometimes.
@Sunita: Again, you’re welcome. And yes, a lot of it is rooted in the literal reading mindset combined with a patriarchal tradition of ‘man as head of house’ and the way some translations of the Bible place an emphasis on the scene in the New Testament where Pilate offers the Jews a choice in who to condemn and they choose Jesus. Then he “washes his hands” as a show of “not my fault”. To the branch of Christianity my family belongs to this “proves that it was their fault Jesus died”. That it is at cross purposes with their statement of faith doesn’t seem to matter to them. As I said before, I never understood it, I just like to confuse them sometimes with “oh, but if you have to literally go by the Bible, what about this…” just to watch them descend into confusion trying to explain how “that’s different.”
@hapax: Is there a whole subgenre of inspies with Nazis in them, then? I know of other romances with Nazi heroes (Sunita has a great post on that on her blog) but none but this one are inspies.
@Sunita: The short answer is yes. Taking Scripture literally and not understanding its historical and cultural context has a lot to do with this. Not only that, fundamentalists and some (not all) evangelicals (there are left-wing evangelicals too) focus on certain aspects of Scripture while ignoring others. Moreover, these days no one interprets the Book of Revelations completely literally; it’s agreed to be allegorical. So there’s plenty to attack as unscholarly and unthoughtful. Biblical scholar Karen Armstrong has a lot to say about this and his fundamentalism and literal interpretation of Scripture is a recent (19th century) phenomenon.
Anti-semitism, however, is not recent. The exclusvism inherent in conservative Christianity, along with help from cherry-picked Bible verses, fosters it. Others like myself see a continuum where discipleship matters as much as specific faith and identifying as Christian. If, as the letter to the Hebrews says, the righteous Jews of the Hebrew scriptures are our witness to God, thus by implication as beloved and as saved as any Christian, why can’t that be true of Jews living since those days, particularly in light of the stumbling block of Christian persecution? The Romans put Jesus to death, yet no one talks about the collective guilt of their descendants. The so-called blood libel is a crock.
@Janine: No, by “Bad Nazis” I meant those groups that we are expected to automatically know are “bad” — Confederate slaveholders, Yankee carpetbaggers, Muslim terrorists, Mexican drug dealers, tattooed ex-convicts, etc.
And yes, there are plenty of Christian romances (well, to be fair, there are plenty of ALL kinds of romances) in which the hero (sometimes the heroine) is shown to be Different (and Better). But the way the Inspirational Romances show that he’s better is not by actually, you know, *being better*, but by all sorts of social and cultural markers, which eventually lead to him saying the *words* that make him “officially” Christian, but rarely actually accepting the responsibility for his *deeds*.
Once again, definitely #NotAllChristianFiction. But there’s enough of it there to make the genre as a whole toxic for me.
To M, Hapax and Lawless: Thank you. I thought it might be rooted in that verse from Matthew, but I wasn’t sure (so out of my depth here, doctrinally speaking).
And Lawless makes an excellent point about the diversity within Evangelical Christianity.
It is very depressing to see the blood-guilt/blood-libel canard return via a new route, but given the rise of anti-Semitism in different parts of the world, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. There’s usually some kind of myth to provide the scaffolding, just as the Financial Conspiracy and Internationalism myths were prevalent in 19th and early 20thC US nativism.
But as I said to M, it’s better to know than not know. It’s harder to fight what you don’t/can’t see.
@lawless: Technical point: “blood guilt” is not the same as “blood libel”.
Blood guilt refers to the passage from Matthew I linked above, in which the responsibility for the death of Jesus is transferred from the Romans (a powerful group with whom the early Christians were hoping to curry favor) to the Jewish people (a despised group whose historical links to Christianity the latter were eager to disown.) Despite its shaky (and historically nonsensical) origins, it is still openly taught in “respectable” conservative Christian circles.
Blood libel refers to a widespread horrific canard with medieval (probably English) origins that continues to this day, that accuses the Jewish people of kidnapping Christian (or, nowadays in some places, Muslim) children to use their blood to prepare for the Passover meal.
It’s a vile, ghastly rumor, which has been believed and used countless times over the centuries to justify pogroms, ghettos, and genocides. And yes, it is still whispered in certain Fundamentalist circles.
@hapax: It is so weird you said that. I was just thinking while reading the comments how I never heard about “blood guilt” while growing up – since I have not read the Bible till I was in the early twenties, but was very well familiar with what “blood libel” is. I think thats because “Beilis’ case” took place in the city I grew up and it left such a stain on the collective memory even decades or almost a century later.
I followed a twitter link to this posting, and I’ll say now, that I haven’t read the book in question. Before seeing the tweet that led me here, I have never heard of the book (or the controversy or discussion) and I’m ONLY posting a comment in response to one very minute and likely very unimportant detail that was only very summarily discussed. (and rightfully so since it hold little intrinsic bearing on the original topic and subject matter)
About RITA judging, opting out, and who could potentially be judging the entries in a particular category. I read above that people who entered a particular category and for purposes of this subject we will use the Inspirational category as an example, that they (writers entered in the Inspiration category) would be “automatically left out” (or disqualified from judging) Forgive me if I misquoted, but that was the basic language or point being made.
This is not always the case. In some years that I have entered the RITAs and even after they allowed one to “opt out” of categories of their choosing, I DID receive books to judge in categories (yes plural) that I was an ENTRANT in. As I write and publish in a variety of genres, when I do enter, I have never in any year, been only qualified to enter a single category only and have in fact, in the past, entered different titles in up to four categories.
In two separate years, I received, in my box of books to judge, books that were entered in the same category in which I had an entry. I spoke to a few (and I mean less than four) other authors who stated they also had received (either past or present) books to judge in a category in which they had entered a book.
While I can’t speak to whether this is an acceptable or widespread practice, I can state that it has happened. However, whether it was intentional or simply a clerical error or oversight, I can not say with any authority.
In my case, and I can only speak for myself and not whether other authors have done or did do, I contacted the RWA and furnished them with the titles of the books that were sent to me to judge that were in the same category that I, myself was entered in and in fact were competing against. I informed the RWA contact that I didn’t think it was fair for a judge who was competing against this particular book/author to judge the title(s) and therefore recused myself from judging only those entries.
I was told that I would be sent alternative books to judge that were not in the same categories that I had also entered and was asked if I could mail the books back to the RWA (this was a request, not a demand) and that should I not have the time or simply did not wish to send the books back so they could be forwarded to a different judge, that the RWA would simply order copies of the books that were sent to me and would then forward those onto different judges.
So my point here, is that yes, it is possible for judges in the RITA contest to end up receiving books to judge in the same category that they themselves are entered in and competing in. I can’t speak as to what other authors/judges in this situation have done, only what I have done when faced with this issue. But it is possible, that authors ARE judging entries in the category in which they, themselves are in fact entered in.
The fact that it has happened on more than one occasion (years) to me would lead me to believe that perhaps there is no *actual* rule about one judging a title in the same category in which they are entered because the response I received upon pointing out that I had received titles in the same categories in which I was entered, told me that if I didn’t feel as though I was able to objectively judge the book based on its merits and put aside the fact that I was competing against this book and author then I would certainly be sent replacement books to judge. But it was worded more as a question and led me to believe that I was being assured that it was OKAY, as long as I felt as though I could be objective and not allow the fact that I was entered in the same category influence my scoring of the book. (My opinion based on MY interpretation of the email)
I FELT (as in this was not implicitly stated) but I INTERPRETED this response to mean that if I had assured the RWA contact I was corresponding with that I could absolutely judge the book objectively and without prejudice that it was, in fact, okay to proceed and judge the entry.
Admittedly, I do not know what the exact rules are. I was surprised to have received entries in my own category and I was uncomfortable with the idea of ANY author judging a book in the same category in which they had entered one of their own titles and so I recused myself and returned the books. I would hope that any author would do so, but I can’t judge other’s intentions nor am I qualified to make assumptions as to whether they are capable of fairly judging a book they are competing with. I can only say I don’t *agree* with the practice. I’m certainly not casting aspersions on any author’s character if they have in fact judged impartially and without bias a book that was in the same category they had entered their own book.
@ Caro and @ Cleo
Many thanks for your explanations! Now I understand RWA a little better :)
And thank you to @ M who has (somewhat) explained the logic (?) of Evangelical Christians.
Although these are profound arguments against promoting this book, I have to own to an element of non-censorship. Finding a balance is not easy, and I’m going to look for the easy way out: – No, I will never, ever read this book.
I’m too close to the truth, in that I was born just after the war ended; my parents fought for the freedom of the UK in that war; and I was brought up on stories and recollections by my immediate family. There was always sympathy in my family for the Jews AND the Japanese (that’s another story), but very little for the Germans. That ceased in my early teens when I was introduced to a very clever German engineer who worked with my father; his family carried the stigma of being a defeated nation, and although he/they had fought in the war, he/they carried no animosity towards the Allied Nations, but carried the shame of their compatriots like a yoke. His family AND mine became firm friends.
In all honesty, I think this book has hit a few nerves BECAUSE there are still people alive who suffered/survived the war; and/or their nearest relatives who remember. Give it another 50-100 yrs and no-one (possibly) might care. Give it another 50-100 yrs and maybe the Evangelical Christians will have consigned us all to Hell.
Thank you, Janine and Sunita for this. As the daughter of a survivor, I am unable to read the book myself. My outrage over the subject since I first heard about it last week has been steadily growing, and it’s good to see a review like this that lays it all out in a rational way.
Thank you also to @M for detailing the evangelical Christian perspective on this book, as I think that is especially hard for most of us to understand.
To follow up more on “does the history even make sense”, the whole ” cross the border into Ukraine” sounded highly suspect given my understanding of the history of the area. I just double checked, and to the extent that there were borders within Germany, Lemberg (Lviv) was in District Galizien, which was part of Poland territories within the German administrative structure. So they wouldn’t even moving into a different “country” or government, even if changing districts. And yes, the extra 200 miles don’t make sense.
Neither does the hospital. I know someone whose parents werr hiding a Jewish woman in a cellar on the outskirts of Lviv. That’s what was needed – a load of Jewish refugees in a hospital is hardly sensible.
And the final period for the history. Lwow ghetto (as it was known) was the third largest in existence. There were 110,000 Jews there at the beginning of the war. They were either killed right there or were transported to death camps. By the end of the war, there were only around 800 survivors. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lwów_Ghetto
@Caro: “In short, it seems more like the tracts I was forced to read from time to time growing up than an actual romance. The message is the primary thing, not what the people are doing.”
I think that’s a feature, not a bug, of inspirational fiction, including romance. The message–“Jesus Saves!”–is preeminent over story, character arcs, logic, etc., and about as subtle as a brick to the head. Frankly, given the genre (inspy), and the tone-deaf approach to the Holocaust, I’m surprised that the heroine didn’t have an out-right conversion to Christianity at the novel’s end.
@Maya Banks: Thank you so much for commenting and talking about your experiences. I’ve amended my comment above and directed people to yours.
I think it would be awful for people to be put in the position of having to negotiate that kind of conflict of interest. It’s not about whether they could or couldn’t judge fairly (to me), it’s that they shouldn’t have to confront that question. If RWA screws up, I would want that choice to be made by them, not left up to me. Of course mistakes are going to occur. What’s important is to have really clear rules to follow when they do. And I do understand that RWA depends on a lot of donated labor, which makes this whole process even more difficult to manage. But still.
@MD: Thank you for figuring that out. I didn’t think it made sense, but by that point I wasn’t up to puzzling through all the bits I couldn’t understand.
@Janine: FWIW, when I joined an evangelical church, my brother (who was also a member – he even went to bible college) (I don’t go to that church anymore BTW) explained to me that Jews were “God’s chosen people” and that “He had a plan for them” and we should “keep our hands off”. By that, he explained that meant that Christians weren’t to interfere, hinder or harm/hurt Jewish people because they were/are a special people chosen by God and He had a plan for them (a plan God only knew/knows) and we were to treat Jewish people with respect and care and love always and let God ‘worry’ about what would happen to to the Jewish people a la “salvation”. I understood it to mean that we weren’t even to try to ‘convert’ Jews to Christianity (but I suppose I could be mistaken on that last – I *didn’t* go to bible college).
So I guess I wanted to chime in and say even among evanglical Christians, there is a diversity of views about the Jewish people. The one I was taught was not at all one of any kind of “blood guilt”. Not even a little bit.
Re. RWA and the RITA, I wanted to reiterate here something I said on Twitter. I think the very people who would find this book the most offensive are also those who are likely to opt out of judging a book like this, and one of the reasons why is that (as I understand it) judging for the RITA requires one to read the judged books in their entirety.
I feel that the rules should be amended on this point, and judges should be allowed to give a book a low score based on a partial. A partial reading may not be enough to discern if a book is great, but it is often enough to discern if a book is terrible. If I read 50 pages of this book alone, that would be enough for me to know that it was a terrible book. To read this entire book would be incredibly traumatizing to someone with my background.
If RWA were to allow judges to do judge based on partials, it is possible that fewer people would opt out of judging this type of book. They might instead stick it out for at least as many pages as it takes them to judge the book adequately and give it the grade it deserves.
@Beth: ((((hugs))))) I think it’s so brave of you to read even the posts on this topic, as the child of a survivor.
@Kaetrin: Thanks Kaetrin. I knew there were evangelicals who feel differently because they’ve been posting and tweeting about it. I just hate that there are any who believe in blood guilt or blood libel (two different things, but both horribly offensive).
@Janine: Yes, I hate it too. :(
Kaetrin thanks for saying that. And I really want to add that I’ve been Southern Baptist from the Bible Belt all my life. (since I was 12 anyway) Now I’m almost 50. I have never attended a church (and there have been a few) where we were taught the horrible things I’m reading in these comments. So I really hope those examples are exceptions and not the rule.
Thank you all for accepting what I posted. I posted something similar someplace else and was treated horridly for it.
@Janine: Yes, there are different beliefs in the Evangelicals. I just happen to have been exposed to the slightly more fundamentalist, patriarchal version. A lot depends on which version you deal with, some are more accepting than others, or so it seems.
FWIW, I received a message from my stepmother and half-sister today essentially saying that anyone who doesn’t like this book isn’t a “real” Christian even if they claim to be because it’s such a good book and that “Those People” (their words) were out to get Christians by beating them down this way. A typical “us versus them” mentality of the community I grew up in.
@M: I am so sorry you have to listen to that. My heart aches for you.
Yikes. I’m so sorry that happened to you.
As for accepting what you posted, I find it very easy to believe because the blood guilt thing has been at the core of various persecutions of Jewish people for centuries. I’m glad I know so many Christians (including evangelicals) who don’t feel that way.
@M: Your comment was so important for our discussion. And thank you for taking a chance on us, especially given your previous experience.
Thank y’all so much for this. This is so awful and for me was a huge slap and how big a problem anti-semitics are in the US
@M: I’m so glad you got out. They sound horrible.
I have nothing constructive to add, really.
The review was disturbing to read, and I applaud both of you for reading this book, either partially or in whole.
The education for me was in the comments.
Many things I didn’t know, hadn’t heard. So many comments from women (mostly or all, not completely certain) with connections and memories and loved ones and I don’t even know how to say what’s making my head hurt and tears roll.
In lieu of that: In the purest sense of the word, I love every one of you right now for sharing. Thank you.
I just wanted to add my thanks for your contribution to the discussion. Since I read the review on SmartBitches, the big question reverberating around my brain has been “who ARE these people!? How is their thinking structured to find this scenario attractive/pleasing?” You have answered these questions very well. Thank you.
On the Lvov issue, it would still have been under Nazi occupation in June 1944. It was part of Poland before the war, annexed by the Soviets in 1939 and then occupied by the Nazis from 1941 to July 1944, during which time all but a few hundred of the 100,000+ Jewish people living in the city were killed. Honestly, it’s hard to think of a worse place the author could have chosen for a safe haven.
If it had been based on Helen Citronova’s story it would have been somewhat historically accurate, her and her sister were saved by Nazi Officer Franch Wunsch after they fell in love, and she testified at his trial (he was friends with Oscar Goerning), from her words it wasn’t real love though, it was survival. There was so much potential wasted on this book. And so much heartache caused by this book.
I’ve been thinking about this part:
Perhaps that was why they were best friends, she thought with a wistful sigh. Marta’s efforts hadn’t borne fruit, but Hadassah was always touched by the genuine concern for her soul.
Is it addressed in the novel why Marta was concerned enough to repeatedly try “in her earnest, gentle way to convert Hadassah to Christ”, but not concerned enough to help her hide? Or did she try and get caught?
@DesLivres, @Kaetrin, @Sunita, @Janine, @Lexxi: And anyone I missed… I thank you again for the supportive messages. It was…. difficult to lose some of the mindset, I suppose that goes from growing up with it, but getting away from it all was likely the best thing I ever did. And I’m glad I could help with the discussion some.
Things I’m now hearing from my female relatives who are still within that community and are actively a part of it about this book and the current controversy surrounding it would likely make many of you tear out your hair. So, I won’t frustrate you all with the news. :)
But really, thank you again for letting me comment on this, I appreciate it more than I can really convey.
@Rose: In the section i read there was no mention of Marta attempting to hide Hadassah/Stella or discussing the topic of hiding with her. It’s possible that the false papers Stella had obtained made her feel she would not need to hide. That’s not stated either, though. Sunita can answer for the rest of the novel better than I can.
Rose and Janine, I looked through my copy for all the references to Marta. She appears early on as Stella/Hadassah’s best friend and coworker. They grew up together and then worked in the same office. Marta did help to hide her, but Stella went out to look for her uncle and was picked up at a checkpoint.
Throughout the book, Marta has no personality of her own. She functions as a way to insert New Testament references into Stella’s thoughts. It’s very clumsy and strange.
@RKD: Thanks for that information. The more I know, the more I flinch.
@Sunita: Thanks Sunita for clearing that up. I think I recall reading that now too.
I agree completely that bringing a load of Jewish refugees to a hospital in Lvov (really Lwow or Lviv) would have almost certainly resulted in their deaths. But I wanted to relate a story about someone who survived the war by hiding in a hospital. My grandmother’s younger brother, who would have been a child or young teen at the time, I think, was the only member of her immediate family to survive. He was ill and his doctor, a gentile, courageously hid him in the Belgian hospital where the doctor worked.
Very sadly for my grandmother, her brother passed away of his illness shortly after they made aliyah to Israel in 1946. She was devastated by his death since her parents and sisters had died in Auschwitz.
Rose sent me a link to another true story of another very courageous gentile doctor– a truly amazing woman. Even with my trepidation about mixing concentration camps with the romance genre (a bad idea IMO) I would still much rather read an inspie about someone like her than one about a concentration camp Kommandant.
@Sunita: Thanks for looking it up, Sunita. I guess that’s something that Breslin did handle in a way that makes some sense.
As for Lvov, if I’m not mistaken most of the Jews living there were transported to Belzec, where survival was not just unlikely, it was almost impossible. This was done before the time frame of the book, but I can’t imagine choosing it as a safe haven.
Thank you Janine and Sunita for this review and everyone has made great comments.
@M You have made some excellent points, and your statements on the variety of Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches is quite true. I grew up in a church that I think of now as Evangelical “light” – not nearly the crazy sauce of some of these groups but I knew they were out there. For anyone who is a member of a large organized church like Catholic or Episcopalian – the difference is those churches set up doctrine and rules for all. These independent fundamentalists are reading the bible and interpreting it for themselves which is why you get the wide variety of views (and allows for some crazy) depending on what group you are in and who’s doing the interpreting for the group.
As far as their persecution complex, I’m not sure but I think that may be newer (I don’t remember it when growing up), and a result of the constant harangue of right wing journalists maybe? It seemed to become prominent when some took off on a crusade to “take back Christmas”, etc.?
@Joanna: The public side of the persecution complex is fairly recent. I think it went public around the “take back Christmas” thing but it’s been around for years. Though many won’t acknowledge it as some of their ideas go mainstream but the more extreme anti-abortionists, the movements against gay marriage, the movements against sex education, etc. have their roots in the more fundamentalist Christian movements.
What always disturbed me about it was how the “Elders” of the church – in this case I’m speaking of the two I grew up around/in – would preach one thing, but then do another, especially with regard to premarital sex or adultery. The hypocrisy in some of these churches/groups is astounding. We saw one manifestation of it recently with the case of Josh Duggar – when his father was campaigning for political office, he said things like child molesters and rapists need to be executed but completely changed his tune to one of supporting the alleged perpetrator when it was his son involved.
There is, as Joanna said, a great variance in the belief systems of the more fundamentalist Evangelical churches as there is no real organization for them or centralized leadership. Most of them focus their “church family” around their church’s personal preacher and each set of church leaders hire their own finding one that “fits” the mindset of the church.
Back to the book in question, I managed to borrow a copy from my local library last night and skimmed a bit. Not only is it disturbing reading from a stylistic standpoint but she would have lost me as a reader the moment I reached the scene in chapter six where she has a file folder labeled “Final Solution” appear. I saw that and about screamed. Not that I was overly enthused about the book and the content before then but as someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Holocaust in history classes, I know even the most superficial of readings on the topic would tell a researcher/reader that the Nazis/Third Reich never, ever wrote down anything related to their plans. It wasn’t until after the war when the Nazis were being questioned by the Allies in the lead up to the Nuremberg War Crimes trials that the term Final Solution actually began to appear in written records. I saw that scene and decided that either the author did no research at all or did the research and discarded anything she didn’t feel fit her agenda/plot for the book. I hate when people make basic research mistakes like that.
I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have ranted like that. I just bothers me a lot.
Bethany House posted an official response to the publication of For Such a Time on their website today: http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/bethanyhouse/l/from-bethany-house-publishers
@Michele Mills: An utterly insensitive response.
@Janine: Based on your discussion alone and not reading the book, I really question the “well researched” claim.
Notice they didn’t address their blurb and cover image choices. Nor did they address the points made in Emily Jane Hubb’s letter which I linked to in this comment.
Thank you to Janine and Sunita – I agree with everything you said in your discussion, although I could never have been so succinct and clear about my reactions. I am reading the book, as well, but have not yet finished (I can only take it in small bits at a time).
I did, however, begin with the last 25% because I was curious about the conversion issue, and I read it the same way Sunita did. I saw no indication that Hadassah was or would be converted. The Bible in question belonged to Aric’s mother, and it had a photo of Aric in it, making it appear to me as much a romantic object as a spiritual one. My interpretation is that Aric is the one who needs to return to his faith (not a conversion, but a re-confirmation?), which makes Hadassah the means by which he is saved (taking away from her own identity and integrity as a Jewish woman).
Many others have already talked about why figuring Hadassah this way is such an appalling and problematic scenario, given the historical and religious issues – both factually and as they have been fictionalized in the book, so I won’t go over those again. It did get me thinking, though, about how often in mainstream Romance heroines serve as the means by which a hero is “redeemed,” and how deeply problematic that can be. In fact, there’s a lot of common Romance language in the book, from Aric’s appearance to the language of their attraction, etc. So I can kind of see how some readers who are not the target audience for this book (aka Christians whose beliefs fall within a certain ideological paradigm as described by M) could find it “romantic” — because along with all the religious coding (some of which I did not immediately identify, because like Sunita I am a religious outsider to the book), there is also a lot of traditional Romance novel coding. I understand how that seems inconceivable to many, but I think this goes back to how Romance is coded in all sorts of ways depending on subgenre, intended readership, social, cultural, and religious context, and even in the legacy of genre books (how tropes and language are passed down from one book to another, from one author to another).
We see all the time — and, if we’re honest with ourselves, experience — interpretations of books that are very narrowly focused or ignore issues and tropes that strongly affect other readers. I can see how some mainstream Romance readers might find this book appealing, especially if they are a) used to reading very narrowly for coded Romance language and tropes, b) ignorant of much of the history of the Holocaust, c) steeped in, unaware of, and uncritical of patriarchal ideologies, especially within certain Christian traditions, d) uneducated about Judaism and/or perhaps not acquainted with many Jewish people in their communities, and/or e) desirous of accepting the book’s very superficial attempt to present Judaism and Christianity as similar, along with the incredibly problematic figuring of Hadassah as heroic (because that figuration is prescribed by the novel’s particular Christian paradigm).
In fact, this is why I think it’s so important to have people actually reading the book and analyzing it on the facts. Not that anyone should read the book who does not want to or feel comfortable doing so. But if the goal is to get people to reconsider/see beyond their points of ignorance, bias, lack of previous insight, etc., and to better understand why and how people have been hurt by this book, then these kinds of discussions become deeply important, and the details do matter. So thank you again to everyone who was willing to engage with the book (Sunita has a great list of additional links here: https://readerwriterville.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/for-such-a-travesty/) and open the door to thoughtful conversations where we can all learn from each other.
@M: I’ve always thought that the narrower and stricter your beliefs are (no matter what they are), the more difficult it is to avoid hypocrisy. Which is why I think we see it so often in extreme religious ideologies. I always wonder how many followers identify the hypocrisy and simply sublimate or rationalize it away, and how many have been indoctrinated past the point of thinking critically enough to see it. To some degree we all have to do this within a societal ideology in order to survive, but there’s a point past which it seems particularly difficult to ignore or manage.
@Sirius: Oh, yeah. That claim in the post waved red flags to me as well.
@Janet: You bring up a great point about the way the book uses romance genre tropes and romance genre style language. For example the boss/secretary trope is there, as well as the heroine being the agent of the so-called hero’s so-called redemption. There is the power differential between the two, as well. All these exist in other genres of romance.
I myself write historical romance, a genre in which dukes and other aristocrats are often the heroes. This too is problematic since the class system was also an oppressive system and aristocrats sat at the top of it, benefiting from injustice. Many authors in the historical romance don’t do substantial research, and this often results in erasure of the historical record.
So none of these particular problems are exclusive to this novel, and I’ve been wrestling with that. This book is more offensive because we’re talking about a genocide of millions of people which actually took place and affected people still living today. But as much as I dislike it, I can understand how if readers are ignorant and/or blinded by privilege, they might not find this novel offensive.
@M: M, rant away. I can understand the urge. The husband has extended family that ths book would make perfect Christmas gifts for; they’re the ones who are sitting in their million-plus dollar home, passing judgement on whether or not I might be “too Catholic” (and therefore, not really Christian) because I’m an Episcopalian, and talking about being “persecuted” because someone asked them to not prosletize quite so loudly. I definitely get it.
Really? A file marked “Final Solution?” That’s…oh, let’s be as obvious as possible. As you said, even a cursory reading on the topic would show the Nazis didn’t write the plans down. One of the points specifically mentioned in the film “Conspiracy” is that notes were not allowed to leave the premises of the Wannsee conference and were burned. The 30 copies of minutes were to be destroyed after being read and it is only because one person didn’t follow instructions that we have an idea of that discussion.
If anyone hasn’t seen “Conspiracy,” let me recommend it. Done in 2001, it has Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth, Brendan Coyle, Ian McNeice, and a host of other actors you’ve seen in British television (including Tom Hiddleston), and dramatizes the 1942 conference where the various heads were informed of how the Final Solution was to be carried out. It is horrifying in the sheer banality of the action; I kept thinking how close this was to many meetings I’ve had to sit through, though the subjects were far different. If you’ve got HBO GO, it’s currently one of the offering — with the warning that there could be decided triggers for folks.
@Michele Mills: Why am I not suprised by that response? They clearly felt the situation had reached a point where they had to say something — but they don’t want to upset the very audience who’s going to love this book, who are likely the first to say this is Bethany House being forced to bow to political correctness and anti-Christian Haters.
What irks me is realizing this is probably going to spur sales of the books among that audience.
I loved the reference to the “nazi transit camp” in the Bethany House statement, without mentioning the camp by name.
What really struck me about the statement was their passion and commitment to their own point of view. “we are sad you feel offended, but we’re SO right.”
It is so important to stay true to the facts, and thank goodness for the splendid people who have managed to read this book for us, and enumerate them.
Really what confronts us about all this is that the only true point of view is theirs, and the only pathway to God is their way, and everything else is grist to the mill, and doesn’t otherwise matter. The role of trains in the Holocaust (discovered in her good research)? – cool! Let’s have a fight on top of a moving train! Like Indiana Jones! And a freedom train! So the goodies win! She wouldn’t need to ask Jewish people about what she was writing, because she’s a good person, writing about Good Things, like Christian redemption. What else matters?
@Janine: Just let me clarify that I’m not trying to defend the book; I just wanted to make the point that I could see how it conforms to the Romance genre, both in RWA’s definition and in its use of coded language and tropes. And I think it’s also a good example of how tropes we often accept without thinking can be problematic — which should perhaps make us think again about how they function in other genre contexts.
I myself write historical romance, where dukes and other aristocrats are often the heroes. This too is problematic since the class system was also an oppressive system and aristocrats sat at the top of it, benefiting from injustice. Many authors in the historical romance don’t do substantial research, and this often results in erasure of the historical record.
I can’t imagine that we’ll ever be rid of problematic books or tropes. I don’t think we should even strive for that, in part because there’s no single book that would be acceptable to every single reader. But also because people have a very complex relationship to texts, and stories are themselves very complicated (even when appearing very simple or superficial), because even as fiction they so often riff off of real-life dilemmas and conflicts. Problematic books can then be an ironically safe space to examine difficult, even painful, issues, which is, I think, one reason we see the kind of extremity we often do in Romance, especially.
@Janet: Oh, I knew you weren’t in any way defending the book! I would never think that.
I also agree with you re. problematic books.
I don’t have time to read the comments right now, but just wanted to say what an excellent and important piece this is.
I don’t know for certain, but I suspect the only reason for the official response is because Emily Jane Hubbard posted her letter on Bethany’s FB page in the visitor’s section. I responded to it. The very next day Bethany House thanked us for our thoughts and linked us both to their official response….which I’m disappointed with. It feels uncomfortably like a non apology.
@Janine: Thanks, Janine. It’s tough, because I don’t want to give the awfulness of the book short shrift, but neither do I want to pretend that this book, or Inspirational Romance, alone are “the problem.” There are just so many layers of problematic here, and it’s going to take a while to peel them all back.
@Sirius: She did a lot of research. The author’s note shows that she had quite a bit of correct information at her fingertips. Yes she also screwed up a bunch of stuff, but things like the tattoo, and the Red Cross visit: she knew she was falsifying them in the novel.
It’s not about the research she did, it’s what she put into the story and how she distorted what she *did* know.
And that non-apology is a classic. We are so sad that you have taken offense. Our sadness is great. Gaze upon our sadness and see what you did.
@Sunita: ah I see thanks for explaining .
Thanks for this. I really got a lot out of this piece as well as the comments and contextualization via M and others (thank you!). I’ve been feeling deeply offended by this book ever since I heard about it at the RWA convention.
The other day I went in search of some commentary by the author on it, just seeking to understand what she was thinking, and it actually made it way worse: I found a YouTube video where she notes (2:30) that she hopes people will “come away with a better understanding and knowledge of the Holocaust.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MM_Cq5GjXMU.
The idea that this book, especially considering the ending, should be seen as at all educational offends me in the most visceral way. (The author admits she didn’t follow the tale of Esther line for line but nothing of perverting the events of the Holocaust.) It’s quite clear that it’s all about Esther for this author (and its lessons for people standing up for what they believe in today, in this world, it seems).
@Sunita: She clearly did a lot of research into the Holocaust and the concentration camp system, but very little research into Judaism, its practices and traditions.
@Carolyn Crane: You’re welcome! I don’t think I can bear to watch Breslin’s video right now but as Sunita said above, it’s better to know than not to know.
Thank you, Carolyn and Joanna. I appreciate that a lot. And yes, the “educational” aspect disturbs me greatly as well. I’m frequently called nitpicky when I criticize historical details, and it’s not an unfair comment because I can be. But I hate the idea that people subconsciously pick up distorted or inaccurate information and subconsciously file it away as “what happened.” It’s so hard to unlearn things.
@Janine: Oh I agree she got a lot of things wrong. I’m really glad to have the Lvov mistakes and the “Final Solution” references called out; I noted the latter but wasn’t sure enough to make a point of it in our discussion. I did wonder why everyone in the camp, including Joseph, knew all about Auschwitz in February 1944. Anyway, my point is mostly that even when it’s clear she *did* the research, the book tells us a different story. So what difference does it make whether she did the research or not? We aren’t arguing that she didn’t know about the Red Cross visit, we’re asking why, if she knew what actually happened, did she write such a crock of crap? It’s not as if it lines up with the Esther story.
@Sunita: Yes, I agree.
Okay, I’ve read the Bethany House fauxpology and, this is the part that really stumped me: “inspired by the redemptive theme of the Biblical book of Esther” .
Umm. I’ve read Esther (as a Christian) and I see a lot of interesting, inspiring, and also disturbing themes in the story, but I’m hornswoggled if I see anything “redemptive”, even in the common sense of the word, let alone the religious Christian gloss on the term.
Is there something I’m missing? Can those who understand the significance of the story to the Jewish religion, or those with a deeper immersion into evangelical Christian culture, help me out here?
@hapax: I ( as a Jew, secular Jew but I did study Judaism in college ), learned that Esther is a story of triumph and survival – people who had deeper studies may correct me but I am unaware of any redemption themes in it.
@hapax: I am secular too but know Esther somewhat from the Purim context. I also studied it in school but remember very little of that. I think of Esther as a story of God’s deliverance of the Jews while under Ahasuerus’ rule but not in any way as a redemptive story. I suspect the Bethany House statement is recasting Esther as the story of Ahasuerus’ redemption to appeal to a Christian audience, since (from what I understand as an outsider) the concept of redemption is central to Christianity.
@hapax: The way I was taught the story as a child was that the king had strayed from the path of the righteousness/godliness and allowed sin/evil to dominant his court, as evidenced by his trying to have his wife appear in public nude so he could show her off. When she refused, supposed to be “proof” of her modest/god-fearing nature, the king had her killed. Then he married Esther… she, through her slow perseverance and adherence to God’s laws brought him back to the path of righteousness/godliness thereby “redeeming” him from sin/evil.
It wasn’t until my college years that I learned there was a different interpretation of the book of Esther. I never did learn where this “version” of Esther came from but it is the interpretation of Esther I learned as a child – that of a “modest and God-fearing woman” being a “man fallen into sin” back to God.
When it comes to the statement from Bethany House, I’m not at all surprised by the wording. They know that as long as they are seen to be supporting the author by their target market, whatever we think will not matter in the long run. We – the non-Christian readers – will soon move on to another target. The people they sell to will continue to buy and support the book. I also checked and this book has hit the finals in both of the major “Christian Fiction” awards. It even won one of them for best-selling first time author. And that’s before the RWA awards, so no, Bethany House isn’t going to do more than make a generalized statement and wait for the dust to settle.
@Kaetrin: Thanks for your earlier comments. My experiences with my many evangelical family members closely mirror yours. Jews were God’s chosen people, and there was never any discussion about a need to convert them. No talk of blood guilt or any such nonsense. (One of the most popular books among my relatives during my teen years was Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, the true story of the Dutch family who hid Jews in a secret compartment in their house. The Jews survived, but the Ten Booms were arrested, and Corrie and her sister were sent to Ravensbruck.) I guess I’m just saying that not all evangelicals fit into a single mold, and the ones I know would be pretty troubled by the events/themes in this book.
I initially wasn’t going to read this post because I knew how distressing it would be, but I’m glad I did. Obviously, it was even more distressing for those directly affected by the Holocaust. Thanks for a thoughtful discussion.
@Susan: thank you :) I didn’t realise anyone thought the way M’s family and their church were described but I don’t doubt it – people are so weird and, unfortunately, hateful sometimes. Poor M! It’s tempting at times to go a bit #NotAllChristians but I have appreciated that most of the critical discussions (that I have seen anyway) have actually included Christian women and Jewish women AND women of other or no specific religion, speaking out together about the book from their differing perspectives.
@Caro: I totally agree with and second your rec for “Conspiracy.” The sheer “ho-hum, business as usual, watch checking to see when this will be over” feel to the meeting is chilling.
Very thought provoking discussion. Thanks.
Thank you Sunita and Janine for your discussion of this book and to the commenters for a thoughtful discussion.
Does the book actually identify Aric as a member of the SS while he was at the Russian front or was he just in the regular German army and then somehow was transferred to the SS (as a commander) when he was put in charge of the camp? If he was not a member of the SS throughout, it would have been extremely unlikely that he would have been “transferred” to an SS unit and appointed to one of the top posts as Kommandant of a camp. At best, he would have been appointed a guard. Although there were SS units who fought on the front, they were completely separate in administration from the regular army and I find it incredibly unbelievable that the SS would have accepted the appointment of a regular army officer to be in charge of a camp that was transporting prisoners to the extermination camps unless he specifically joined the SS and they had ample proof that he was a “true believer” to the cause. If he was an SS officer, then how does she deal with the fact that the SS armed units were responsible not only for fighting, but for rounding up and imprisoning the “undesirables”?
The sanitizing of the history to suit the author’s purposes is bad enough, but then marketing it as educational just makes me ill.
@Lynnd: Hi Lynn. I wanted to double-check the text to make sure my account was accurate. Aric is a Major in the Wehrmacht during the Stalingrad campaign, serving under General Paulus in the 6th Army. The book has him joining the army in 1933 and rising through the ranks. He is present at the battle of Kiev as well (including Babi Yar) and the text emphasizes the SS’s role in carrying out that massacre, which reinforces the separate activities of the SS. The organization separation of the SS isn’t made explicit that I remember, but it underlies the general narrative (Aric is frequently shown to be disdainful of the SS, while Hermann dislikes and belittles the Wehrmacht).
Aric is unable to return to his officer duties because of his injuries. While he is recuperating, Himmler personally chooses him to be Kommandant of the camp, giving him the SS rank of Colonel (how this is made to happen is not explained).
I think the idea is supposed to be that because he is only a Kommandant for a short time and is hand-picked by Himmler for the post, we are not supposed to see him as indoctrinated into the Nazi ideology. Why Himmler would choose someone like that I have no idea.
@Sunita: Aric is present at Babi Yar? Doing what, just observingthe executions ? Thanks .
@Sirius: The way it is described (by Rand, the aide-de-camp), is that the SS went in after the 6th had taken Kiev and committed the massacre. But yes, they definitely know what is happening. It’s used as backstory for Aric’s trauma.
I’m sorry to write this. I feel as if every comment of mine should come with a trigger warning.
I found an article in Spiegel Online which reports new research about the Battle/Siege of Stalingrad based on interviews with Soviet troops. The German army was brutal during its Russian march, and a book based on these sources argues that the Red Army troops fought so fiercely not because they were afraid of being shot if they didn’t, but in part because they knew what the German army had done.
@Sunita: thank you for doing this , thank you so much. As I mentioned I tried the sample on scribd yesterday and could not finish so thank you again.
Yes I think they knew – how could they not? They had families left in the occupied cities even if no other sources of information was available and of course often they came home to no more family left. My grandmother’s younger brother who got drafted never had a chance to come home before he was killed fighting but what would he have found ? Older sisters and their kids executed by Natzis , same as grandparents and the rest running away throughout the Soviet Union to live where German army did not get to them.
@Sunita: Thanks for confirming what I remembered — that Aric was associated with the German army before his recruitment by Himmler into his concentration camp Kommandant role, but not with the SS.
I didn’t want to answer Lynnd’s question because I no longer had a copy of the book, but I remembered thinking it odd that he would enter the SS as a Kommandant, rather than rising through its ranks. I wasn’t sure at the time I read the book that this was unlikely, but it seemed like something that might very well be.
As for the Babi Yar part, I don’t even know what to say.
@Sunita: thank you Sunita for looking this up. I find it incredibly implausible that a Major in the Wehrmarcht would have been transferred to a senior position in the branch of the SS that ran the camps and to be the actual commander of a large camp like Theresienstadt, not bloody likely. Further, how did he even come to Himmler’s attention (don’t go look it up -I’m just ranting) unless he was a really enthusiast party supporter! The holes in this book just keep getting larger and larger. Ugh!
@Sunita: “It’s used as backstory for Aric’s trauma.”
The Babi Yar massacre is appropriated for ARIC’s “trauma”?
Surely you can not mean that. I must have read that wrong.
The sheer level of callousness, of self-absorption, of All-About-Me-ism that would entail….
… on both the fictional character’s, and more seriously, the author’s part …
… I withdraw any benefit of the doubt. This book is Actively EVIL.
@hapax: I know.
[Horrible explanatory stuff. Warning!]
Here’s how it works. Aric joins the army (actually, now I’m not clear how he’s in the German army when he’s Austrian. But whatever) in the early to mid 1930s. He advances to the rank of Major. He is part of the 6th Army, under Paulus, so he is part of the victory in Kiev. After the 6th moves on, the SS comes in and carries out the massacre of the Kiev Jews. Both Aric and Rand have memories of this in the narrative. It is not only part of Aric’s traumatic memories, his motivation for making sure that Stella leaves Theresienstadt right after the Red Cross visit is that he is concerned that with the way the war is going, Hitler et al. will get rid of the evidence of that camp the way Heydrich used the massacre at Babi Yar to get rid of evidence.
There are plot holes galore. Every time I go to look something up, one jumps out. For example, how can Rand say Aric was in the German army for 10 years if he was Austrian? Why would he join the Wehrmacht in the early to mid 1930s? That would be way before the Anschluss. Maybe it all makes sense, but I can’t make myself sit down with the text and map it all out.
I really feel that that’s because there’s no other way to construct a concentration camp Kommandant as a romantic hero BUT to break with history and puncture the book full of holes. That’s the only way it can be done when your dreamboat is someone who runs a camp from which, in reality, more than 150,000 people were sent to Treblinka and Auschwitz.
And we haven’t even talked about the stuff with the ashes in this thread yet. This book is a bottomless pit of wrongness.
@Sunita: there was a failed coup by the Austrian Nazi’s in 1934 (per Wikipedia) after which a number of Austrian Nazis fled to Germany. Of course if Aric was supposed to be one of these, then his characterization is even more suspect…
@Janine: That’s a really good point. I’ve been trying to make sense of Aric’s bizarre backstory, and yours is the best explanation yet.
@Lynnd: He is seduced by early Nazi ideology, much to his father’s dismay. And again, we’re supposed to feel for Aric when his father allows him to suffer for the consequences of that infatuation, but his father is so obviously the one who has his head screwed on right. It never makes sense. Never.
Ugh, ugh, ugh! This is a detail I wasn’t aware of before and it’s awful.
@Sirius: The personal histories such as yours and Janine’s are utterly horrifying. I don’t even know what to say.
But who in their right mind wants to write a romance with a Nazi hero? I get that you sometimes want a dark hero but this one is plain EVIL. He’s not redeemable. Mass murderers ( and mass murders apologetics) don’t have the right to love and be loved, they don’t deserve to be heroes in romance.
Really, I’m baffled by this.
@Janine @Sunita: “And again, we’re supposed to feel for Aric when his father allows him to suffer for the consequences of that infatuation, but his father is so obviously the one who has his head screwed on right.”
Words just fail me.
@Susan: I’m not Sirius, but since you bring up my personal history, I held back some of the most horrifying things I’ve heard from survivors of the concentration camps. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sirius has too. It’s hard to know how much is okay to post without traumatizing readers. But I was really glad she shared as much as she did.
As for what to say to us — what we’ve said are things that need to be heard, so thank you just for listening.
@Janine: I just want to clarify – my grandmother’s family was not in the camps – they suffered, both who were executed and who survived but I don’t want people to imagine what was not there.
@Sirius: Thanks. I didn’t think that they had been in the camps, just that there might be other details to their story besides what you told us. But thank you for clarifying that. And sorry for the miscommunication.
@Janine: oh good – yes lots of painful details and those were only that I was told, God knows how much I was not told . Oh and definitely everybody thanks for listening .