If you’ve been following the painful uproar over For Such Times As These by Kate Breslin, you’ll know that a lot of people have a lot to say about the issue. Basically, the author wrote her debut novel for a Christian inspirational publisher and ostensibly based it on the Book of Esther, though with a Holocaust setting and with an inspiring Christian message of redemption through love and faith—faith, it is highly implied, being Christian faith.
Because, you know, that’s the one that counts. In a Nazi concentration camp.
Oh, right, and the heroine is a blonde, blue-eyed “Jewess”(yep, on the back cover) and the hero is the fictional Nazi officer in charge of a transit camp.
The story follows a young Jewish prisoner with false papers who is pressed into service as the assistant to the Kommandant of an internment camp. There, she uses her position and his attraction to her to try to save at least some of the prisoners; but as her efforts escalate, so does the danger, and in the end she must follow her heart and her faith, which leads her to trust in (and fall in love with) her enemy boss, thus saving herself and at least some of the condemned Jews of the camp.
And at the end of the book, apparently, there’s some dreamy sequence of a train headed down the tracks to freedom and life, because hero Aric is “saving her people.”
(Ummm, most people do know where those tracks led, right?)
But Nazi war criminal Aric and Stella get to leave the war behind, safe and redeemed by their love, and Aric’s heroic deed of saving a train full of Jews (or, “her people”) on Stella’s behalf apparently means he is purified of all the sins of sending however many other Jewish men, women and children to their deaths.
So let’s recap. Actually, for the sake of discussion, I think we can stop right here: “Basically, the author wrote her debut novel for a Christian inspirational publisher and ostensibly based it on the Book of Esther, though with a Holocaust setting and with an inspiring Christian message of redemption through love and faith.”
There are pages and pages of blogs you can read, if you’d care to, about why the book is awful, misguided, horrible, anti-Semitic, etc. Check out Rose Lerner’s post on the appalling subtext of the five-star reviews on Amazon; the terrific post by Katherine Locke on the subject (which includes links to the great review on SBTB and the letter Sarah Wendell wrote the RWA Board about her concerns about the book and its nominations for two major awards); and finally, I especially appreciated this essay and review by author Jackie Barbosa, which cogently discusses many of the things the author and publisher should have thought and cared about, but didn’t.
(And still don’t, apparently, because this is the publisher’s tone deaf “apology.”)
So here’s the thing. Some of the reasons I LOVE romance novels—as I’ve stated time and again—are because they’re entertaining, even when they explore difficult topics, they offer female agency in literature, and their happily-ever-afters give us a sense of joy, hope and optimism.
There are so many ways to write stories that do this without co-opting the Holocaust and white-washing it into a revisionist story that basically forgives a war criminal because he loved a (not-so-Jewish) Jewish woman whom he fell in love with (because she was beautiful in a non-Jewish way?) and who fell in love with him (for no apparent good reason and not even acknowledging the inherent consent or balance-of-power issues in such a questionable romance?), and both of whom are moved to righteous actions through the inspiring messages of the New Testament.
We really shouldn’t be doing that at all. Ever.
For a Christian publisher to use the horrifying backdrop of a concentration camp romance to forward its message of Christian redemption is loathsome.
If you’d like to explore a more textured and realistic portrayal of this terrifying time period and the horrid choices women had to make, I recommend Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us and Pam Jenoff’s The Kommandant’s Girl.
I was also very moved by Jenna Blum’s story, “The Lucky One,”in the anthology Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion, which offers a rare view of an emotionally and geographically displaced Holocaust survivor working in a restaurant in New York just after the war.
Since Pam Jenoff is a Jewish writer who wrote a book on a similar theme, I asked her if she wanted to comment. She sent this:
“I have not read Kate Breslin’s novel For Times Such As These and I have no plans to do so. (I stop short of asking others not to read it because of my general aversion to boycotts.) However, the controversy surrounding it is not surprising to me.Having spent several years as a diplomat for the State Department in Krakow, Poland, working on Holocaust issues, I am well aware of the sensitivities surrounding any depiction of the Holocaust. I believe that this really goes to the fact that the Holocaust, while predominantly a Jewish tragedy, is a shared history among different religions and nationalities with differing viewpoints—posing what one might call the ownership of memory problem.
“It was under this heavy cloud of awareness that I undertook the writing of my first novel The Kommandant’s Girl more than a decade ago. My own years in Poland were complex and I wanted to reflect that in a novel that showed the full range of humanity among Jewish, Polish and German characters. Myself a Jew, I worried about how the book, which involves a young married Jewish woman becoming close to a Nazi officer, would be received. I felt a great sense of obligation to the survivors with whom I’d become so close during my years in Poland. (Indeed, I call my books “love songs to Jewish Europe.”) In the end, my book did not generate controversy, but I still feel a great sense of trepidation every time I take on the topic.
“Published eight years ago, my book was on the forefront of this latest generation of Holocaust novels, which seem ever popular. I think this demand has been spurred on by growing reader interest; a new availability of research archives in the post-Communist era; and also the desire to capture the stories of this last generation of survivors.
“Breslin’s basic story is hardly original: at least a half-dozen books have depicted Jewish women getting involved with German officers. And the history of the war includes true stories of Jewish women converting to Christianity, such as Edyta Stein who became a nun.
“But it is the sense of Breslin’s protagonist being saved through Christianity and the sense that it was the “right” path with which people take issue—and which many take as an affront in light of the millions of Jews who held fast to their faith and paid with their lives.
“Do I think that Breslin should not have written the book? I do not know. I’m often asked if maybe people should not write fiction set during the Holocaust at all. I respond that, to me, it feels like not writing about this blight on human history would be a version of not talking about it, which feeds into exactly what Holocaust deniers would want.
“But I also think that we undertake great responsibility each time we endeavor to fictionalize such grave events in which so many have vested ownership and that if we do it a disservice we are further undercutting the ethic and credibility we have to write such stories.”
In the end, I am simply repeating what other people have said, but really, they bear repeating.
Grave events. Great responsibility.
It’s clear that the writer and the publisher aren’t listening, but I guess that’s not surprising. They’re invested in a simplistic and (in my own progressive Christian mind) misguided message that places their own idea of “Christ’s message”as central to any plot—even one as disgraceful as this one.
But as readers, writers, reviewers, and well, humans, I believe we—and they—can do better.