By Affinity Konar
Those interested in a purely factual account of what transpired to twins at Auschwitz, in particular the tortures disguising as experiments administered and personally conducted by Josef Mengele, may be better served by books such as Children of the Flames (combines survivor testimony with facts about Mengele’s life and “experiments”). In her debut novel, Konar covers much of what took place, including Mengele’s interaction with the children in his “Zoo” and his personal mannerisms, but hers is a venture into literary fiction that often times ascends to the lyrical. What she does here, often well, is convey the psychological and emotional effects of Auschwitz, Mengele, and his experiments, by following twelve-year-old twins Pearl and Stasha in the concentration camp and beyond. How well this works depends on readers; their expectations and frames of mind will determine how well they appreciate and empathize on a gut human level with the suffering, for certain, but also with the strength, determination, and hope inspired by these characters, and through them with the real life victims of Nazi myth and terror.
The novel divides into two parts, life within Auschwitz and the children’s “Zoo” and directly after the Soviets enter the concentration camp to free the survivors. Both present harrowing and horrifying views of what Pearl and Stasha suffer through and over which they triumph.
Within the camp, Konar provides readers with enough detail to comprehend viscerally how terrifying it was: little children separated upon arrival from their parents; sequestered in what amounted to filthy, foul cubbyholes; driven in ersatz Red Cross ambulances to Mengele’s lab (really an unsanitary chamber of horrors) where they were stripped, cataloged like specimens, and subjected to chemical and surgical experimentation without benefit of anesthetics; and their daily life scrounging for food and living under the literal shadow of death, and often with the dead stacked near them. How they managed to survive was less miracle and more an exercise of sheer will illustrated in the various reveries, remembrances, and psychological subterfuges of Stasha, Pearl, and their companions.
As bad as the these experiences will strike the reader, what follows proves more torturous, both physically and mentally. Perhaps on cursory consideration, you imagine freedom from the camps and then the end of the war the end of the suffering, an admittedly uncomfortable transition to prewar life. Not so, or anywhere near reality, as Stasha and Pearl, long separated and believing against hope the other dead, shamble across the flattened and burned out land- and cityscapes of Poland, many times among maneuvering Soviet troops and fractured, desperate Wehrmacht in the wind down to May 7, 1945 (May 11, in the case of German Army Group Centre). Their post-camp plight is the destruction wrought by total war but a couple standout as particularly noteworthy for readers to ponder involving choices and actions that even under battle conditions seem beyond the pale. One involves Stasha and the combined mercy to a mother and delivery of a child that everybody will find devastating. The second concerns Dr. Miri, the Jewish doctor forced to assist Mengele. Here’s a woman who lost everything dear to her: husband, sisters, and her mental health. The choices she had to make, the actions of life and death she took it upon herself to exercise are beyond anything any reader can imagine until they see them on the pages of Konar’s novel. In remembrance and confession, Miri finally opens up about the burden she bore beginning with her own sisters, which while horrid, peel back only the surface layer of her suffering: “‘My sisters, both lost to me. Orli, dead, months after our arrival. Ibi, dispatched to the Puff. But before they were lost—he made me take their wombs myself.’” (For more on the Puff and Nazi forced prostitution, see House of Dolls.)
How, you wonder, do you survive atrocities like those dramatized in Mischling? Konar’s novel is about that, but really much more. She writes about the strength of the human spirit bolstered by hope, by the goodness life can offer, by what really matters in living beyond the mere acting out of survival. Amid the abundance of carnage and suffering there threads this hope, and it is the strength of her novel. w/c