There is room – even great need – for imagination in response to the events of the Holocaust. Each reader and writer stands in a particular place with regard to the events of the war, and each writer of fiction without actual memory of that time must resort to research and imagined wartime scenarios to suit their particular literary choices.
Affinity Konar sets the stakes high in her recent novel Mischling. Its focus is a little-written-about subject, though she explores what was a widespread phenomenon in German concentration camps: pseudo-experiments on humans under the guise of racial science or military investigations. She chooses as her lone German actor Josef Mengele, who arrived at Auschwitz as a 32-year-old in the spring of 1943 and attained the rank of senior SS physician at Birkenau.
If there is one thing people know about Mengele it is that he escaped capture at the end of the war. This is one of the painful failures of the Allies’ postwar efforts to meet German crimes with justice and punishment.
Konar presents Mengele’s escape as beginning with “transfer to Gross-Rosen, and then a flight into Rosenheim, where he found work as a farmhand, separating the good potatoes from the bad potatoes, putting them into neat little piles for the farmer’s inspection, before settling into the ease of his final hideout in Brazil, where he wrote his memoirs and listened to music and swam in the sea.”
The United States Holocaust Museum tells this final chapter somewhat differently, including the fact that the Americans held Mengele as a prisoner for a short time, unaware of his true identity, and released him in 1945.
Even those well read in Holocaust history and literature likely know little about Mengele’s activities at Auschwitz. In the memoirs of major Holocaust survivor-writers he is often placed on the ramp, overseeing selections upon the arrival of transports from across Europe; and his SS cohort took note of his devotion to this role. These reports contribute to an influential myth associated with Mengele – his uniqueness, his status in the camp as a kind of “angel of death,” a moniker Konar places in the thoughts of her imaginary Jewish inmates of Auschwitz.
Cursory reading of history allows us to punch at the myth, however hapless such efforts prove to be long after the end of the war. “Human experiments” in the pursuit of “racial science,” or military considerations regarding German wounded, took place at numerous concentration camps. At Dachau, the earliest of camps, SS medics applied extreme air pressure, icy water, and extreme cold on land, mostly to Polish inmates. At Ravensbruck, inmates – in many cases young women – were experimented on surgically and infected with bacteria in the pursuit of would-be cures for gangrene. At Auschwitz, dozens of SS doctors carried out a range of experiments, often seeking their victims among the women’s camp at Birkenau and documenting outcomes using the photographic resources employed at Auschwitz to register inmates.
Mengele’s particular mania for enforced suffering was directed at twins. Historians believe as many as 1,000 twins between the age of 2 and 16 were infected with illnesses and surgically tortured without the use of anesthetics. This fascination with twins preceded Mengele’s time at Auschwitz, having played a part in German racial pseudo-science among faculty at university medical departments.
This historical framework is not a part of Konar’s fictional tableau; neither is a detailed portrait of Mengele’s background or personal inclinations. He, like other key aspects of Mischling, is presented as part of a dream landscape, sometimes evoked by key motifs – his way with a smile, objects he treasured, his interaction with subordinates in the infirmary – so that the man remains a mythic figure, a practitioner of cruelty who might be an “angel of death.”
Mischling has at its core the story of twin girls, Stasha and Pearl, who arrive at Auschwitz in 1944 and remain trapped by Mengele’s experiments until the Russian liberation of the camp. This event introduces one of the novel’s rare uses of concrete historical detail in its otherwise vaguely sketched portrait of 1940s Poland. The surviving twins are pictured among the children who were brought out to the camp fence by Russian nurses to be filmed for Soviet newsreel cameras. Stills from this footage became iconic images of the German war against the Jews.
Pearl, having been released from the ruined camp infirmary, encounters the Russian camera and its subjects: “prisoners, tiny little prisoners whom the Russians had dressed in the gray-striped, voluminous uniforms of adults for the atmospheric purposes of their film.”
This is a rare passage in the novel linked to recognizable historical documentation. Large swaths of Mischling are strangely fantastic. Once Stasha and a counterpart leave Auschwitz as part of the death march famously presented in Elie Wiesel’s Night, they embark on what reads like an adventure out of Grimms’ fairy tales. A horse carries them over the war-torn Polish countryside, and they narrowly escape the threat of death in scenes that are reminiscent of the revenge-narratives found in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
The decision to write this way may have to do with Konar’s imagined audience. Her style echoes the kind of story-telling found in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and in films like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, which leaven Holocaust experience with a kind of childlike humour meant to offer respite from a brutal context. The concluding pages of Mischling read like children’s literature, but they could, in their fanciful tone, be about almost anything: “With the ruins behind, distant villages floated before us. On horseback, we picked our way across the puddles of black pocking the white, Horse sinking midstep into lesions of mud. . . .”
When Pearl arrives in newly-liberated Krakow, until recently the military headquarters of German-occupied Poland, the ancient city presents itself as something out of Alice in Wonderland: “Here and there you’d see a sudden flutter of curtains – you could see fingers appear at the edge of the lace, and it was as if every adult had turned into a child in a game of hide-and-seek.”
Sometimes a single sentence lurks in a carefully worked-out narrative and presents itself as a thread a reader might pull to uncover a book’s unconscious life. Pearl’s musings about the newly liberated city of childlike Poles is indicative of Mischling’s own goals.
The book imagines a Holocaust landscape that is purely made up, far from the life of wartime events themselves, all the while bent on offering up a style of writing that exhibits notable flair in response to things that might be said to be at the absolute bottom of human experience and action. The outcome is strangely disconcerting, but, certainly, a strain in recent developments in Holocaust fiction.