If you are going to write a novel about the Holocaust you have both a responsibility and a challenge. The responsibility is to the six million who were murdered. If you are bringing the Holocaust into your work merely to add some extra tragedy or to tug at the reader’s heartstrings then, at best what you’re doing is objectionable, at worst it desecrates the memory of those who suffered and died. I can think of books that do exactly that.
The second issue is the challenge. Unhappily, the Holocaust in literature has become a cliché. Evil, psychopathic Nazis, powerless, innocent Jews and the train tracks that lead to the gas chambers at Birkenau are the stuff of so many books that range from just plain bad to positively offensive. So when I came to write The Paradise Ghetto – what has turned out to be my sixth published novel – I felt the heavy weight of both of these things on my shoulders.
To deal with the responsibility issue I wanted to do what I had done with my first Holocaust novel – grab the reader by the throat and say, ‘Look! This is what it was like.’ That was my starting point here too – not character, not plot but rather what emotional punch was I trying to deliver to the reader? What did I want them to feel at the end of the story? And whatever that was had better be something that honoured the memory of the six million who were murdered, not some cheap use of the setting to deliver equally cheap emotion. That left the challenge – how could this book be original and, more importantly, not be a cliché?
The Paradise Ghetto is the ironic name the Nazis gave to the Czech town of Theresienstadt during World War II. Here, the Germans expelled the town’s inhabitants and set up a ghetto for so-called ‘privileged’ Jews. ‘Privileged’ generally meant that either somebody had fought for Germany in World War I or was outstanding in their field in some way. As a result many eminent scientists, artists, musicians, scholars, soldiers, thinkers and writers were incarcerated in Theresienstadt.
The name ‘Paradise Ghetto’ was ironic in the sense that the Nazis implied to many of the Jews being transported there that they were coming to a sort of luxury resort. Picture the advertisements you see for luxury apartments and condominiums in airline inflight magazines. Many Jews actually filled out forms where they were asked to indicate what kind of apartment would suit them best, what kind of view they would like and so on.
Of course, the reality turned out to be more ghastly than anyone could possibly have imagined. On arrival, the Jews were robbed of everything they possessed, crammed into rooms that were unheated in winter and sweltering in summer and fed starvation rations. In the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, disease was rampant. Thousands died and those that didn’t were subject to periodic ‘transports to the East’ whereby people were selected to go on trains that went to Birkenau. Because, in reality, this was what Theresienstadt was – a way station on the road to Auschwitz.
Incredibly, with starvation, disease and death all around them, an extremely rich cultural life developed in the ghetto. There were lectures, recitals, readings, concerts. At least four orchestras were organised, as well as chamber groups and jazz ensembles.
I first visited Theresienstadt – now called Terezin in the Czech Republic – on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in 1999. The place felt deserted – most people were indoors sheltering from the heat. But there are only a few other places on Earth, and I think most of them are Holocaust sites, where I have felt the presence of so many ghosts. This then was to be the setting for The Paradise Ghetto.
My first idea was to write about a relationship between two children who become inmates there. However, I ruled this out almost immediately. I felt it would be almost impossible to do this without lapsing into mawkish sentimentality. So then it would have to be about two grown ups, a male and a female. But a few months into the writing, this suddenly changed. One day, quite out of the blue, it occurred to me that I should write about two females. There’s a conventional piece of advice that’s given to writers – ‘write about what you know’. I’ve always thought it was rubbish myself and I felt that this would be a challenge that would be worth taking on – me, a straight man writing about a relationship between two women.
So it was to be two women – or girls – it took me a long time even to fix on the right term. They are twenty-one and nineteen when the book begins. And then the real game changer was when I decided that these two girls, Julia and Suzanne, both of whom in their own way love books, would become part of the cultural life of the ghetto – they would write a book themselves, a novel.
Thus, The Paradise Ghetto is a book within a book. Two complete novels one inside the other.
It was both a joy and a torment to write. Julia and Suzanne wrote different sections of their book and I wrote their story. Each of them had to have a different voice and mine had to be different from theirs. They had to be amateurish but showing promise at the same time. Their book had to be thrilling enough to engage their readers but not so perfect that it looked like a professional novelist had written it. And the story I was writing about them had to captivate my reader equally. With these three very different viewpoints, there were days when it was like I was having a three-way author conference in my head.
The book ended up with so many layers. There was the story they were writing, the story I was writing about them and – in the end, what was the most important of all – how their book becomes a way that they communicate their feelings to each other.
Every author, when they start out, has in their head, the book they want to write. Often the book that ends up on paper falls short of what they conceived. That has not happened with this book. If anything, I feel it is better than the book I had in my head. I am so proud of it. It is the best thing I have ever written.
Fergus O’Connell is a writer and novelist. The Paradise Ghetto is the second of a trilogy of novels set during the Holocaust. The first is Call The Swallow published in 2001 and he is currently working on the third one, Those Were The Days. It will be published in 2018.
- The gate at Theresienstadt reading Arbeit Macht Frei (Work sets you free), Cherubino via Wiki Commons.
- View of Theresienstadt, origin unknown, Terezin Memorial Museum
- Life in Theresienstadt, artwork from the Theresienstadt ghetto, Jewish Museum, Berlin