Research Notes · 02/02/2013

The Thief of Auschwitz

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jon Clinch shows us how he developed his new novel The Thief of Auschwitz.

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WHAT TO LEAVE IN, WHAT TO LEAVE OUT

Bob Seger got it right in “Against the Wind.” Separating what should stay from what must go is essential to the work of any artist, visual or musical or literary. It was particularly crucial to writing The Thief of Auschwitz.

I had a lot of material, and I made a lot of false starts with it, and for a good long while I was worried that I’d never find a route into the story. At least not in a way that was going to make it succeed.

And by “succeed” I mean “become possible for the reader to endure.”

I’d caused the problem myself, so I should have seen it coming.

The project began — although I didn’t know it at the time — during a couple of years when I found myself reading and re-reading the various histories and first-person accounts of Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps. Laurence Rees’ very fine Auschwitz: A New History. Elie Wiesel’s Night, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Miklos Nyiszli’s Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, and so forth. (I didn’t read any fiction on the subject, by the way, with the sole exception of a little-read collection called This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski, himself a survivor.)

In the end, I was over-saturated with fact and memory.

And by “over-saturated” I mean “I could hardly abide knowing what I knew.”

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There was just too much, and it was all just too terrible. I’m a fairly empathetic person by nature — a writer had better be — but I was finding that some part of my brain actually insisted on shying away from the stories I‘d been reading. It was almost as if the very facts themselves, numberless and horrible as they were, were doing their best to repel my attention, to keep me from looking at them too closely, to maintain their own secrets regardless of my best efforts.

I figured that other people might have the same problem, and I thought that I knew how to solve it. I figured that if I could put some of these facts and ideas and stories together in a new way, using the tools of fiction to remake them into something that had compelling characters and narrative drive and controlled suspense, I could do a service both to modern readers and, more importantly, to the poor souls who had suffered the unthinkable in the camps. Those among them who were lucky enough to have survived are dying out these days, and so the act of remembering their stories, even in an altered form made to suit my own needs, would be a kindness very much worth doing.

But that’s where it got complicated. Because the minute I put the unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz together with the power of fiction to concentrate attention and emotion, I ended up with something much stronger — and much harder to look at — than I’d expected. One of my first readers summed up the first ten pages this way: “I feel as if I’ve been shot in the chest with a machine gun.”

Which would never do.

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That draft began with the Rosen family — Jacob and Eidel, Max and Lydia — arriving at the Auschwitz train station, and the final version begins in pretty much the same way, but the structural differences between the two are great.

In the final version, the scene is prefaced and framed by Max Rosen speaking to the reader in the first person and from the present day. Fourteen years old in the main narrative and pushing ninety in the framing narrative, Max will go on to appear every fifteen pages or so throughout the text, telling his own story and revealing his own secrets and above all reassuring readers by his very presence that at least someone made it out alive.

Max gets no more than a page by way of introduction, and then we cut to that moment of arrival, in a version of the events that’s buffered in a way that I’ll get to in a moment.

Then we draw back further in time, telescoping first to the beginning of the family’s forced journey from their home in a mountain town and then to the beginning of the family itself, in the days when Max’s parents first met and fell in love. They were hardly more than children themselves, and they were living in a kind of paradise, and the story of their coming together provides context for everything that will follow.

Once the narrative winds its way back to Auschwitz, it never again strays for so much as a moment. To do so would be to shortchange the reality of life and death in the camps. (Max’s carefully paced appearances serve to dilute the intensity some, but never for very long.) By committing to remain in the camp with the family, then, I gave myself the challenge of parceling out the tragic realities into sustainable and tolerable doses. Not everything that I’d learned about Auschwitz could be used, or at least it couldn’t be used at once. In the opening scene, for example, we witness the following…

A gravel roadway runs alongside the path, separated from it by a second wire fence and a low wall of stone, and urgent white vans bearing the Red Cross insignia come and go along it at breakneck speed, raising great windblown clouds of grainy gray dust. Lydia watches the vans rumble back and forth and reflects for a moment and asks her mother if the path they’re walking leads to a hospital or a clinic of some kind, and her mother says she doesn’t believe so but she can’t be certain.

Those vans weren’t ambulances. On the contrary, they were loaded down with canisters of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based insecticide that the Nazis used to murder their prisoners. In the first draft, I stated exactly that, exactly then, and the effect — in the context of poor little Lydia, a child entering the camp with no capacity for work and thus no hope of surviving more than a few minutes — was simply too much to endure.

In the final version, we still see the vans in the opening moments, but the information about what they’re carrying is withheld until page 142, when it arrives via another youthful character — this one a boy compromised by a mysterious relationship with various members of the SS…

Chaim bites his tongue until they’re safely inside, well away from the guards. “Those wagons say Red Cross,” he says, “but that’s not what they are. They’re full of bug powder. Only they don’t use it on bugs.”

Chaim has seen everything, and from his perspective almost nothing can come as a surprise. From the mouths of babes, as they say. It was a matter of finding the right vessel for the information — or leaving it out altogether.

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Jon Clinch is the author of Finn and Kings of the Earth (2007 and 2010, Random House) and The Thief of Auschwitz (2013, Unmediated Ink and Recorded Books). He’s on the web at www.jonclinch.com and www.jonclinch.wordpress.com, and he tweets via @jonclinch.