Thursday, September 8, 2016

Surviving the Ultimate Evil: Affinity Konar on "Mischling"



KonarIt's not easy picking up a book involving Auschwitz's infamous "Angel of Death." But once you pick up Affinity Konar's Mischling, you will have a very difficult time putting it down. Inspired by the real-life experiences of twins Eva and Miriam Mozes, Konar's beautifully written and powerful novel imagines what it was like being forced to take part in Josef Mengele's horrific human experiments. This man, this monster, is not the star of the story though. 12-year-old siblings Pearl and Stasha are, and it is they who convey Mischling's overarching message, something that is perhaps even more incomprehensible than man's inhumanity to man: the capacity to forgive it. Here, Konar talks about the questions that informed this surprisingly hopeful story.

This book was written less by me, than it was by my questions. I wanted to know how people could be shown the ultimate evil in the world and still find a way to live within it. I wanted to know what it meant to love someone so much that it informed your own survival, and also, how much the loss of that person could ruin you and spell out your own end. I wanted to relearn the meanings of words: family, love, beauty, remembrance, horror. I wanted to know if I could use language in a way that might recognize pain while transforming it, and if such language could be borne in the mouths of characters that could pay tribute to real people. Those who were murdered. Those who survived. Those who survived, and will eventually be lost to us, leaving us with the responsibility of remembering a story that some would prefer to deny or forget.

So many of my questions were answered by twin girls, twelve years of age, Pearl and Stasha Zamorski. While I don't fail to understand that I had no small part in their creation, their conversation often felt beyond me, and I was startled by the fact that their speech carried a certain charm. These were girls faced by the greatest peril, and yet—in between the horror, they wanted to acknowledge jokes, nature, imagination, and the sublime. They wanted to avenge and they wanted to forgive. They wanted to recognize their suffering, and they wanted to not become their suffering. More than anything, they wanted the refuge of each other, of the inner-life they built together, one that suggested that the greater world, the one that had turned its back on them, might be restored.

Writing the perspectives of Pearl and Stasha has been the greatest gift I could give myself, a selfish thing. Though it may sound unbelievable, I never imagined that this novel might leave my side and find real people in the world who were willing to read it. That it has is a wonder to me, one constantly renewed. Last August, I went to Poland for the first time with my parents. It was to be a time of reconnection with my Jewish heritage within that country, with my family, and with the characters that I so miss writing about.

Poland was as beautiful as I'd imagined it would be. Auschwitz-Birkenau—I could never have imagined the fullness of its horror.

One thing I took away was this: you can't walk in this place which was designed to destroy families, to sunder future generations, and fail to imagine what it must be like to be torn from your loved ones, or given some false promise of reunion. The prospect of loss can even transform the sense of your step. You move in grief, and you wonder how you might ever move with a love of the world again.

The questions don't end. But I think of Pearl dancing, and I think of Stasha watching over her, and I believe there may be some way to transform that grief-heavy step—not into something light or forgetful —but to a step that is also imbued with hope.

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