Friday, August 14, 2015

My Comments on For Such a Time by Kate Breslin

I want to make one thing clear up front. The commentary below is of the BOOK, not the AUTHOR. I will not, nor do I have the right to, comment on the author, but I can and will comment on what I see on the page, colored by my biases. This is purely my subjective opinion and is by no means authoritative. There are most likely spoilers and upsetting triggers in my comments.


For those of you who haven't read For Such a Time, it's an Evangelical Protestant inspirational historical romantic fiction book set in a [then] Czechoslovakian transit concentration camp in 1944. The story is between a Nazi SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt and Jewish prisioner Hadassah Benjamin set in the Theresienstadt camp. Her blonde-hair blue-eyed "Aryan" looks allow her to use her false paper to pass off as non-Jewish. She is initially tattooed, shorn, and slated for the firing squad at Dachau, because she offended a Gestapo officer by rebuffing his advances. The Kommandant is there, because he sees the discrepancy between the Aryan paperwork and "Jude" stamped on it. He takes one look at her and wants her, so he rescues her and spirits her away to Theresienstadt. There he installs her in his house as his secretary.

Initially, Hadassah thinks of the Kommandant as a "Jew Killer." Over time, she's beguiled by his obvious interest in her and her own growing attraction to him. She realizes that he is bruised in spirit due to his war experiences and is convinced that she can change him. She appeals to him to grant concessions to the Jewish prisoners.

Initially, she feels abandoned by her G-d, because of all her suffering. Over time, her progressing relationship with the Kommandant leads her to believe in the Christian God through the Bible that appears whenever she's in crisis and "speaks" to her. The central questions of the story are: how can she reconcile herself to him, how will he change, how will their love survive reality, and do both of them turn to God.


My many learned colleagues have done a far better job of addressing the historical, religious, and textual contents of the book than I ever could. So I'm not going to try. My focus is the impossibility of the love relationship and the personalities of the two protagonists.

When you write a historical fiction novel, you're required to be true to the history you're setting your story in. Yes, sometimes in service to your story, you may change a few small details here and there, but by large you try to stay true to the facts. Otherwise, what you're writing isn't historical fiction, but alternate reality fiction.

When the history in question is full of anguish and is in living memory of the survivors and the descendants of the survivors, it behooves you to be scrupulous of adhering to all of the well-established details of the history. Tampering with those details results in the erasure of the experiences of entire swaths of people; of the people themselves. The Holocaust wasn't just a heinous crime against the Jewish people, the Roma, gays, and others. It was a crime against all humanity. It was a crime against the basic tenets of what makes us human.

In that context, he's the representative of the perpetrators of the crime and she's the representative of the victims of the crime. He uses her to assuage his supposed despair over his experiences as a soldier. She uses him for the warm shoes, warm clothes, soft bed, and good food he provides.

Scearp scyldwiga [sceal] gescad witan worda ond worca.
A sharp warrior must know the difference between words and deeds. —Beowulf

The Kommandant suffers from the horrors he saw—not what he did—in the battles in Russia. That is what he tells her and she can sense it all beneath his "punishing," "desperate" kisses. But he has no remorse or even disquiet—in fact, he's indifferent—over the thousands of Jewish people he sends to Auschwitz or starves, over-works, and has tortured in Theresienstadt. It doesn't matter in the story that his sergeant or his captain actually do the torture. He's the Kommandant. The buck stopped there. But he only cares that he is not hurt by a refusal to participate in everything and that Hadassah not find out about it all so that she won't withhold her affection from him.

Also, his war experiences and supposed sensitivity to them should've given him a classic case of PTSD. I saw no evidence of that.

A true love relationship exists between mature, consenting adults who're respectful of each other. This certainly wasn't that. There can be no consent between a jailor and a prisoner, where he's the aggressor and she's subsumed herself in him. At the least resistance from her, he gets angry, threatens her, and forces his will on her and she accedes the power to him. He has no respect for her, and she respects his power over her, not as his equal. A true love relationship between them is impossible.

Did romantic feelings—note, not true love—develop in similar circumstances in reality during WWII? The Daily Mail published a piece on the real-life story between a Jewish woman and an SS guard at Auschwitz. Years after the war, from Israel, Helen Citronova said, "'I thought I'd rather be dead than be involved with an SS man. For a long time afterwards there was just hatred. I couldn't even look at him.' But she admitted that her feelings for Wunsch changed over time" when he saved her and later her sister from death. After the war, "...her relationship with Wunsch never developed further...." Helena said, "'There were moments where I forgot that I was a Jew and that he was not a Jew.... But it could not be realistic.'"

Yes, not realistic. Take the stresses of war away, and what do they have left? Horror of what they've experienced and horror of what they've done. No relationship can survive that. Thus, I cannot believe that there's any future for the Kommandant and Hadassah. There's no HEA (happily ever after), no love, nothing. But that is the point of a romance novel. A HEA is a requirement.

"You're not a monster." Her voice came to him soft and steady. "Or a martyr either. You're just a man, nothing more."

She's right. It's Hadassah who's the monster of the story, not the Kommandant, not the evil caption, not the traitorous sergeant, not the SS General. They are behaving true to form. But Hadassah? She sends thousands of her own Jewish people into Auschwitz's Krematorium, in exchange for good food, a warm roof over her head, and sexually exciting kisses. Thousands. And in all of this, her emotional state of mind is ephemeral, self-serving, and remarkably bloodless.

Here's an example. She has been found out as the traitor who deleted a few people from the lists of those bound for the Auschwitz trains. The Kommandant is extremely angry and rough with her and threatens to hit her. He purportedly loves her but sends her off with his captain to the ghetto. Her kaddishel ten-year-old Joseph has been badly beaten and brought to her in the ghetto. He was the Kommandant's houseboy and the Kommandant purportedly cared for him, but did nothing to stop Joseph from being beaten up.

Later, the Kommandant comes to see them.

...he removed his hat and gloves before lowering himself to kneel beside the boy. "How is he?"

His white-knuckled grip on the cane told her his legs pained him more than usual. Caution overruled any compassionate urge, however. He had yet to state he purpose for his visit."

She feels compassion for him? After what he's done to her and Joseph? And the only reason she's not going to show him her compassion is because he hasn't said why he's there?

The hand on his cane wavered slightly. "You must hurry and get strong, Joseph. There is much to do, and I need your help." His gentle voice tore at Hadassah's heart.

He makes those self-serving statements and she's touched by them?

Hadassah searched the face of the man before her, feeling joy, frustration, even laughter. Most of all, she ached for the comfort of his embrace.

After all that has occurred—two trainloads to Auschwitz, torture of her uncle, starvation of all the prisoners at the camp, Joseph's beating, her own treatment—she feels like laughing? And wants him to hug her?

Hadassah fills me with horror. Classic case of Stockholm's Syndrome.

[Edited to add since I already received a couple of troll comments. I shall be ruthlessly deleting comments that are not respectful of me or other commenters.]


suburbanbeatnik said...

Great post. FSAT is such a shitstorm, all of us can come up with infinite reasons to loathe and abhor it. Hadassah, the alleged "heroine" of the book, is, as you say, a monster. Reading the book I couldn't believe how instantly sympathetic she was with an SS colonel and his feeeeeeelings, and how everything else-- even the suffering of her people-- receded into relative unimportance. UUUGGGGHHHHH

Also, thanks for linking to the story of Helena Citranova! That was GREAT. Now, I'd love to read a story like Helena's. But I don't think that Breslin is capable of writing something so complex and dark. Also, even though you could argue Wunsch and Citranova fell in love, and he might have been redeemed a little, they still didn't get an HEA. There's no way, no how.

Janine Ballard said...

Fascinating post. In the section I read (I had to put it down at 35% because it was too triggering) I didn't see Hadassah as a monster. I had too much empathy for her situation -- emaciated, tattooed, just lost a child she loved as her own, hiding her identity to survive, and not knowing what had become of her uncle. Even when she typed the names of the Jews to be deported, I felt terrible for her because she was risking her life by dropping 160 names from the list. She could have said she wouldn't type any -- and I think that's what I would do in such a scenario -- but then she'd die, someone else would replace her, and those 160 people would be dead too. So I didn't see it as a simple, easy moral choice.

The far bigger problem for me was with the way her view of Aric changed so quickly from "Jew Killer" to "broad shoulder," (I'm getting nauseous just remembering it), the way her Jewish identity was portrayed (completely inauthentic), and most of all the romantic feelings, which you rightly point out are Stockholm Syndrome since such a relationship cannot be consensual.

But I put the blame for all of those, as well as for the sugarcoating of a concentration camp commandant and the erasure of important historical truths, squarely on the author rather than the character.

Janine Ballard said...

I want to add a clarification. What I meant to say in the second paragraph was "The far bigger problems for me with Hadassah...." Because the problems I detail in the third paragraph were even worse, but didn't pertain to her characterization.

Keira Soleore said...

@suburbanbeatnik: Thank you for your comment. I could possibly be brought to believe in a lowly Nazi soldier and a Jewish woman in the ghetto (not concentration camp) developing a war-time relationship. They each recognize the humanity in the other and each changes to make a HEA possible. But FSAT isn't that type of story. To me, it's an impossible situation.

Keira Soleore said...

@Janine: Thank you for commenting. I should've been more careful in why I thought she was a monster. To me, her concern with his feelings and his looks and no deep feelings of her own for her own people reads to me like she's a victim of Stockholm's Syndrome. She's been destroyed and has become this monstrous being. To that extent, the Kommandant remains true to his Nazi roots. He succeeds in destroying her as a Jewish person and as a woman.

Janine Ballard said...

@Keira: Very possibly I would have felt similarly had I been able to stick it out that far.

"I could possibly be brought to believe in a lowly Nazi soldier and a Jewish woman in the ghetto (not concentration camp) developing a war-time relationship. They each recognize the humanity in the other and each changes to make a HEA possible."

I don't know if this could ever work for me (for reasons having to do with my family history) but I think there is a big difference between a lowly soldier and a concentration camp commandant. I don't understand why this author felt the need to go so far.

Keira Soleore said...

@Janine: Exactly! That was my feeling. She could've made it work with a lowly soldier. But I think she wanted an alpha hero. So he had to be the Kommandant.