TW: Antisemitism. A lot of it. And a dash of homophobia to top it all off.
This is going to be long. Really long. And honestly, I’m exhausted by the rest of the world and I’d really rather not be writing another one of these posts so I’m not apologizing for the length of this. But I think it’s important to put all my thoughts and issues with this book into one post, instead of scattered angry tweets, and the tweets only encompassed a fraction of the problems I found in this book.
Before I begin, a few ground rules I learned from the last go-around:
- I appreciate allies, but I do not want the poor social media person at the publisher to suffer because an Author made a bad choice. The social media guru at the publisher didn’t write the book, and for all I know, they’re Jewish, and don’t really need to see people yelling NAZI at them all day long. If you chose to make contact, please be polite and use the contact page on the website. You are in no way obligated to do so, and you can still be an ally in plenty of other ways, including just thinking about what I’ve written here and how you interact, read, and review Holocaust literature. If you learn something from this, that would be enough for me.
- If you are a Nazi or seem to enjoy trolling using Nazi philosophy, I will block you. I’m not interested in playing games with you. I do not have time for Nazis.
- If you are someone who reads “problematic books” solely because a marginalized person calls them problematic because you’re ‘against censorship’, good for you. You don’t need to tell me about it. You do you. If you choose to comment or tweet at me about how you’re reading the book solely because I’m offended, I’ll just block you. Fun fact: that’s not censorship.
- And finally, yes, I actually read the book. The whole thing. So if you’re rolling in here telling me “if you read it, you’ll get what the author is — ”, no. Please read this and think about what I’m trying to do, as a Jewish person who paid money to read this book.
The book is titled The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die and the author is Randall Platt. This isn’t her first book. She’s written a bunch of other historical fiction, and I’m kind of terrified to know how those read because this one was a dumpsterfire, on fire, on a ship carrying dumpsters, and the ship is on fire, and everything is FIRE. If you read her other books and they’re equally problematic, let me know. I will signal boost. Because if she handled my people this poorly, I can’t honestly understand what her other books are like.
The book’s been on my radar for awhile. It was announced right after the Nazi Romance debacle of 2015 (I wish I was joking, but I have the original email from Publisher’s Marketplace and it’s 8/24/15. I probably wouldn’t have seen it if it wasn’t for that timing.) Here’s the announcement.
When I saw it, I immediately sent the listing to several Jewish friends of mine and said “Uh.” We had issues with the title, then The Arab of Warsaw, and the language of “the adventures” because um, there are a lot of ways to describe living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw but it was not a romp in the park. And to be fair, the book itself isn’t written in a light-hearted manner. It isn’t not an ‘adventure!’ story the way the pitch kind of made it seem. Small victories?
But I was willing to give it a chance. I hadn’t read it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by books before. Besides, we get so few Holocaust books that are from the Jewish perspective that I was desperate for something to add to the canon. And then the real world happened, there were real world Nazis to fight, and I mostly forgot about it until I saw it in passing on Goodreads.
With a new title, and incredibly problematic cover copy.
I reached out to an editor I know at the publisher privately, through Twitter DMs, as a friend and pointed out that the cover copy was problematic. The editor was immediately apologetic — she was not the acquiring editor and hadn’t gotten around to looking at cover copy for books she inherited — and began reworking it the same day. For that, I’m deeply appreciative.
A few weeks later, the editor and I had continuing correspondence during which it was clear that the author is not Jewish and I continue to work under the assumption that she is not. At that time, I declined an early copy for the book because I felt that if the book was indeed problematic as I worried it was, I would feel bad critiquing it publicly using a copy that a friend had given me.
The editor was gracious (again, I’m grateful to her for her professionalism throughout this. It is not easy approaching a friend and telling them that a book they’re working on is problematic and she handled it well, even if the book was ultimately still problematic) and we had no further contact about the book after early February prior to me reading the book.
The book came out this week, on May 9th, and I purchased a Kindle copy to read. I admit I didn’t have high hopes, because I think the premise is inherently problematic. However, the book was far worse than I expected, and I finished it angry, insulted, and hurt by the depictions of Jewish people, the Jewish narrator, Nazis as heroes, and erasure of Polish Righteous Gentiles from the book.
For context, the main character, Arab (I shit. you. not.), was born Abra Goldstein. The events that happened prior to the start of the book aren’t well described, to be honest, and it’s hard to know if Arab is a faithful narrator or not because she’s so vague about what happened. But as far as I can tell, Arab was part of an attempted robbery that went wrong, and she got caught. Her partner on that robbery, a street kid named Sniper, later colludes with Nazis and snitches on Arab. She murders him. It’s an oddly anti-climatic moment in the book and I kind of wish that her rivalry/revenge with Sniper had been the framework for the story instead of…whatever it is now. A Jewish person being antisemitic, I guess. Which is, in itself, antisemitic. My head hurts.
Anyway. When she was caught, her wealthy Jewish parents sent her to boarding school in Austria.
Why they sent her to Austria is beyond me. The year they sent her would have been 1937. Jews in Germany had been living under strict antisemitic laws for at least four years by that point, including the shuttering of Jewish businesses and limitations on Jewish people going to schools. Why you would send your Jewish daughter to what sounds like a secular boarding school on Hitler’s doorstep confounds me, but that’s just one example where Jews in this book do not act, think, or make decisions like Jews of the early 20th century Europe did.
As Polish Jews, Arab’s family would have been familiar with pogroms and rising antisemitism. By the time the book starts, the ghetto bench is a law in Polish universities. Jewish students had to sit on a certain side of the lecture hall on benches, separated from other students. That happened before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Antisemitism wasn’t something Hitler brought into Poland. It was something endemic to Europe.
If you’re writing about the Holocaust, you cannot act as if the Holocaust happened in a vacuum, as if the countries which Nazi Germany invaded and from whom he annihilated the Jewish populations did not already have conditions ripe for genocide. The failure of this book to take into account broader historical context, or, honestly, any historical context is sloppy and the carelessness leads to antisemitism in the text.
Polish Jews, in general, were not assimilated as they were in Vienna, where Arab was sent. Though young Polish Jews, like Arab, might use Polish over Yiddish, most Polish Jews of that time period would use Yiddish over Polish, lived and operated separately, and places of intersection with non-Jewish neighbors were places of friction. Polish Jews of the 1930s self-identified as Jewish first, then Polish, considering them separate identities.
This was not evident in the book.
(This is also easily researched information, in case anyone thinks that I’m talking about Top Secret Insider information. The Holocaust is probably one of the most well researched events in modern history. The United States Holocaust Museum has a wealth of free information on their website and at their location.)
So, the book starts in August 1939, and Arab says she’s been away for two years.
Two years puts her in Vienna, Austria, at a boarding school she was apparently kicked out of, though it’s unclear when or how long she’s been on the streets, from 1937–1939. She witnessed the German annexation of Austria, which she does mention in the book. Nazis marched into the country where she was living, after oppressing Jews for the last four years in their own country. They immediately instituted the same restrictions on Jewish life in Austria.
There is no mention of this in the book.
Kristallnacht happened in November 1938, apparently while Arab was in Vienna. For those who do not know, Kristallnacht was a pogrom that happened across Germany, Austria, and parts of Czechoslovakia. And according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s site [LINK: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005452], it was “particularly brutal in Vienna.” 6,000 Vienna Jews were rounded up and sent to Dachau. Twenty seven were killed. Some were sent to Buchenwald. More were released on the promise that they’d emigrate immediately. Synagogues were torched, and Jewish businesses ransacked. It was violent.
And it would have been impossible to miss. As a Jew, even a non-religious one as the Nazis didn’t care if you were religious or not, it would be particularly impossible not to miss or reflect upon.
There is no mention of Kristallnacht in the book.
That boggles the mind. Boggles the mind.
Instead, Arab returns home to Warsaw, Poland. She’s warned at the border to return to Austria quickly, and she does nothing with this information. She does not reflect on it. She does not warn any Jews in Poland. She does not think about what might happen next. She goes about her business.
Not only is that literally unbelievable but even if you wanted that to be a characterization, there’s no evidence to support this. You know why? It’s unfathomable, especially because Arab witnessed what she theoretically witnessed in Vienna.
Moving on to the first jaw-dropping moment. It happens in the first chapter.
Right off the bat, Arab called her parents, “filthy-rich Jewish parents.”
In a book about the Holocaust, the author put filthy next to wealth for Jewish people. And, sticking straight with point of view, I might have let this slide with a contemporary novel with a Jewish narrator. Maybe. But for a Jewish girl who has witnessed what Arab theoretically witnessed according to historical record? I don’t buy it.
The line is antisemitic without context, and in context, it’s damaging and horrifying. It’s perpetuating the exact harms used to undermine, weaken, insult, isolate, and ultimately kill the Jewish people of Europe.
In the first chapter, we also find out that Arab is blonde-haired and blue-eyed. She is Aryan-passing.
Of course she is.
The reality is: no one cared if you looked Aryan or not if you had Jewish blood. If you had two Jewish grandparents, or you were married to a Jew who did, you were Jewish by German law. Blond Jews died. Red-headed Jews died. Brunette Jews died.
You only see the blond-haired blue-eyed Jew survives because she’s Aryan passing from non-Jewish writers. It’s something Kate Breslin did in For Such a Time too. It’s a fetish of gentile writers writing about the Holocaust.
And on top of that, it reeks of white supremacy. If it’s not just a lazy authorial decision, it’s white supremacy on the page. It’s this girl can live, should live, and does live — despite historical facts — because she was the Aryan ideal (as if the Aryan ideal had only hair color and eye color.)
I’m saying this as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew: nothing upsets me more than when people say to me, you would have survived the Holocaust. And yes, people actually say this to me. To my face. Multiple times over my thirty years. Multiple times.
You don’t know who would have and wouldn’t have survived the Holocaust because the Holocaust was a continent-wide organized genocide against the Jewish people, and who lived and who died was multifactorial. And if you think I’m lying, you need to stop writing Holocaust literature and go get yourself an education at the Holocaust Memorial Museum ASAP.
Stop writing blond-haired blue-eyed Jews who survive the Holocaust. Your white supremacy is showing. We are not your Good Acceptable Jews because we pass for your Aryan ideal. You can kindly fuck right off with that.
This is doubly offensive when Arab calls a family “too Jewish-looking” later in the book. Coincidentally, that family has the most easily identified as Jewish names! I am sure that was a coincidence!
And we’re through chapter one. Buckle up, kids, we’re in for the long haul here.
In the second chapter, Arab pickpockets (because Jew? I mean? Is that what the author’s going for here?), and then runs into an old friend, a nice Polish policeman who likes Jews (in 1939 Warsaw? Okay, author) but he can’t help her because Arab’s Big Mean Jewish Dad threatened his job and rent is already so high… this is literally a negative Jewish stereotype straight out of alt-right comics. I mean. It almost parodies itself.
(The book is divided by timelines as it jumps often, and not numerical chapters, so it’ll be hard for me to say this is exactly Chapter 15 or whatever.)
Germany invades Poland on September 1, Poland is defeated within a month. Arab picks up in early October, mentioning that, and then mentioning the invasion and the parade by the Nazis through Poland which she watches from a high vantage point, away from the crowds.
This section is full of problems and unrealistic characterization, especially when you consider that Arab lived through Kristallnacht and through the German annexation of Austria (which she remembers and references.)
For instance, “Oh, these clever Krauts! It’s almost like they go looking for our churches, our opera houses, theaters — our entire culture!”
Yes. Because the first thing that a Polish Jew is going to worry about, the most important thing to her culture, is…churches? How did this possibly seem feasible, realistic, and believable to literally anyone who read this much less the person who wrote it?
Then there’s a series of quotes — after Arab’s almost caught by German soldiers searching an abandoned building, and then when she’s watching the parade, where she admires the Nazis. Yes, that’s right. I said admires.
After almost being caught: “They say we should know our enemies. I don’t know my enemy yet, but one thing’s for certain — I sure as hell respect him.”
Watching the parade and remembering the parade in Vienna, there are a number of quotes. I’ll just list them:
- “I had no opinion then and I have no opinion now. Political opinions might get a girl killed. I just want to watch Hitler’s show-stopping encore.”
- “It’s quite a show. It really is. Even better than Vienna. I’m impressed. Anyone who isn’t, who doesn’t sit up and take notice, is dead as a dormouse. Might Makes Right. Girls learn that one early on. Meek Makes Weak.”
- “Oh, I love this part! The troops not only step in unison, they even think in unison.”
- “One people, one nation, one leader. Well, Adolf! You’ve done it again! Please, no encore.”
- “Black, red, white — like their swastika. You just have to love a theme.”
You know. Jewish girls, just rolling around 1939 Europe, loving the visual aesthetics of Hitler’s army coming to kill them. As you do.
I don’t honestly know what to say beyond that other than this is wildly unrealistic. Wildly unrealistic. I do not believe for a moment that this is a Jewish girl, and not a Hitler Youth, or a Polish Catholic girl harboring antisemitic feelings at the time. I find it utterly inconceivable, regardless of Arab’s faith, that she would be so flippant, so glib, so unconcerned with the invasion of Poland and what that meant for her and if not for her, her family. Because as ambivalent as she is about her parents, she loves her sister. Her sister with a club foot. I don’t want to erase Ruth’s identity as a disabled person on top of this, because the Nazis killed disabled people too. Which makes the ending of this chapter all the more inconsistent and abhorrent.
After the parade is over and Arab heads back out onto the street, she says this: “I scan the article of the dos and don’ts and legals and illegals, the rules and other Nazi crap. Makes no difference to me. I have my favorite trio to look after: me, myself, and I. After all, this is war.”
Makes no difference to me. Here’s my other quibble. This is just poor authorial decisions (and I apologize to my friendly acquaintance, but editorial decisions too). It is a better authorial decision to have Arab more morally torn between denying her Judaism and her identity to save her own skin, and owning it to save her sister.
But instead, we never get a clear vision of Arab’s identity, she flip-flops back and forth on who she looks out for, and she does not make one attempt to warn her family or to urge them to leave prior to the ghetto walls being built. Not. One. The first person Arab gives the advice (and money) to leave Poland is a non-Jewish Polish citizen.
Moreover, that article Arab scans suggests that the changes in laws treated all Polish citizens equally under Nazi Germany, when that was, in fact, profoundly not true and Jews began losing rights almost immediately.
As a historical sidenote, I think it’s absurd and bizarre that Arab never mentions that at the same time that this is happening, the Soviet Union invaded from the East and Poland’s divided in two. The fate of Polish Jews was heavily dependent on where they were in Poland when it was invaded by two different countries in the same month. This is like the failure to mention what Arab must have witnessed in Vienna. It’s dangerous and narrow-minded historical revisionism.
The first time Hitler’s acts towards Jews specifically are mentioned? 16% into the book.
“Already some Jews I know are in hiding, drifting, fading quietly away, getting out of Poland altogether. We all know about Hitler’s Jewish Problem — which really his Jewish problem but the Jews’ Jewish problem.”
That’s it. That’s the entire mention.
The next figure in the story that Arab meets is Fritz, a Nice Nazi. He’s Very Handsome (which Arab notes more than once) and we quickly find out he’s gay. A Nice Gay Nazi who is Just Doing His Job. He doesn’t have a choice, you see. He has his orders. But he’s worried about fairness and rightness.
Don’t worry. He’s not the only Nice Nazi in the book. In fact, there are arguably more righteous and nice Nazis than there are righteous and nice Jews in the book. So there’s that.
Fritz and Arab become friends, of sorts, and he witnesses her killing two Nazi officers and keeps her secret, because that’s what they do. Keep each other’s secrets. He knows she’s Jewish, she knows he’s gay (and he uses the f-gg-t word on the page, so trigger warnings for that!), so they both hold guns to each other’s heads. But in general, Fritz doesn’t turn her in, he feels bad about her missing sister, he wishes he could help but boy he really can’t. Because orders. Until you find out he was part of a secret Nazi resistance movement saving Aryan-passing children.
I SHIT YOU NOT. They save Aryan passing Jewish children. Please scroll back up for my feelings about white supremacy and the obsession with blond-haired blue-eyed Jews.
Now that you’re back, ready for this bombshell?
SPOILER ALERT: Fritz dies.
That’s right. The only on the page gay character in the book is a Nazi, his boyfriend is dead because of Nazis, and he dies too.
Honestly, I woke up so mad about that I haven’t even begun to parse out my feelings around this issue in specific.
Then someone tells Arab that she should be grateful to be Aryan-passing, and she tells them “I’m no more Jew than you are.” And we have the same issue with inconsistency with how Polish Jews viewed their heritage, religion, and nationality. And if you, as an author, are going to break from historical record on something like this, then your characterization and reasoning for Arab to abandon her ethnicity and race as Judaism was considered back then, something you couldn’t abandon because it was (and is) more than a religion, needs to be rock solid. And it isn’t. This is an authorial failing that turns into a problematic narrative in the book. Arab continues at this point to feel and act like a Polish nationalist, or a Polish resistance fighter, not a Jewish one. Without any basis for that fact or self-awareness of it.
Arab’s continued not-Jewishness shows up in the following chapters where she talks about the changes happening in Warsaw under occupation.
“First to go are the Jewish holidays. Every single one of them. Verboten. Done! Thousands of years of history, gone with one tidy German decree. If any Jew dares to celebrate or honor God, or even sing a prayer, it’s done like everything else is done in Warsaw — in secret and behind locked doors. And if you’re discovered? That’ll earn you a front row seat to a firing squad or a one-way ticket to Elsewhere.
Then Hitler put the kibosh on the Polish holidays. So what’s left? Oh, the Germans do love their Christmas! But that first Christmas of occupied Warsaw? Pretty damn sad. No songs sung, no candles lit, no prayers whispered, no food prepared, no gifts exchanged.
Too bad, because December is usually a great month for me and the trades. But our first Christmas of the Hitler Holy Occupation? Pitiful! Pitiful to see people eke out anything in the way of a holiday spirit. I stockpiled little things all fall to sell on my corner through the winter, and Lizard had his boys cut cedar boughs and holly springs to make into corsages to sell. Just the smell of pine or a splash of red and green — that’s all most people had to honor the season by. The whole season was taken up with survival, anyway.”
So that’s one paragraph about Jewish holidays, and no details, at all, about what that means for Jews, what holidays are like for Jews, or that Shabbat was included in this so a weekly holiday was forbidden, but two paragraphs about a Christian holiday. Waxing nostalgic about a Christian holiday.
Even setting aside that it hurts Arab’s black market trade, there’s no reason for the nostalgia and to be coming through here without any balance. Where are her memories of Pesach? Of Rosh Hashanah? Of Shabbos? Of Purim? (Again, authorial fail here: Purim would be a great holiday to bring up, even if she left Judaism as a religion when she was a teenager. Kids love Purim, Purim’s about overthrowing evil and preventing the deaths of Jews in the face of antisemitism, the hero of the story was a girl who passed as non-Jewish…the story is ripe for being used in this context for a memory — but authorial fail. At this point in my read, I began to think that this was taking actual authorial effort to make bad choices in the writing of this novel for the purpose of undermining Judaism and Jewish life to espouse Christian ideals.)
Then Fritz, the Nice Gay Nazi, complains about the cigarette quality Arab’s bringing him. So Arab hatches a plot and goes to one of the closed cigarette factories in Warsaw, owned by a Jewish family. The patriarch of the family has been killed and the factory has been shuttered. The mother is living there with seven children, all starving. And the oldest boy, Yankev (interesting how he gets one of the most distinctly Jewish names in the book…and spoiler alert: dies), is wary of Arab and not interested in her schemes.
When the mother asks Arab if she’d screw over her own people, meaning Jewish, Arab dodges the question and says, “I don’t have a people. That’s what makes me good at what I do.”
This gets back to the question of Arab’s self-identification that is never supported or resolved in the book. In some books you might get away with it, but in a book about identity and being killed for it, you don’t.
When Yankev argues with Arab, Arab spits back at him, “All Jews bleed when shot, Rabbi, so don’t spout your pious Jewish bullshit to me.”
I want you to remember that for an upcoming moment where Arab talks about religion.
Then, as she leaves the cigarette factory, there’s this page:
I’m just going to flat out state my confusion at spending so much time writing limericks that rhyme in English but you write in Hebrew. It does not rhyme in the Hebrew. And for the record, if you’re using the G* word, you better have an author’s note about history and what’s real and using the word Roma now. Naturally, there’s no author’s note here.
Also, she is fluent enough to make limericks in Hebrew, but we find out later she doesn’t remember the Kaddish. I call bullshit on this one. I don’t even read Hebrew anymore but you don’t forget the prayers you say all the time and here’s the thing about the Kaddish which Ms Platt obviously doesn’t know: you don’t just say it when someone dies. You say the text multiple times throughout Shabbos. The Kaddish never mentions death. It’s not just for funerals. There is literally no conceivable way that a Jewish character in 1930s/40s Poland speaks Hebrew fluently enough to be writing limericks but does NOT know the Kaddish. It is impossible.
Arab steals a few bottles of brandy from the Germans, for which they do a roundup in the square and publicly execute a bunch of Jews who count off by threes, including a woman whom Arab tried to get to run and then Arab tore off her armband (showing she was a Jew) which is why she’s in that group, for having a torn armband.
This is Arab’s reaction:
So, there’s a lot to break down in this paragraph. Reading this was so horrible, I actually had to put down the book because I was shaking and teary. Because at this point, this book has felt not Jewish, and occasionally violently not Jewish, and now, it’s a deliberate choice not to be Jewish. And in a book about the Holocaust, that is erasure. That is violence.
Looking at this paragraph, let’s take it apart. First, our religion is different than Christianity and so our worldview is different than Christianity and if you don’t understand that, then you do not need to be writing any other religion than your own and certainly not mine. We do not have dying for your sins in our religion. That is not ours. That is not Jewish. That is not a thought process we think through, and that is absolutely not phrasing we’d use. Ever.
Secondly, we don’t call Jesus Christ. Because we aren’t Christian. I understand that Ms. Platt might be deeply confused about that, but that’s the reality. If you’re writing a Jewish character, you write a Jewish character. Not a Catholic you’re calling a Jew. Or a Nazi you’re calling a Jew. I’m just saying.
Third, the number twelve here makes me really uncomfortable. Twelve apostles, twelve people dying for Arab’s sins? Are they setting her up as a Christ figure? Because I will tell you to kindly fuck off with that too. No.
STOP. CONVERTING. JEWS. IN. YOUR. HOLOCAUST. BOOKS, GOYIM.
Only a few pages later, Arab “borrows” a phrase from a Catholic friend, and spits out, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
I say Jesus Christ all the time, and I’m Jewish. I get it. We adopt phrases. But when your Jewish character consistently feels antisemitic and not-Jewish, this comes across as reinforcing the negative and harmful characterization.
Arab continues to value her Catholic and Nazi friends over her Jewish ones. The first person she shoots, she shoots to defend Fritz who just called himself the f-gg-t. She never gets along with Yankev, flirts with Lizard, values Fritz’s time and presence, and then says things like this at 44% mark:
“If the market for cigarettes on the Aryan side of Warsaw is brisk, the market for them on the ghetto side is fantastic. But that damn wall! So inconvenient!”
That is an actual thing a Jewish character says about a ghetto during the Holocaust.
I thought maybe it was sarcasm, and that the author just failed to deliver it well, and then as I thought about it, I decided that didn’t matter. It’s glib. It’s treating the Holocaust and a ghetto as inconvenience. It’s impossible to believe a Jewish girl who had thusfar escaped being put into the ghetto, who seen her family disappear when the wall went up, would treat the ghetto so disrespectfully, so impertinent.
And in doing so, the author treats the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto with frivolity and a carelessness that she should be ashamed of.
And here’s more of Arab sounding like a Christian, and not a Jew.
“Joy to the world”? “Sins are easy to confess”? Are you serious? Has Ms. Platt studied anything about Judaism other than googling random Hebrew and Yiddish phrases? Has Ms. Platt ever met a Jew?
Then a man, Otto, approaches Arab and her gang of boys on the streets and says he wants to do business with her, which is this super bizarre plot arc in which he says he’s a Nazi, and he paid money for the Gestapo file on Arab, and he wants to help children escape.
So, there’s a lot here. We could start with the part where we now have two Nazis who are part of an underground resistance movement bent on saving Jewish children (specifically Aryan-featured ones in Fritz’s case) and who are motivated by rightness and righteousness, who both throw up after killing people while Arab does not. We could start with the fact that the Nice Nazis with Hearts of Gold now outnumber the Good Jews in a book about the Holocaust. We could also talk about how he ends up being the hero of the book, appearing at a time of hopelessness and leading the children to safety. So even in a Jewish-narrated book about the Holocaust (and these are rare, like I said), the hero is a Nazi.
And we could also look at the fact that Warsaw, historically, has so many moments of greatness. There was an active resistance movement in the ghetto (in The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, this throws a wrench in their plans. Those darn Jews. Always resisting.) There were social workers who saved 2500 Jewish children from the Ghetto and from certain death. The ghetto was rich with life and religion and culture and they fought so hard to maintain humanity in the face of evil. The cigarette sellers were real, a group of Jewish boys who survived outside the ghetto by selling cigarettes.
And despite all of that, the author’s chosen to invent something that erases actually righteous gentiles (and women to boot), and which argues that of the four named Nazis on the page, one of whom is Hitler who Arab admires a few times, sarcastic or not, half of them are good at heart.
Let me tell you what isn’t statistically true. 50% of Nazis weren’t saving Jewish children.
We could also parse apart the fact that Arab calls this Nice Nazi the Messiah.
Are you kidding me with that?
Had he not been a Nazi, I would have been comfortable with her giving him the street nickname or codename Moses. That would have been religious and comfortable for me (again, if he wasn’t a Nazi.)
Oh and Otto the Messiah says, “Look, we’re not all evil monsters.” about being a Nazi.
If it wasn’t a digital book, I would have hurtled it through a window. But I value my crappy smartphone more than that.
The-Worst-Written-Jew-in-YA Arab then sings herself to sleep using Silent Night.
You know. The Christian Christmas song?
Again. This is conscious. To have a Jewish character sing a Christmas carol to herself instead of reaching back to her childhood for a Yiddish or Hebrew song for comfort is just shitty writing, so I have to believe this consistently, that the author is making a conscious choice for Arab to be making more and more religious allusions to Christianity.
Songs/prayers I’ve sung/chanted to myself as reassurance: Hine Ma Tov, the Shema, Oseh Shalom.
All of those would have greater meaning, have deeper symbolic and metaphorical resonance, and created more depth to the story than the choices the author makes. She wrote a weaker story because she refused to put in the work of writing a believable Jewish person — even if Arab wasn’t religious — or because she was determined to work Christianity, or a conversion message into the story. One of those is true, and neither is a good option.
Toward the end of the book, they dress up in stolen uniforms to help escape, and Arab thinks her friend Lizard looks attractive.
So again, I do not buy that this is a Jewish girl who came of age in two Nazi-occupied countries, because her reaction to Nazis is consistently admiration.
We also have Arab saying things like “German or Jew, we all die the same.” Separating out German and Jewish like that is Nazi logic. They literally used that to say that Jews in Germany (and Nazi-occupied countries) were not citizens. You can be German and Jewish and failing to recognize that in the text is unfathomable.
At the end of the book, we find out that her missing sister, because she’s Aryan-passing, was saved by Fritz, the Nice Nazi with a Heart of Gold before he died. She is living in Germany with Fritz’s parents, who are apparently part of ‘Nazi elite’ who adopt children but also are resisting Nazis (we see zero resistance, and also, I am so sick of redeemed Nazis I swear to god.)
THAT’S A REAL THING. A little disabled Jewish girl is adopted by Nazis or German elite because she’s “Aryan-passing” and we’re supposed to think that’s a happy ending.
Again. There were real people who weren’t Jewish who saved Jewish children, not because they were Aryan-passing, but because it was the right fucking thing to do. And that’s where an author’s note would have been helpful, but again, a complete failure at including one erases the real heroes of history and replaces them with these problematic antisemitic cardboard cutouts.
The book is problematic from premise, from page one to the end of the book, and it’s insulting. It’s not only just poor writing of Judaism and incredibly poor writing of historical fiction, but it’s damaging, hurtful, and reinforces negative stereotypes of Jews that were used as fuel for the Holocaust. And that’s on top of the Nice Nazi trope coming out in full force here and the bury the gays trope coming out here.
I was asked if I thought it was carelessness or malicious, and I can’t honestly answer that. I think it’s a combination of both. I think the lack of historical knowledge and knowledge about Jewish worldview is sloppiness, weak writing, and carelessness. But I think some parts of it are malicious. It’s really hard for me to read an ending where a Jewish character is thrilled that her little sister was adopted by Nazi elite. There is no part of that sentence that isn’t direct violence against Jewish people. I think some of the choices regarding religion feel very deliberate to me, and that too is violence because of the setting and topic the author choose.
For me, this one goes on the shelf next to For Such a Time, the Nazi Romance of 2015. As a Jewish person, I am hurt and stunned by the content, choices, words, and framing in this book.
WAYS TO MOVE FORWARD
- I hope, if the book goes into a second printing, that the author and publisher consider an author’s note, putting the book into historical context, even if that context fails to have any bearing on the book’s content (that would require an entire rewrite, and possibly a different author, which is obviously impossible.)
- I hope, if the book goes into a second printing, that the author and publisher consider removing filthy-rich as a description for Arab’s parents. The amount of direct anti-semitism coming out of the mouth of Arab, a Jewish girl, should be limited. I don’t think this is so much to ask.
- I hope, if the book goes into a second printing, that the author and publisher reconsider the religious passages of the book I’ve highlighted above, including calling Otto the Messiah.
- I hope that readers reading this who might be considered historical fiction use sensitivity readers and beta readers who are willing to call out the book’s faults. If you write about people outside of your own experience, you should be seeking out sensitivity readers who would speak better to that experience. You should be paying them, because putting themselves through something that might be like this book is emotionally and physically exhausting. This stole two days of work from me, and I did that voluntarily.
- I hope readers reading this understand that antisemitism is persistent, insidious, and built into how we move around the world and that erasing Jewishness from a Jewish character, especially in a book about antisemitism and genocide, is violence.
- I hope that editors, editing assistants, marketing assistants, etc all consider these issues when they acquire, pitch, and speak about books, especially when an author has written about a story that isn’t theirs, like the Holocaust for someone who wouldn’t have been a victim of the Holocaust. This book was preventable. It didn’t come from a Christian publisher hellbent on converting Jews to Christianity. It came from a mainstream publisher, from whom I’ve read and enjoyed other books.
- Seriously. Stop with the Nice Nazis. I don’t understand why this is so difficult.