Soon after Rachel Kadish and Jessica Shattuck met in a Boston writers' group, they discovered they had something in common — or perhaps it’s better to say they discovered something that was as far as possible from "in common." Kadish's grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors; Shattuck's were members of the Nazi party in Germany during World War II.
"When I first learned this about Rachel," Shattuck said, "I felt a heightened self-consciousness about my heritage and about the fact that I was writing a novel about ‘ordinary Germans’ during the Holocaust. But I also felt we had so much to talk about.”
When Kadish first heard Shattuck speak on the topic, she felt pained for Shattuck. "She knew she had to be very careful about what she said and how she said it."
But as the two began speaking, it became clear that there were questions they could ask one another that their parents and grandparents would not have been able to tolerate — and taboo subjects each felt compelled to address.
With so many people now making connections between the current political climate and that of 1930s Europe, the questions feel newly urgent: How did good people let the events of those years happen, and why haven't we learned more from the past? How can the traumas of that era strengthen us now?
Shattuck and Kadish sat down recently to have a direct conversation as friends, writers and citizens of today’s America.
Kadish: My grandparents were on the run for four years. They were in hiding, they dodged bullets and bombs, they were in a prison camp, they crossed border after border illegally. I grew up hearing stories, though these were often indirect. Enormous losses would surface in the guise of tiny details — like if I asked my great-aunt, "How old were you when you got your ears pierced?" the answer might be, "Which time do you mean? Because the holes closed up when I couldn't wear earrings for years."
Shattuck: I grew up hearing stories about life after the war (arriving at an uncle's farm as refugees, walking to school barefoot because they had no shoes, getting chocolate in Quaker Care Packages) but not so much about the war itself . . . until I started asking. It took a while for me to understand that being "Ordinary Germans," in my grandparents' case, meant that they had once been enthusiastic Nazis.
Kadish: What were you told about Jews, growing up? My own grandparents barely mentioned Germans, at least not in earshot of us kids. The rare times Germany came up, it was in discussion of the products we didn't buy, or we debated buying — basically, anything German-made. Was it wrong to purchase a German-made product, even in the 1970s? How about the 1980s? I remember what a big deal it was when my mother finally decided it was permissible to buy a German car. It's odd now to think about that, given Germany's moral leadership today.
Shattuck: It’s funny — I was raised with a lot of wariness about all things German too: German fairy tales, German efficiency — my mother raised me to view the culture she came from very critically. As for what she or my grandparents told me about Jews — I think even an unrepentant Nazi (which my grandparents weren't) would probably know better than to tell a grandchild ANYTHING about "Jews." I did once hear my grandfather mumble some unpleasantness about Poles (that they were lazy or didn't work hard or something) though, before my grandmother shushed him up.
Kadish: In German-Jewish dialogues I've participated in, there's sometimes been this assumption that we're there to discuss guilt and forgiveness — as though the young Germans in attendance hope to confess and receive absolution, and the Jews have the power or right to grant that absolution. But that misses the point. None of this is about guilt or forgiveness. You, for example, didn’t do anything to feel guilty about . . . so you don’t need forgiveness. Nor would it be mine to give. I’m much more interested in the idea of responsibility: What do we do with all of this? What does that history demand of us, moving forward?
Shattuck: I'm always wary of Germans who say "I wasn't alive during the Holocaust, I have nothing to feel guilty about," because I feel that as descendants of perpetrators we do. But I don't see guilt as a totally negative emotion. For me, it is a motivation: What can I do to take responsibility? To do my part in ensuring "never again?" But I totally agree about forgiveness. For one thing, I think the idea is egotistical: forgiveness, in my estimation, is up to the victims and to God, if you believe in him/her. And I find it to be an unhelpful frame for deep and meaningful conversation. Viewing an individual's actions through the constant lens of "is it forgivable or not?" is distancing; it inhibits identification and casts the listener immediately as judge. Of course judgment is critical, but it seems important to me to be able to just listen and absorb first.
Kadish: That makes sense to me. The kind of guilt I worry about is the kind that’s bottomless — that doesn’t lead to reparative action but rather to shame, and eventually leaves people fed up and resentful. That’s where things get dangerous. But I get the sense that we’re actually saying the same thing: We're talking about the need for a productive reckoning, not one that leaves people unmoored and without a plan of action.
Shattuck: Definitely. The question for me is: what do I do with my sense of guilt or responsibility? For starters, I feel I need to know the past. And to try to understand not just “what” happened during the Holocaust, but “how” so many German people passively allowed it to. That was a big part of what motivated me to research and write my novel, “The Women in the Castle,” a story of three German women whose attitudes span the gamut of German political attitudes of the time (from Nazi supporter to resistor) and was inspired in part by my own family stories and experiences of that time. When I started writing, I was worried about the critique of “humanizing Nazis.” I had the sense that writing or talking about a Nazi as a mother, or a wife, or someone capable of love as well as indifference or even cruelty is really controversial, even taboo. But it was also vitally important to my story. I felt personally compelled to try to understand what led people like my grandmother to embrace Nazism early on. Not to forgive or excuse, but to understand. To me that effort is vital to preventing history from repeating itself. What is your point of view on this?
Kadish: I love the fact that you humanize all your characters in your novel. But yes, I think some people still do consider it taboo — and in my opinion, that's a supremely dangerous attitude. We're all terrifyingly at risk if we let that kind of thinking stand. If we’re trying to understand what makes evil happen, we can’t just label Germans of that era as 100 percent evil, and conveniently absolve ourselves of the need to understand more. Nazis weren’t space aliens who landed on earth. They were actual people, capable of a range of human emotions, who somehow persuaded themselves that their party’s actions were acceptable. How did they persuade themselves of this? How did they metabolize and rationalize what was happening? That’s what we need to understand — and I’m not just talking about Nazis of that era, but about people today as well. I’m talking about perpetrators and bystanders everywhere, anyone who embraces or simply tolerates prejudice. If we don’t press on and try to understand the experiences of those people, how will we be able to spot the tipping point in each individual — in each of us — where resentment and prejudice can turn into irrevocable action? I’m not speaking hyperbolically when I say this: I’m sure our lives depend on it.
Humanizing characters, I think, is the most redemptive thing a writer can do. If a writer does it well, then all of us, writers and readers, can shed our armor and allow ourselves to be moved by other people’s experiences — maybe even changed by them. And what I’m particularly passionate about is stepping back into history with that kind of curious mind, and really trying to feel what it must have been like to be there and face those choices. It’s the reason I keep returning to books like Toni Morrison’s "Beloved" or A.S. Byatt’s "Possession," and it’s the reason I couldn’t resist writing a novel set in the Jewish refugee community of 17th century London — because every time I thought about that community, I thought: what would it have been like to be a vibrant woman trying, by any means at her disposal, to shake free of those dangers and restrictions?
And all of that leads me to a question I’ve been wanting to ask you. Was there any point in your novel where you pulled back because you felt that you couldn’t go too far in humanizing your characters — that readers’ own biases might take over, leading them to condemn your characters or even their author?
Shattuck: If I start to feel I can’t write something out of some sense of correctness or obligation, it makes me want to write it more. Taboos are ways of limiting reality, prioritizing ideology (political, social, religious) over truth. And the danger of that, to me, is worse. That is one of my central take-aways from the German past.
On the other hand, I did find there were places I couldn’t go with my characters, less because of my worry about my readers’ judging me, than because I had to keep my characters within the sphere of my own empathy. I like to write difficult, sometimes morally ambiguous characters, but I have to be able to love them too. Early on, a reader told me she thought the “darkness should be darker” in my book. It was thought provoking. I had written no scenes set in Concentration Camps; none of my main characters were SS Guards or murderers. But I didn’t want to explore the consciousness or conscience of such people. I didn’t, frankly, feel I had much to learn from them or from the unique horrors they perpetrated on their victims in the camps. I wanted to explore the grayer, more complicated middle ground of complicity around the edges of the Holocaust. So I did make the dark darker, but around the characters — in the scenes and choices they were confronted with — not within them. Which is not to say there isn’t darkness within them — there is. But I realized there were distinct limits in what behaviors and attitudes I wanted to examine, and in so doing humanize.
One of the hardest scenes in my book to inhabit was the one in which a main character kills an aggressor in an act of fear and rage. I think I was able to write it because she was basically lashing out from a position of great powerlessness. I guess it’s easier to write about victims doing terrible things than fully empowered agents. But of course that line can be blurry. . . .
Kadish: I share your dislike of taboos! That said, there’s been at least one occasion when I ultimately stepped back from my commitment to breaking them. In my first novel, set in Israel and in pre-WWII Poland, I tried to jettison labels and write deeply about a wide range of complex human beings. Along the way, I gave a one-sentence cameo to a minor Jewish character, and in that sentence I described that character as avaricious.
At first, writing that one tiny sentence felt freeing. My wish was to care so little about anti-Semitic stereotypes — to give them so little power over me — that I could just let my characters be fully human, with the usual distribution of personality traits. Since greed is just one of the traits along the normal spectrum of human experience, I reasoned that I could give my Jewish characters the same freedom non-Jews have: the freedom to be human beings whose characteristics didn’t need to prove or disprove stereotypes.
That spring I found myself editing the novel’s galleys while I was visiting Krakow, the city where my family had once lived amid a thriving Jewish community that was later murdered en masse. Just a few weeks earlier, I had sold the rights for a German translation of my novel. And as I worked on the novel’s galleys, I kept imagining someone in Germany or Poland reading my one tiny sentence and thinking “aha, I always suspected Jews were that way, and now she’s confirmed it”. Suddenly my experiment in free speech seemed self-indulgent, and risked “confirming” false stereotypes.
Maybe if I’d been sitting in my comfortable home in Boston I’d have made a different choice. But there in my Krakow hotel room, the consequences of stereotype were too palpable. For better or worse, I cut the line.
Shattuck: Makes me think about how much more personally freighted the question of reinforcing stereotype is for you, as the member of a group that has suffered so enormously from being stereotyped. Context is so important, isn’t it? In some ways it’s the ultimate hurdle for applying the lessons of our past.
Speaking of context, in our current political climate I sometimes struggle with the feeling of powerlessness — not so much as a reality, but as an excuse. I’ll find myself thinking “what difference will it really make if I go to this neighborhood meeting or call my congressman . . . there are other more politically savvy, more qualified, less busy people than me who will be there/make such calls . . . ” And then I think of my grandmother, and so many Germans of her generation who might have had similar thoughts and missed opportunities to make change, even save lives, and then lived with the guilt of their inaction for the rest of their lives. . . .
Kadish: It’s funny — I don’t feel powerless. I’m only alive because individual people — strangers — did risky things to help my family during their years on the run. So I know exactly how much impact a single person can have. What often strikes me in listening to survivors’ stories is that it took just one person to betray someone in wartime, but dozens to save a life. Think of a Jewish family hiding in a barn in a village: For them to survive, not only did the farmers have to hide them, but every single person in that village who noticed extra bread or medicine being delivered to that household — every one of those individuals — had to make the choice to avert eyes and pretend not to notice. Whereas it took just one person to betray those Jews and have them killed. When I think about it that way, I feel energized to act.
Shattuck: That's such a good point. It's easy to forget how much agency we all have. And generally, recognizing your own agency seems like a force toward goodness, doesn't it? I look at someone like my grandfather, who I think felt pretty weak and powerless as a young man, growing up poor and with little opportunity . . . I think that's a part of what attracted him to Hitler, who so skillfully played on feelings of victimhood, and made such grand promises about restoring jobs and national pride. Like, if you have nothing to be proud of, at least you can be proud of your "race." I think joining the Nazi movement felt, for my grandparents, like a way to gain agency.
Kadish: This is fascinating to me — I’ve never heard these stories from the German side. Stories like that — and of course the stories in your book — help me understand those on the periphery who allowed themselves to be swept up by German nationalism of the time.
When I was a kid, my grandfather told me I couldn't trust non-Jews. My grandfather’s aim in saying this, I know, was to protect his grandchildren by warning us against betrayals like the ones he'd endured. But I don’t want to live in the world he described — not unless that world is forced on me. I’ll pause here to say that I’m a realist about anti-Semitism. It’s powerful, and it’s on the rise, and it’s worse than foolish to deny that. I grew up on my family’s stories and I think I understand that danger in my bones. So when I say this, I don’t mean it in a naive way. But wherever possible I still place my bet on the side of believing that people can ultimately hear each other and come to trust each other.
Shattuck: I’d like to think so, but I also know “trust” is a high bar. I think my connection to what happened in Nazi Germany makes me deeply wary of fellow human beings. But then I don’t think we can trust anyone within our “group,” however we define that — German or Jewish or Brookline or Berkeley or whatever — any more than we can trust anyone else. So in that sense I’m more cynical than your grandfather!
I do think that together we can erect societal structures — laws and norms and checks and balances — that help us do right, by each other and by ourselves. And I totally agree with you that understanding the past, looking at it directly and honestly and using it to help guide us is of vital importance. History is our collective life experience after all — we can use it in the same way we use our own individual experiences: to teach us.
As a half-German whose own grandparents were part of the Nazi movement, I feel a responsibility to keep picking up the past and turning it over, shaking it to see what falls out. This was certainly a large part of why I wrote my book. Really it is a large part of why I was drawn to write fiction in general. Fiction offers us the chance to look at the past in so many ways, from so many angles — it draws us in and offers alternate narratives without ever proclaiming that they are “the” narrative. I guess that’s what I trust — honest conversations and good listeners. And not to be corny, but good fiction, as a way of helping us recognize ourselves.
Kadish: Amen to that — here’s to stories, and conversations, that help us recognize ourselves and one another.
Rachel Kadish is the award-winning author of the novels “From a Sealed Room” and “Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story,” as well as the novella “I Was Here.” Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times, Ploughshares, and Tin House. She lives outside of Boston and teaches in Lesley University's MFA Program in Creative Writing. Her new novel, "The Weight of Ink," has just been released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Jessica Shattuck is the bestselling author of "The Women in the Castle,” “The Hazards of Good Breeding,” which was a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Winship Award and “Perfect Life.” Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, Glamour, Mother Jones, Wired, and The Believer, to name a few. She lives with her husband and three children in Brookline, Massachusetts.